Kahil El'Zabar & the New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Kahil El'Zabar & the New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble 

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KAHIL EL'ZABAR & THE NEW ETHNIC HERITAGE ENSEMBLE

The Ethnics are dead; long live the Ethnics, who tonight grow from a trio to a quartet. Of all the various musical enterprises undertaken by percussionist-producer-activist Kahil El'Zabar, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is not only the longest-lived but also the most unusual: since the early 80s the EHE has featured drums and two horns, turning the expected balance for postfreedom trios--which would normally feature two rhythm instruments and one melody player--exactly on its head. For more than a decade, trombonist Joseph Bowie (better known for his leadership of the band Defunkt), saxophone wizard Ed Wilkerson, and El'Zabar presented a music necessarily sparse and yet surprisingly rich in its echoes of ancient tribalism and tomorrow's street beat. It's music that seems to trick the ear, in that you wouldn't believe this combination of instruments could hold your attention for any length of time. But by wholeheartedly embracing the skeletal format, instead of attempting to compensate for it, the EHE has regularly struck gold. Wilkerson, the other original member of the ensemble (besides El'Zabar), dropped out last year, with reedman Ernest Dawkins taking his place and causing a certain amount of expectable flux: a band like this depends on carefully built-up subtleties and can't immediately absorb a replacement. Their absorption as well of an addition makes tonight's event undeniably special, the birth of a new band, or the rebirth of an old one, according to your viewpoint: El'Zabar has invited his percussion teacher of 20 years ago, Harold Atu Murray, to return to Chicago from Birmingham, Alabama, and join the EHE, giving it the instrumentation that it had circa 1980. The interlocking rhythms should provide a notably different cushion for the horn soloists, as well as the opportunity for cross-generational percussion duets, but I won't predict beyond that. This gig was originally scheduled to close the Bop Shop, which had announced that it would move from its current location next month. Though the move has been bumped up a month, El'Zabar's original concept--to celebrate an ending with a new beginning--remains valid. Friday, 10 PM, Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division; 773-235-3232. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kahil El'Zabar photo by Alan Crumlish.

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