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Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s jazz unites the contemporary with the ageless

Saturday, February 29, Café Coda, 8 p.m. Info

Photo: Kahil El’Zabar, by Sheldon Levy on Flickr.

Helmed by percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, Chicago’s ever-shifting Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has spent 47 years sharpening the edge of jazz’s avant-garde by constantly drawing on the music’s deep roots. In music they describe as “spiritual and Afro-futuristic jazz,” El’Zabar and co. at once strive to create something new and emphasize the very oldest elements of jazz, giving listeners a rich and intuitive sense of the journeys the genre has made between continents, cultures, and sub-genres.

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Across its career, and especially on the new album Be Known Ancient / Future / Music, EHE has explicitly reintroduced the West African rhythms and tendencies that informed jazz at its origin. This approach gives the music a new layer and freshness while also making it feel unmistakably right, like two family members meeting again after a long time apart. 

This full-circle feeling is particularly strong on “Be Known,” on which El’Zabar swaps out a drumset for a hand drum. Two elements stand out at the forefront of this track: El’Zabar’s percussion and the chanted vocal refrain of “be known.” The persistent drums, never solo-ing or diverging from the initial pattern, and repeating chants create this impression of a cycle, almost like the song will never end and never exactly began, either. The rhythm simply washes over you, carrying Alex Harding’s baritone saxophone and Ian Maksin’s cello with it.

The album’s real stand-out, though, might be “Pharaoh,” named after the great saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. On the surface, the song is so compositionally sparse that it hardly resembles jazz. The center of this song is a shaken percussion instrument repeating a straightforward pattern over the song’s 7-minute length. It becomes like a jolted, racing heartbeat, and the elements that join it, like a meandering saxophone and El’Zabar’s guttural vocals, become like sensations of the nervous system. This is music that feels intuitive despite its complexity, almost like it occurs naturally—its existence is the result of an ageless, naturally occurring process. In a sense, EHE’s music has been occurring forever, and El’Zabar and his collaborators serve as its powerful conduit to the present.

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