The Kalimba, to call it by its proper name, in the hands of Kahil El'Zabar becomes something incomparable, to my ears, to anything I've ever heard or imagined. No longer that funny plink-plink sound with a buzz that I'd grown accustomed to. It becomes instead a beautiful and melodic trill that is enthralling in its own right, with the strength to act as the underpinning percussion for the solo work of trumpet and saxophone.
Yes, there are other musicians in the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, which judging by my review so far you probably couldn't tell. My apologies to those three fine musicians for that – it is not meant as any slight to them or their abilities or to imply they somehow play a lesser role in the band, because they don't.
Ernest "Khabeer" Dawkins on alto and tenor saxophone and percussion, and Fareed Haque on electric and acoustic guitar have both played with the band for a while. Corey Wilkes on trumpet, flugelhorn and percussion is a new addition to the band, and although only in his twenties he already tours with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and fronts his own bands.
As in a lot of jazz ensembles, especially those with no bass player and a percussionist who plays leads, the guitar player becomes the centre point around which everything else orbits. Fareed Haque is that eye in the hurricane of the Heritage Ensemble. Calmly seated on his chair he effortlessly strokes out the notes each song's melody as a perfect rhythmic lead. He holds on to the theme of each composition, allowing his band mates the freedom to come and go, secure in the knowledge it will be there when they return from their improvisational excursions.
And what excursions they are. The pity is that I don't have the vocabulary to describe how wonderful they are. For example, what can you say about Mr. Dawkins' incredible saxophone work that runs from gently blown notes that waft like butterflies through the air of the studio, to high sharp notes that, with their urgency, sting the ears like a wasp bite.
I haven't seen or heard anyone play a flugelhorn since the late Freddy Stone back in the early 1980s, so I was interested in seeing what Corey Wilkes would do with it. I've always found jazz trumpet to be the most difficult of all instruments to listen to. Usually I find them too harsh and blaring, like the player feels that loud and fast are the main elements of a good solo.
Corey Wilkes does not belong to that school. Perhaps it's from playing the flugelhorn with its less brassy sound, but whatever it is he falls into the category of jazz trumpeters that I can listen to for hours. He's not loud just for the sake of being loud, or fast to show off how fast he is – the music dictates all of that for him.
You can see Wilkes building solos in his mind as he plays, but he also works in pre-arranged bits, like playing the flugelhorn and the trumpet simultaneously and making it work. It doesn't sound like noise, it sounds like two horns being played by different people. But like everyone else in the band, showing off is not his intent, but serving the music is.
Kahil El'Zabar has had versions of the Ethic Heritage Ensemble playing for around the last 30 years in and around Chicago. Whether you watch and listen to the DVD or just listen to the CD, Hot 'N' Heavy: Live At The Ascension Loft, featuring the latest configuration of the band, is jazz at it best. When free flights of improvisation are combined with incredible skill and discipline like they are on these recordings, you know you're listening to the best.