Kahil El’Zabar Credit: Sheldon Levy

Amid Chicago’s vast pool of talent are a handful of jazz-related percussionists subject to some combination of local renown and international attention. They include Hamid Drake and Avreeayl Ra—each an integral part of the city’s most adventurous wing of astral-reaching jazz—as well as drummer Kahil El’Zabar, who’s been performing and recording since the early 70s and has counted saxophonist David Murray and violinist Billy Bang as collaborators. With his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (just one of his enduring troupes), El’Zabar has been able to take on various sonic personas over the years. That’s partially because of his group’s shifting lineup, but also because of his willingness and ability to experiment—he moves effortlessly between the kit, the mbira, and various other percussion instruments. His latest iteration of the group, a trio with trumpeter Corey Wilkes and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, takes historical stock of jazz while affirming the genre’s destiny on the upcoming Be Known: Ancient/Future/Music (Spiritmuse). On the album, tunes paying tribute to writers and jazz luminaries (including Pharoah Sanders) sit alongside El’Zabar’s revisiting of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Though it’s a well-worn standard, it’s clearly important to the bandleader—in 1999 he chose it for the title and opening track of an EHE album for Delmark. On Be Known, the group also explore muscular, kit-driven sounds, with Wilkes’s assured statements bolstered by boisterous rhythms from Harding and cellist Ian Maksin (who isn’t touring with the band) while El’Zabar swings deeply behind it all. Though it might seem anachronistic to perceive creative music and improvisation through a historic lens, El’Zabar’s vision and commitment have enabled the art of Ethnic Heritage Ensemble to flourish. And it seems that there’s still plenty of ancient history to heave into the future too.   v

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