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Hot N Heavy by Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

April 2007 - Percussionist Kahil El’Zabar kneads his compositions with a penetrating "African sensibility" that connects with listeners on a communal as well as musical level. Hot ‘N’ Heavy: Live at the Ascension Loft was recorded in 2006 from El’Zabar’s crib (home), The Ascension Loft, where he occasionally entertains and practices with colleagues. For this get-together, he’s employed guitarist Fareed Haque, saxophonist Ernest "Khabeer" Dawkins and trumpeter Corey Wilkes, gentlemen with cumulative backgrounds in world, blues, hip-hop and improvisational music.

On "Major to Minor", El’Zabar readies the inner spirit with hypnotic beatings on his hand-made earth drum. As Haque fans out chords, Wilkes and Dawkins utter a silky-noted melody. Wilkes solos using electronic effects for a miniature "wah-wah" sound. Unlike the scorn trumpeter Miles Davis suffered for his use of such wizardry, Wilkes’ choice here is cheered and adds a sonic thrust. The piece pushes forward with urgency against an imaginary opposing current of humid air and then stops on a dime.

There was a sudden heaviness as El’Zabar spoke of trumpeter Malachi Thompson, a stalwart community member like himself who passed last year. Thompson is now forever immortalized in "MT", a mid-tempo homage. The kalimba (known as the thumb piano in the Western hemisphere) is, as are the bells strapped to his leg, an extension of El’Zabar. He has achieved over the years an unshakable balance of mind and body in order to manifest his view of the African Diaspora and its present day effects on the black psyche. Dawkins mourns as well as rejoices in his effusive solo. Wilkes expresses the same affections with broad wails and a centered, molasses-glazed tone. In this context, Haque, who’s toured with and been a guest on two previous releases of El’Zabar’s, uses an approach similar to Philadelphia-based guitarist Monnette Sudler. Both of them can be incredibly understated and non-intrusive when they need to be. Subtly is the key here for Haque as he’s engaged in such a deeply internal and personal performance.

"Hot ‘N’ Heavy" is just that and the ensemble is lit up! El’Zabar is behind a trap set, as his father once was, stirring up the audience’s consciousness. All four players enmesh their creative powers for an exciting jam. In applying psychology, "Hot ‘N’ Heavy" is an extroverted piece where "There Is A Place" is more introverted. It seems to retract itself from the busyness of life and seeks solitude and peace. In fact, El’Zab takes on the role of oracle in his contemplation of finding "a place where there’s peace and happiness?" The dulcet sounds of the kalimba and guitar hang above the loft like vesper bells as Dawkins and Wilkes sing through their instruments. Wilkes generates warped electronic warbles and muted wails. Haque solos in another tonal direction and stings the air with hard attacks and strums. The four restate their message with a more flaccid feel as El’Zabar again asks the question: "Can you find a place where there’s peace and happiness?"

The closer is the sultry "Black As Vera Cruz". It speaks of Mexico’s port city’s life-affirming activity of dancing. El’Zabar and Haque lay out the steps with a rocking flamenco beat. Throughout the five pieces on Hot ‘N’ Heavy (released with an accompanying DVD of the performance), players pull their weight as they also double on various percussion instruments. Maybe it draws them closer to the universal messages they’re playing out. Maybe we all need to pick up a drum and reestablish ties with our heritage and neighborhood. El’Zabar’s work and ideology as a musician, an educator and community leader don’t just hold for his brethren in Chicago. The message is for all who care to listen.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
  • CD Title: Hot N Heavy
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2007
  • Record Label: Delmark Records
  • Tracks: Major to Minor, MT, Hot ‘N’ Heavy, There Is a Place, Black as Vera Cruz
  • Musicians: Kahil El’Zabar (earth drums, kalimba, drums, percussion), Corey Wilkes (trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion), Ernest “Khabeer” Dawkins (alto and tenor saxophones, percussion), Fareed Haque (electric and acoustic guitars)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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