There aren’t many music DVDs from which more enjoyment can be derived in listening to the commentary than to the soundtrack – but for anyone with an interest in the history and ethos of Chicago’s legendary jazz scene, this one comes pretty close.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the music. On the contrary, this latest incarnation of Kahil El’Zabar’s longstanding Ethnic Heritage Ensemble makes some fine contemporary avant-jazz. Saxman Ernest Dawkins plugs right into the heart of the blues even while careening into flights of molten, upper-register expressionism; classically trained guitarist Fareed Haque’s addition to the band takes them into some interesting new territory with his strangely dissonant, Balkan-flavoured approach, fluent fingertip solos and propensity for exploratory technique – at one point sliding his credit card under the strings to create the guitarist’s equivalent of the prepared piano; and 20-something trumpeter Corey Wilkes brings a vibrant energy and fire to this setting that shows exactly how he’s made his way into the hallowed ranks of the Art Ensemble of Chicago at such a young age.
Underneath it all, of course, are the earthy rhythms of El’Zabar himself, providing a pungent, energised framework for every tune. On the opener, ‘Major to Minor’ he turns in a virtuoso hand-rhythm on his trademark ‘earth drum’ - a huge, hand-built drum with a deep, resonant sound that seems to call back over the centuries to the very beginnings of modern music. On ‘MT’ and ‘There is a Place’ he puts forth fragile melodies with the kalimba, or thumb piano, that instantly conjure the both the lofty concept and the gritty reality of Africa, the homeland. On ‘Black as Vera Cruz’ he trances-out with some hip, Latin-tinged hand-drumming. And on the title track he stretches out on the conventional drum kit with verve and power, letting us know, in case we forgot, that he’s a drummer who’s paid his dues on the way up and can probably out-jazz anyone foolish enough to take him on. It’s all powerhouse stuff that reminds forcefully of the central concept behind the Ensemble: to be avant-garde but in the groove – to create music for the feet to dance to and the brain to dwell on, with no contradiction involved.
The show’s also fun to watch, recorded in El’Zabar’s Ascension Loft, his stylish home cum performance space, on a sweltering hot afternoon in front of an intimate crowd of friends and associates. Leaving aside the sometimes slightly distracting and unnecessary ‘effects’ that music DVDs sometimes seem obliged to include, as if anyone who’s taken the trouble to track this film down isn’t already interested enough in the music to be able to do without such trimming - the camera work manages to capture the intimacy of the performance while giving us glimpses of the conceptual and cultural framework these guys inhabit – focusing in on the paintings, sculpture and writing that litter the place and giving us a number of interesting clues as to the musicians’ intentions.
But, if it’s context you’re after, cut straight to the commentary and enjoy the laid-back, warm and wise tones of Kahil El’Zabar as he ruminates on percussion, jazz as an artform, his career, Chicago’s jazz heritage in general and in particular the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Music – the iconic collective of which he has been a member for three decades, alongside other avant-jazz heroes such as The Art Ensemble, Anthony Braxton and many others. There’s much to love about his rap, and not just the way he liberally sprinkles his pronouncements with beat idioms like “you dig?” – and gets away with not sounding like a jazz cliché - or the infectious chuckle that interrupts his ponderings when a particularly fruity anecdote comes to mind.
Similarly, while it’s fascinating to hear El’Zabar pontificate on how Ethnic Heritage to him is a byword for the modern Afro-American living in an urban setting while maintaining a part of his soul that is forever Uhuru, or how jazz is “a form still to be innovated, with new things to discover,” or how he named his studio the Ascension Loft because he’s “striving for spiritual ascension through music,” these aren’t the main attraction either. No, the greatest gift here is the rare opportunity to eavesdrop on an elder statesman of jazz setting forth his own personal agenda on why the arts, all arts, should be embraced with passion and commitment in order for us all to reach our true potential as spiritual beings, and why the human race owes it to itself to free its mind and transcend the madness of war and terror through devotion to beauty. This is priceless wisdom we’re talking about here.
Play this DVD to today’s elementary school kids, make them study it for three hours a day every day between now and college. Make them swear allegiance to art instead of the flag. Forget your religious instruction, go straight for the earth drum. I guarantee you’ll see a better America born in the space of one generation.