Kahil El’Zabar, leader of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, attracts accolades the way some of us accumulate pennies–all the time, and almost by accident. Usually these concern his activites as a bandleader, producer, impresario, and educator, but only recently, during his stint as “curator” of Steppenwolf’s “Traffic” series, did he garner high-profile praise for the mix-and-match genre jumping that has informed his artistic activities since the mid-80s. One of El’Zabar’s greatest strengths is his eagerness to bring his own vision to projects that on the surface seem barely compatible with it; he sees the city’s creative-music scene as a continuum rather than a welter of separate fiefdoms. By applying hand percussion and forceful vocals to, say, Kurt Elling’s music–he appears all too briefly on Elling’s new Live in Chicago (Blue Note)–El’Zabar creates the sort of unexpected hybrid that gives Chicago jazz its uniquely recognizable face. And he’s found another candidate for this musical crossbreeding in Fareed Haque. The guitarist has already joined the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble for their 1999 album, Freedom Jazz Dance (Delmark), the first time in their 22-year history that the trio–currently Ernest Dawkins on saxes, Joseph Bowie on trombone, and El’Zabar on percussion–welcomed a third melodist into their midst. Haque’s phenomenal virtuosity reflects the music of his Pakistani and Chilean heritage, as well as jazz, fusion, and his extensive classical studies. For much of the album he plays guitar like a second percussionist, recalibrating the band’s delicate balance with lightly plucked ostinatos or short, dense chordings; his solos, mostly single-note lines, have a lean flexibility that would be out of place in his own more romantic projects. He fits into the trio’s aesthetic but still leaves his mark on it, and the collaboration works splendidly–but then, both El’Zabar and Haque have made a habit of succeeding where you wouldn’t expect them to. Friday and Saturday, 9 PM, DeJoie’s Bistro & Jazz Emporium, 31 W. Randolph; 312-382-9999.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Darlene Martin.