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Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Freedom Jazz Dance

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Freedom, jazz and dancing is what Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has been about for 20 years, so it’s no surprise that percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s group imbues the Eddie Harris-penned title track with all three. Augmented by guitarist Fareed Haque, Freedom Jazz Dance elevates the Ensemble’s usual two-horns-and-drums lineup to a higher level of tonal beauty.

Saxophonist Ernest “Khabeer” Dawkins displays a distractingly fuzzy tone at the beginning of the gorgeously soft “Katon,” but it is the song’s only weak section: as El’Zabar repeats a four-note melody on an African thumb piano, Haque glides over his guitar, offering subtle and mesmerizing counter melodies while Joseph Bowie and Dawkins lightly rattle percussion in the background. “Catch Me” is a hard bopping number, but minus a bassist the song seems like it should miss something; it doesn’t. With Dawkins ripping through his solo on alto and El’Zabar pushing the beat throughout with feisty cymbal strikes and machine gun rolls, the song keeps fearlessly climbing with no low end to hold it down. “Mama House” is a mother funker, with Haque’s crisp licks and El’Zabar’s ritualistically hypnotic percussion propelling the song under Bowie’s chunky, tail-shaking trombone lines.

“This Little Light of Mine” is a drum circle concert favorite, featuring El’Zabar’s gospelfied lead vocals over a tribal beat. Like the best of the Ensemble’s work, it’s a harmonically simple and direct ode to the spirit of freedom, jazz and dance.