Album Feature: Dominic Valvona



Ethnic Heritage Ensemble ‘Be Known Ancient/Future/Music’
(Spiritmuse Records) 21st June 2019


I’d readily admit I still find it a daunting task reviewing jazz, in all its different forms. Further along in my education of course, beyond the rudiments, but in no way an aficionado. I’m constantly discovering and exploring pieces in the jazz story. And yet, it seems almost unforgivable that such a doyen of the Chicago scene and alumni of that city’s famous hothouse of talent, the School of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, drummer/percussionist and bandleader Kahil El’Zabar has until now escaped me. Such is his vital contribution to Spiritual and African imbued jazz that he really shouldn’t have.

Renowned most notably for the ensemble he formed after graduating and still plays with, Kahil’s impressive CV also includes various roles playing with such luminaries as the great Pharaoh Sanders, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and “Light” Henry Huff, and tour spots with titans, Dizzy Gillespie, Archie Shepp, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and Lester Bowie.

 

Leading a myriad of different lineups of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble since their inception in the early 1970s, Kahil and the current troupe of Corey Wilkes (trumpet), Alex Harding (baritone saxophone) and Ian Maksin (cello) together celebrate a prestigious 45-year career whilst also, and always, looking forward on the latest collection Be Known Ancient/Future/Music.

Spanning live performances, recordings and even a track from the 2015 documentary that forms part of the title of this LP, Dwayne Johnson-Cochran’s exploration Be Known, Kahil’s ensemble once more explore the ever-developing Chicago rhythm that has marked this city out for its unique, often raw, take on R&B, Soul, Dance Music and of course jazz.





Atavistic with a modern pulse, improvising and riffing off repetition, the “ancient” in the title stands for the EHE’s African roots and inspiration; heard through the rustic waterhole evoked bottle pouring and wooden percussion, tribal drum patterns and Egyptology invocations. In theory, it runs throughout Western music, but is felt keenly in the ensemble’s floorless integrations here, which flow and adopt a wealth of genres: a Louisiana feel, be bop skip and dance hall swing on ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’, hints of prime Savoy label jazz, Cab Calloway and Dizzy himself on the homage tumbling drums take on Freddie Hubburd’s ‘Little Sunflower’ standard, and Hugh Masekela in his Hedzoleh Soundz phase, on the Serengeti shuffler ‘Wish I Knew’.

 

Looking back not only to the “ancients”, this album mourns the loss and pays homage to a catalogue of notaries and progenitors, including a host of jazz stars lost in 2018; a trio of which, Randy Weston, Jerry Gonzalez and Cecil Taylor, are given a nod on the opening peregrination ‘N2Deep’, a primitive House music meets gospel and deep serenaded saxophone bounce of a performance that imagines the Modern Jazz Quartet hooking up with a time-travelling Marshall Jefferson.

From Leon Thomas like pronouncements, shamanistic magic, arcane fiddles, elephant heralded honked baritone and spiritual yearnings, all the African bases are confidently covered.

 

The ‘future” that is shared in this album’s title, attached to Afro-Futurist, is represented by both the amorphous blending of sounds, from Swing to Hard Bop to Avant-garde, and in the freeform ease of improvised playing; built around repeating but constantly evolving rhythms and motifs. At times Kahil and his troupe soulfully pine over a stripped acoustic dance beat bordering on gospel-House music and at other times, cleverly merge two different distinct rhythms, one more elliptical the other off-kilter, together simultaneously until final syncopation.

 

Less cosmic than Sun Ra, and less out-of-the-park than the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Kahil and the EHE tread a different path towards enlightenment; spreading the gospel of positive Afrocentric jazz to ever more dizzying and entrancing heights. Spiritual music with a message doesn’t come much better than this, the EHE showing no signs of waning after 45 years in the business. I’m off to hunt down and digest that lengthy cannon now and suggest you do too.




ALBUM REVIEW/WORDS:DOMINIC VALVONA





Bixiga 70 ‘Quebra Cabeça’ (Glitterbeat Records) 12th October 2018

Few bands speak Fela Kuti so fluently and convincingly as the Brazilian outfit Bixiga 70, fusing, as they do, the Afrobeats progenitor showman’s rhythms with the Latin sounds of South America to such dynamic affect. The Sao Paulo group’s fourth album is once more informed and fueled by this connective spirit to Africa, though arguably more ambitious in scope and musically more complex than previous releases. In the past the ten-strong group have played live in the studio, capturing as close as they can their famous energetic, exciting stage performances. Whilst still continuing to do this, the post-production process has been much longer, with each originally spontaneous recording played with and reshaped to create a longer more shifting musical journey.

A year in the making Quebra Cabeça, which translates as the ‘puzzle’, is a full 360-degree panoramic evocation (both joyful and lamentable) of Brazil’s African roots. That heritage, which has woven almost seamlessly into the very fabric of life and culture, obviously originally sprung forth from the heinous ‘Black Atlantic’ slave trade. The toil, sweat and harrowing maltreatment of this history permeates throughout the album, yet this is also a celebration of the rich musical legacy they brought from Africa to the shores of Brazil.

Translating those roots, an ancestry that runs through many of the band members (some individuals descended from the Africa-Caribbean religion of ‘candomble’ for instance), Bixiga are also inspired on this journey by some of the highly talented artists they’ve shared various stages with over the years. Artists such as the Ghanaian highlife singer Pat Thomas, the Nigerian sublime traversing saxophonist legend Orlando Julius and Brazilian octogenarian star João Donato. Incorporating the lot they merge their brass-y signature carnival funk and shaking Afrobeat sass with cosmic voodoo, Afro-jazz and sloping funk: And that’s just on the opening title-track. Rattling, thumping drums underlay echoes of Santana on the cantering ‘Ilha Vizinha’, traces of Archie Shepp day-tripping in Memphis undulate the veiled sorrowful memories of the ‘Levante’, and the polygenesis fusion of rock guitar, electro rumba and R&B that sends the band off into entirely new spheres on ‘Primeiramente’ envisage a day of the dead march on the moon.


Credit: José de Holanda




The quality shines through on every track, with the visions and evocations of both Africa and Bixiga’s hometown of Sao Paulo articulated by an energetic but also ruminating soundtrack of the tribal, funky, cosmic, tropical, gospel and ritual. The slave portal of Benin, further outlying deserts of the sub-Sahara and busy rhythmic bustles of Nigeria are channeled via the melting pot hubs of Brazil on the group’s most epic, ancestral and geographical straddling album. It only remains to see just how great it will sound live on stage.




Words: Dominic Valvona


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