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Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Hot ’N’ Heavy: Live at the Ascension Loft

Though recorded last year on a sweltering summer day in a loft outside Chicago’s famous Loop district, Hot ‘N’ Heavy keeps its cool with performances as smart as they are passionate. Playing a traditional drum kit, kalimba and the homemade, barrel-sized “earth drum,” percussionist Kahil El-Zabar guides the Heritage Ensemble through a set of plangent melodies and swinging grooves that reflect both his decades-long association with the AACM and a fascination with musical textures and tonalities. Once a trio, now a quartet, the Ensemble-featuring Fareed Haque on guitar, Corey Wilkes (also of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ernest Dawkins on saxes and El-Zabar anchoring the bassless crew-is a small group with a big, full sound.

Typical of the five tracks is “Black as Vera Cruz,” born of El-Zabar’s interest in the African presence and passage through Mexico during slavery. The earth drum beats a 4/4 rhythm, joined almost immediately by a serpentine phrase heard first on guitar before being developed into full melody by the frontline of muted trumpet and tenor. What follows is an impressionistic middle passage of rhythms and themes that summon the Sahara, West Africa and the Caribbean. Similarly, on “MT,” a lovely tune dedicated to the late trumpeter Malachi Thompson, El-Zabar starts with a seemingly simple vamp on the thumb piano, then passes it around, each musician sounding and rephrasing it in a hypnotic game of crescendo and decrescendo. While the Ethnics keep the music fresh with everything from collective improvisation and electronic effects to a relaxed blues feeling, the line between artistic intensity and artistic indulgence sometimes wears thin; some tunes just never end.

Originally Published