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.
El’Zabar also fancies himself a vocalist and lyricist, and it’s here that things get problematic. His lyric conceits can be cloying, his vocals are sometimes strained, and his grunting, gasping, muttering, and chanting during others’ solos is distracting at best and downright annoying at worst. Nonetheless, after more than 40 years at the helm of the Ensemble, he’s earned the right to add his voice to those of the ancestors whose spirits he and his colleagues continue to honor and help keep alive.