Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Be Known – Ancient / Future / Music

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Percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has been going for an extraordinary 43 years, the only AACM outfit along with the Art Ensemble of Chicago still in existence today.

The idea of a piano-less and bass-less trio apparently came to El-Zabar in a dream, and while its make-up has changed over the years, it has stayed roughly true to a two-horn and hand percussion – no trap drums – trio with, this time, an added cello.

As ever, the music is a mixture of spiritual grooves and Afro-futurism, an esoteric blend based on a strong rhythmic drive and hypnotic, often repetitive melodic phrases. For a small group, they pack a mighty punch, their full, deep sound expanded by El Zabar’s ever apposite choice of percussion and his raw, blues-shouted vocals that bring John Lee Hooker to mind.

Alex Harding’s baritone does much of the heavy lifting, although is surprisingly graceful in collaboration with Corey Wilkes’s trumpet, whose solos echo Lester Bowie in his prime. Try as I might, I found Ian Maksin’s cello hard to discern, other than on his occasional solos.

As befits a group of so many diffuse references, many of the tracks are dedicated to recently deceased musicians, including Cecil Taylor, Roy Hargrove, and saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, for whom the explosive Blew It is a suitable tribute, even if the lead is taken by a trumpet. 

After 43 years, you would have imagined that this group would have gone stale, but its music is as fresh as ever, and as idiosyncratic. Much fun all round, and fine cover artwork by Nep Sidhu, by the way.

Discography
N2 Deep; Freedom Jazz Dance; Little Sunflower; Be Known; Black Is Back; Blew It; Wish I Knew; Pharoah; Lost In Myself; Ntozake; Little Sunflower; Oof (76.26)
Kahil El’Zabar (d, pc, mbira, bells, f, v); Corey Wilkes (t, pc); Alex Harding (bar); Ian Maksin (clo). 2018?
Spiritmuse Records SPM-KEZ001