The name Kahil El'Zabar--percussionist, bandleader, film scorer, vocalist, and teacher--has attained a certain stature in Chicago music circles in the last 15 years. But it may have been more recognizable to more people on just one night last November in the small German city of Leverkusen.
Leverkusen hosts a well-respected nine-day jazz festival that in 1991 paid tribute to the current crop of progressive Chicago jazz musicians--those instrumentalists and even vocalists who, having learned the lessons of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, seek out new approaches to a variety of musical styles. "This was the first time the new Chicago contingent had gone to Europe," El'Zabar explains. "By that I mean the young men who are currently the active musicians pursuing their lifework in Chicago--people like Edward Wilkerson, Ernest Dawkins, Ameen Muhammad. They've been around for ten or more years, and now, in this particular genre, they're the important voices. And there's a chemistry here now: there's a sound that's unique to this generation of Chicago musicians."
It comes as no surprise that the Leverkusen producers asked El'Zabar--in many ways a spiritual and musical leader of this contingent--to help assemble this package. In fact, the Leverkusen producers first got the idea for this project after hearing El'Zabar's recordings on Sound Aspects, a German label. But it does come as some surprise that they also devoted an entire evening to various aspects of El'Zabar's own music--a retrospective featuring his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, his Orchestra Infinity, and the partial reunion of a little-known group that was vital to his entire musical philosophy, Sun Drummer.
A few Chicagoans were on hand for this honorific. The rest of us, though, can get a taste of what we missed in three separate concerts in the next three weeks. These events should nonetheless demonstrate the knowledgeable musicality--and more important, artistic wisdom--of a vital presence in Chicago culture.
I count El'Zabar among my close friends, so perhaps my sense of the importance of his accomplishments is clouded. As the audiences at Leverkusen did, you'll have to judge for yourself. In doing so, you might consider his creation of a hybrid between house music--the stripped-down Chicago dance beat that gained popularity in Europe in the mid-80s --and pure jazz; this hybrid now goes under the name Acid Jazz in England, where a record label of the same name acknowledges El'Zabar as a pioneer of the form on the explanatory description that accompanies each album.
You can weigh the importance of the UndergroundFest concerts of the 1980s--those annual jams that focused attention on the truly new music of the last quarter century--and of their parent organization the Forum for the Evolution of the Performing Arts, founded by El'Zabar after he retired as president of the A.A.C.M. (More recently, he's helped start a lobby group called Campaign for the Freedom of Expression, whose members include Karen Finley, Spike Lee, and Alec Baldwin, while sitting on a variety of arts-funding panels.)
Or you can just concentrate on the music, driven by his lanky, slyly explosive drumming and an organic musical vision that imparts an almost oceanic quality to even the smallest ensembles. El'Zabar's musical forays include the groups mentioned above; another band called the Ritual Trio; his ongoing duets with the well-known saxophonist David Murray (documented on one Sound Aspects album, with another due soon); and a burgeoning career in TV ads and film work, ranging from the "jungle sounds" in commercials for Busch Gardens to the sound track for Damon Wayans's upcoming Mo' Money.
The underlying root of all these activities is Sun Drummer, formed in 1968 and described by El'Zabar as "one of the first organizations of African American musicians committed to the study and performance of traditional African music." The band was the brainchild of percussionist Harold AtuQue Murray, and it encompassed more than music. Says El'Zabar: "There was philosophy, the art of making instruments, and it inspired much of my clothing. It helped develop Afrocentric ethnic consciousness, which was stirring in the 60s, and it assisted us in learning the skills to be cultural communicators."
At 40, El'Zabar now finds himself applying those skills in a new way. "Our country has really expanded in terms of diversity of talent, and not just on the coasts," he explained recently from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where these days he commutes to teach music. "And we in the midwest have to become a lot more secure in the rich diversity of the fine arts here, and to create the ways that younger artists can gain recognition and support and appreciation for their role in the city where they live." That's a process with which El'Zabar is intimately acquainted, both as a former fledgling in the A.A.C.M.--which coalesced around the same needs in the mid-60s--and as an especially patient mentor of younger Chicago musicians.
Of the three groups that will make up "Leverkusen West," the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is the oldest. With two horns and El'Zabar splitting his time between congas and a traditional trap set, the ensemble remains one of the most oddly instrumented units in modern music. It didn't start out that way: the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble ("the Ethnics" in El'Zabar's shorthand) was in fact a jazz orchestra of "usually 12 pieces" when he conceived it in 1974. He later reduced that number to five; and by the time he took the group to Europe in the early 80s it had become a quartet, featuring percussion, drums--no bass--and two tenor saxophonists, Light Henry Huff and Edward Wilkerson. When traps drummer Ben Montgomery was suddenly called back to the States, says El'Zabar, "we were left to create a sound, just the three of us. We ended up with an extended stay; we played Europe for nine months."
Huff left to pursue other projects in the mid-80s; he was replaced first by veteran A.A.C.M. tenorist Kalaparusha, then by flutist/soprano saxist Hanah Jon Taylor, and finally, about five years ago, by the dynamic trombonist Joseph Bowie (younger brother of trumpeter Lester and founder of the punk-funk-jazz band Defunkt). Bowie has affected the trio's sound in two distinct ways. As the first brass player in the ensemble, he dramatically expanded its timbral range; and since he is also an accomplished percussionist, the band can now recapture the drums-and-percussion format of that fateful European tour.
Meanwhile, the original concept for the EHE--that of a freewheeling big band--never disappeared from El'Zabar's imagination. In 1986 it took shape as Orchestra Infinity at the Moers Festival in Germany. When it debuted in Chicago the following summer it weighed in at 25 musicians, who were conducted through their open-ended arrangements by a strutting, arm- waving, vocalizing El'Zabar. Orchestra Infinity's concert at month's end should bear witness to some significant changes that have occurred over the last five years. "The repertoire is different now," says El'Zabar. "A lot of the ideas are more charted. And a lot of the players have grown as musicians as well."
The El'Zabar series begins tonight with the Ritual Trio, established in 1985; it currently includes bassist Malachi Favors and saxophonist Ari Brown. "The idea was that the nature of the performance and the band itself would be related to a ritual, such as exist in folk cultures around the world. It's musicians relating those folk traditions to the urban contemporary experience. And that kind of epic, I guess, is where I'm at in my life right now. I want to have much more of a service role in my work--whatever I do."
The Ritual Trio performs at 8:30 tonight, Friday, in a benefit for the HotHouse, the performance space at 1565 N. Milwaukee. Tickets are $15; call 235-2334. Orchestra Infinity performs at 7 PM Saturday, February 29, at Northwestern University's Thorne Hall, 375 E. Chicago, for a $10 admission. On Thursday, March 5, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble plays at the HotHouse, also at 8:30, and tickets are $8.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kamau Kadirifu.