Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Live at the Ascension Loft

Hot ‘n’ Heavy: Live at the Ascension Loft
Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
Delmark DVD & CD

In rare cases, particular places seem uniquely compatible with certain music. Chicago has earned a certain reputation as a jazz city and as home to well regarded avant-garde venues in recent years. Given the fiery looking cover art for the Ethnic Heritage Ensembles’ latest DVD (also available on CD) and its Chicago locale, one might mistake it for a free jazz blowing session. Yet, despite the adventurous credits of the musicians, leader-percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s rhythm reigns supreme on Live at the Ascension Loft, making it a very accessibly session.

The Ensemble has changed personnel over the years, with its current configuration consisting of El’Zabar, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, guitarist Fareed Haque, and Ernest “Khabeer” Dawkins on tenor and alto. However, as El’Zabar shifts among his diverse arsenal of percussion, it has the effect of varying the tone and dynamics of the quartet.

The Ensemble starts with an enjoyable up-tempo workout, propelled along by El’Zabar’s “earth drums,” huge congas crafted by the percussionist. Dawkins makes an impassioned statement on alto, but Wilkes’ electrified solo, though an interesting stylistic choice, gives his ordinarily strong trumpet tone a pinched sound.

The high point, artistically and emotionally in the concert, is “MT,” El’Zabar’s tribute to the late Malachi Thompson, a Chicago trumpeter associated with the AACM and the ensembles of Lester Bowie. El’Zabar actually carries the distinctive melody on thumb piano, and all four musicians take stirring solos. It is a lovely tribute.

As El’Zabar moves to the traps for “Hot ‘n’ Heavy,” the complexion of the music changes subtly again. It becomes a showcase for Wilkes (one of Downbeat’s twenty-five trumpeters for the future this month), on both trumpet and flugelhorn simultaneously, as E’Zabar’s drumming and verbal exultations prod him further and further.

The disk concludes with “Black as Vera Cruz,” a Latin number that starts off in a contemplative mood, but picks up heat from the strong rhythm of the earth drums. Featuring impressive tenor work from Dawkins, Haque’s best guitar solo, and a hypnotic percussion interlude, it is a fitting summation.

The Ascension session is filmed in a rather straight-forward manner, with only occasional flashes of color, or overlaid images for effect. What comes across is the compatibility of music and location. There appear to be no more than maybe thirty audience members, but it is standing room only in that intimate environment. The very art on the walls enhances the rhythmic and cultural message of the Ensemble’s music.

Clearly, the Ensemble is a tight group that plays well with, and off each other. Their warm melodies and rhythmic drive would be appealing to even novice jazz ears.