In Conversation with Kahil El’Zabar

A totem of the Chicago Jazz scene, Kahil El’Zabar has not only performed with some of the genre’s most legendary players (including, but by no means limited to Cannonball AdderleyDizzy GillespieNina Simone and Pharoah Sanders), but is also a leading figure within the spiritual and afro-futuristic spheres of jazz music.

El’Zabar is renowned for his awe-inspiring live performances as a solo artist and his work alongside the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, which he formed in 1973 with the aim of combing “concepts of African American music with its earlier roots in traditional African music.” His contributions to jazz music cannot be understated, with an ongoing desire to produce new motifs and sounds true to these genre’s origins yet firmly pointing in a new artistic direction.

Given the retreat of spiritual jazz from mainstream popularity,  El’Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble remain a refreshing and dynamic throwback to a halcyon era of experimental, expressionistic and transcendental music that redefined what jazz music could be. Indeed, it is perhaps a little unfair to label the zestful multi-percussionist as a ‘throwback’ – given his penchant for formulating mind-bending and innovative compositions that continue to push the boundaries of jazz standards and the realms of improvisation, in a career that has lasted for nearly half a century (and shows no signs of letting up!) El’Zabar is noted especially for his strong inclination to infuse his jazz recordings with the sounds and styles of traditional African diasporic instrumentation and rhythms. His style is based on his firmly held belief of the critical role of these influences in the development and continued relevance of jazz as an art form. It’s little wonder therefore, that the Kennedy Centre labelled him as “one of the most prolific jazz innovators of his generation”.

It was music to our ears therefore when it was announced that the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble were to release a new twelve track album entitled Be Known: Ancient/Future/Music. The record sees El’Zabar take his familiar roles on multi-percussion & vocals, alongside Chicago Music Award nominee, Corey Wilkes, on trumpet, Alex Harding on baritone sax and Ian Maksin on cello. Ahead of the record’s release on 21st June, we sat down with the talented multi-instrumentalist to find out a little bit more about the album, and the man behind its creation.

You can catch select tracks from the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s new record across the Melodic Distraction morning listening playlist from 21st June. 

What first attracted you to jazz music, and in particular spiritual jazz?

The magical inflections of swing and how its confluences of rhythms meld into a rejoiceful kindling of energy and spirit. Jazz has been a part of my life since I was born. My parents played it in our home always. I experienced hearing and seeing the music live from a very early age. I was so fortunate to have witnessed performances of the greats like Von Freeman, Eddie Harris, Gene Ammons, Sun Ra, Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Clifford Jordan, as well as several musicians who would later become members of the AACM, (Muhal Richard Abrams, Malachi Favors, Steve McCall, Phil Cohran and Jodie Christian). All of this inspired me to look deeply into the spirituality of jazz. I therefore wanted to make music like that from an early age.

What are the core elements that differentiate spiritual jazz from other jazz styles?

When listening to the intended spirituality of performances of the great Duke Ellington’s, “Come Sunday”, featuring the great Mahalia Jackson, “Love Supreme” by the great John Coltrane, or “Creator has a Master Plan” by the great Pharoah Sanders, one can immediately perceive the spiritual intent of the music in comparison to other more secular performance of jazz, where the intent is to express the emotion of everyday life in all of its variety. Though I personally would not define performances like the great Louis Armstrong’s ‘I Cover the Waterfront”, or the great Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance”, as spiritual jazz so to speak, I can definitely feel a deep spiritual quality expressed in that music. Spiritual jazz is the awakening and the acknowledgement in seeking a higher form of expression through the performance of jazz. Before I perform anywhere in the world, I first thank the creator and the ancestors and ask them to guide me and open my essence so that I may express something meaningful, that hopefully touches others in a positive and useful way.

Which artists or influences would you say have had the greatest impact on your own sound? How important was your time at the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in this regard?

The list of influences are endless! My parents are the very first and greatest influence in my musical career. They shaped me to be a free, creative thinker, who could conceptualise my own reality. As well as this, they equipped me with resources that enabled my many opportunities. I love and have been inspired by all kinds of music. The kinds of musician that inspired my spiritual path towards music are the likes of Louis Armstrong; because of how deep he pulled from his inner self to create music that changed the course of history. Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morten for their vast compositional clairvoyance. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie for their courage and pursuit of freedom. Sun Ra for his passionate individuality. Miles Davis and John Coltrane for their sound and sense of adventure. The AACM for its collective trust in the creative process. Jimi Hendrix for going all the way in. Marvin Gaye and all of the great soul singers for touching my heart. Most of all, Mother Africa and all the other ancient cultures of the world who blessed us all with the inner understanding of spirit and art!

You’ve stated that the aim of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble was to infuse African American music, notably jazz, with its earlier roots in traditional African elements – why do you believe that it was important to do this, and is it difficult to strike a balance between the different elements?

I have always felt that African diaspora creativity within the arts and culture were wrongfully and immorally exploited in the commercial markets. My intention in creating and developing the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble was to make a clear and relevant artistic statement, that would signify the enormous value in acknowledging the various communities of African descent globally, as having very meaningful noteworthy heritages, deserving of international homage and respect. It is still very exciting for me to balance all of these elements and influences into my own original form of expression, that acknowledges history and simultaneously speaks towards innovation.

Be Known: Ancient/Future/Music continues to push the sonic boundaries of this mantra, yet the tracks often begin around simple musical themes. By keeping the foundational themes simple, does this allow you as musician more freedom to express your own individuality during your improvisations?

The assumption that my themes are somewhat simple, so to speak, is deceptive. All of the advances that music has to offer are within my so called simple compositions, melodies, songs or however one might describe my music. The EHE consistently challenges the harmonic and sonic capabilities of modern sound within all of its so-called sophistication. We deal with advanced formulas of rhythmic counterpoint and syncopation like no other jazz band today. We interpret so-called jazz standards with accuracy and originality which was the way it was done in the old days. Everyone was supposed develop their own sound. My musicians and I play the changes, the chords, the bass lines, the intervals, the harmonics, the multiple rhythms, and then make something quite sophisticated seem so easy. The true gift of a master is to make what in reality is very difficult, appear to be easy!

You cannot make a project like the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble happen, unless you really know what you’re doing musically. It takes a lot of study, a lot of practicing, a lot of work, and a lot of heart!

What is your view on the current state of jazz? Are you excited by the directions it has taken musically, and the surge in popularity it has experienced in countries such as the UK in recent years? 

I’m very excited about the new awakening in spiritual jazz happening in London and other parts of the world right now. My hope is that the new vision for creative improvised music focuses less on being validated by traditional academic institution, and more on self-realized scholarship. Music has become to sterile, rigid, and predictable. I love that young people are starting to discover the value of spiritually inspired music. Music has the power to heal when it expresses deep vibrations that are connected to the life force. I have dedicated my life to the pursuance of the spirit through music. I’m so thankful that these young people today are connecting with my music and other artist both young and old, who are on the same path!

Finally, where can fans see you in the coming months?

I will be touring this June in a duo with the great David Murray throughout North America. I will return to Europe in the fall with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and also with David Murray.


‘Be Known: Ancient/Future/Music’
 is out June 21st on on Spiritmuse Records.

  Stream album track ‘Pharoah’ on Bandcamp | Pre-Order | Connect on Facebook

You can catch select tracks from the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s new record across the Melodic Distraction morning listening playlist from 21st June.