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Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Be Known (Spiritmuse)

A review of the latest album from Kahil El’Zabar's group

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Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Be Known
The cover of Be Known by Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, formed by percussionist Kahil El’Zabar in the 1970s, is among the most venerable carriers of the legacy of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The current Ethnic Heritage lineup features, along with El’Zabar himself, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, and cellist Ian Maksin. Its sound is buoyed, rather than daunted, by the history it bears—offerings here include tributes to Roy Hargrove, Pharoah Sanders, the late poet and playwright Ntozake Shange, and Hamiet Bluiett, among others, as well as a deep-funk reworking of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

As a percussionist, El’Zabar interweaves effortlessly with the blues, bebop, hard bop, modern classical, free jazz, and R&B. Wilkes can rise to the most daunting challenges with disarming facility, belying the focus, quicksilver thinking, and flawless musical acumen that characterize his playing. Harding, mining the emotional expressiveness of his horn, is alternately humorist, tragedian, revolutionary, and romanticist (and, on “Blew It,” the Bluiett tribute, all these and more) with his variegated tone and sharply honed attack. Maksin swings with vintage élan, but he can also bring a feel of almost stately serenity, punctuated as necessary by aggressiveness that serves as both foil and goad to El’Zabar’s multilayered patterns on both hand drums and traps. 

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.