Reviews

Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: Hot n Heavy [DVD]

Wisdom, rhythm and heat. Call it jazz.


Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

Hot 'n' Heavy

MPAA rating: N/A
Label: Delmark
UK Release Date: 2007-02-26
US Release Date: 2007-02-27
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Music

'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.

Music

​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.

Music

Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.

Music

Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.