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Friday, August 8, 2014

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble - Black is Back (Catalyst, 2014) *****

By Stefan Wood

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble's latest album, "Black is Back," is a superb musical effort.  For forty years Kahil El' Zabar has led the Ensemble, it's origins stemming from the school and musical environment that the AACM had established in the 60's and 70's, and establishing itself as a premier jazz group.  Many musicians have played in the Ensemble, from Pharoah Sanders to Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre to Henry Huff.  For the past decade the group has consisted of fellow Chicagoan musicians Ernest Dawkins (New Horizons Ensemble) and Corey Wilkes (Art Ensemble of Chicago).  While their recorded output has been consistently excellent, they seem to have elevated their playing on "Black is Back."   

It starts with the title track that opens the album, with El' Zabar opening with a long solo, playing on thumb piano and percussion (as he does usually in live performances, with the percussion -- bells, chimes, etc. tied to his legs, making sounds by bringing his knees together or stomping on the floor).  He fuses African griot with church music, blues and bop, something he's always done but here it feels more intense, more developed than in the past.   Several tracks on this album are long, five over 8 minutes,  which allows for a deeper, more intimate focus, resulting in engagingly hypnotic, spiritual sonics.  "The Awakening of 2012" and "Be Bop" showcase Dawkins and Wilkes (with El' Zabar on drums), as both create a sound that recall Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's formidable years together in the 40's, a raw yet jubilant be bop sound that incorporates their contemporary free improvised phrasing.  It feels nostalgic yet fresh.   

"Creole Peppa Stew" is a strong, hard bop track that recalls the work done from a more adventurous Blue Note or New Wave Impulse! album.  "Who's You Mamma Who's You Daddy" combines El' Zabar's minimal percussive griot chant with the others' bop horn playing, softly at first, then building in intensity, Wilkes playfully soloing on top of the chants and gutteral vocalizing, then Dawkins taking a turn, before returning to all three, with El' Zabar bringing it on home with his infectiously grooving beat.   

Leader Kahil El' Zabar has described his own creativity as an emphasis on the spiritual over the technical, digging deep into one's soul and cultural roots to produce good art.  This album, more than the others of recent years, exemplifies this, and should be considered a high point in the group's discography.