Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Open Me, a Higher Consciousness of Sound and Spirit – review

The Chicago drummer’s collective add strings to their loose, laid-back groove, making for a subtly powerful listen

Over the past 50 years, Chicago drummer Kahil El’Zabar has been at the forefront of the avant garde in jazz. He has collaborated with the trumpeters Don Cherry and Dizzy Gillespie and provided percussion for stars such as Stevie Wonder, but it is with his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble that El’Zabar has found himself most free. Across their 15 albums he has tapped into west African polyrhythms, meditative ambience and soaring spirituality, producing a signature swing that is loose and laid-back without allowing the groove to fall apart. The band are usually accompanied by trumpet and baritone saxophone, and their latest record sees the addition of a string section, creating 12 tracks of typically soulful, freeform jazz.

Playing through a mix of standards and originals, the album opens with an ingeniously languorous version of Miles Davis’s All Blues, emphasising the song’s infectious melody through Alex Harding’s yearning baritone solo. El’Zabar’s own compositions, meanwhile, showcase the versatility of his playing style, encompassing the rumbling cajón of violin feature Hang Tuff as well as the shaker-driven groove of Ornette and Kari’s cymbal blasts. Although it may be too languid for some, Open Me demonstrates the quiet power of El’Zabar’s experience, creating movement through minimal expression.

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