The success of Kahil El’Zabar’s innovative and creative vision is evidenced not only by the substance and breadth of his career, but also by its longevity. Coming of age in Chicago during the early years of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he is an integral part of that legacy of Great Black Music. Living a life not devoid of its own complexities, he continues his unyielding dedication to his unique musical vision — to use improvisation as “the key to finding new discoveries in old approaches.“
The trio’s other members are formidable in their own right. Trumpeter Corey Wilkes honed his craft at the Berklee College of Music, has filled the void left by Lester Bowie in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and tours internationally with numerous ensembles. Baritone Saxophonist Alex Harding has recorded or performed with a who’s-who of creative musicians including: Julius Hemphill, Lester Bowie, Hamiet Bluiett, Greg Osby, and the Mingus Big Band.
MB: Sometimes you play with a bass player or a cello player, how does the music differ when you have a quartet versus a trio?
KEZ: Well, you have four people versus three, which is obvious, but it is the chordal instrument that is usually not a part of the ensemble. The ensemble historically has been three people but sometimes I will add that fourth chordal instrument and so it changes the approach a little bit, but the music has its own, I think at this point, genre, you know. I’ve developed a way to approach the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble which focuses on percussion as actually the tonic instrument. The clave that’s been developed for how we approach various elements of this, so-called jazz idiom are unique to the instrumentation and unique to the concept and approach.
MB: You use your voice quite a bit in this group, do you think of that as an independent voice within the group or is it integrated into your playing, your identity, within the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble?
KEZ: It is integrated into the sensibilities of what we do — it’s interesting you ask that Michael, a lot of times when we’re either doing like clinics or workshops or talking to younger musicians they say “well what’s all the voice stuff and the sound?” so when I then take them to YouTube and show them Art Tatum, show them Art Blakey, show them…who, I’m trying to think of…
MB: Elvin Jones.
KEZ: Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones. But even non-drummers. When you’re listening to uh…what’s the… Bud Powell!
MB: Right, Bud Powell.
KEZ: That’s who I was trying to think of. So that’s always been part of the tradition.
MB: Do you live in Chicago currently? And I guess I ask that because you know as someone who could probably live anywhere in the world is there something that keeps you rooted in Chicago as opposed to say Paris or Madrid or someplace in Europe?
KEZ: Yeah, Yeah, good question. You know my roots are there so I always maintain a residence there. I’ve been an artist in residence in Bordeaux for 16, 17 years so I’m back and forth there. And I have a place in Paris, so Chicago is home but I have other homes as well.
MB: I guess, dwelling on Chicago a little bit, In terms of the lineage of the AACM, you know I sort of think of, obviously, Muhal Richard Abrams as first generation AACM: Roscoe Mitchell, Steve McCall. Do you feel like you’re kind of second-generation AACM, is it sort of a continuum? Or are you maybe independent from that lineage?
KEZ: I’m connected to it, you know. I started working with Muhal when I was 17, like 1969. You know I see myself first connected to the Chicago lineage because many of the characteristics of the AACM were part of what Lil Harden was doing even before she became Mrs. Armstrong, and the sharing that was going on with Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Pops, and everybody at that time, they were very collective, they were very communicative, very supportive. You find the same elements in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 50s. They’re there and you see the continuum of that in the AACM. And when you’re in Chicago versus New York people always get the feeling that there’s this camaraderie, and more community based kind of exchange with musicians, whereas in New York it’s — incredible incredible musicians — but it’s more almost like gun-for-hire. Whereas in Chicago it’s about the community exchange with the music being an integral part of that. And I’m definitely a part of that legacy, and have tried to pass it on to younger generations.
MB: Definitely interesting to think about it in those terms, geographically even. Chicago has such a strong community, a musical community, it’s tremendous, I think. Are you someone who seeks inspiration externally, and if so, what’s currently inspiring you in terms of music, or other things in life for that matter?
KEZ: Yeah, I mean it’s all kinds of stuff, really great question. One of the, or two of the artists that really inspire me right now are the dance duo of Les Twins from France, I find them to be some of the most significant improvisors. And another artist that inspires me a lot is the visual artist, not the musician, but the visual artist Nick Cave, and the optimism that I see in his work graphically and what he communicates and the impact that I see. You know I’ve gone to exhibits of his in New York, Massachusetts, Chicago, and what he says in his art is something that you know I’ve tried to say for years in my work, that besides the critical pessimisms that are part of society that artists are able to describe, we need to be the outlet of optimism and how we find that inspiration and improvisation is the key to finding new discoveries in old approaches.
MB: Thank you, yeah, that’s great. Was there ever another path for you in life, or was this your path from the beginning?
KEZ: You know I was all-city in 1968-69 and in 1969 I was all-state, one of the top 20 basketball players in the state, and it’s so funny, years ago when my sons were small, they’re all adults now, but when they were small Quinn Buckner from the Boston Celtics, and Llyod Walton who played for Milwaukee Bucks, you know they said “Hey Graveyard” and my boys went “why do they call you that dad?” “‘cause I was deadly son.” and they asked them, they said “was my father good?” and they told them, you know that “He won all the tournaments he played against us. And we went on to be pros.” So for a couple of weeks my boys weren’t speaking to me and I was like “what’s wrong with you guys?” I’m cooking dinner and, you know, playing with them and they’re not responding, and they said “We could’ve had Mercedes and big houses!” Ha! And I think it was a good lesson for them because they’ve — my sons have gone on to their own paths — and I told them at that time “you have to choose you, and you have to know what you believe is going to make you happy in spite of what might be the material or the social or the fame attraction, and know inside yourself what you want to do, and I’ve felt very lucky ‘cause at a very young age I decided and committed myself to something that has given me a lot of fulfillment in life.
MB: So from there would you care to talk about the economics of this life, and maybe the struggle or, or maybe it’s not a struggle?
KEZ: Yeah, you know I’ve been pretty stable in my career, but it has a lot to do with parents and how they share with you the ability to discover your earning opportunities in unique ways, and you know my parents were entrepreneurs, and they knew how to plan a calendar and they knew how to set goals and go through the tactile process of reaching those goals, so you know. And they educated me well, so you know, I hold a PhD and besides the stuff that people know me for historically with the AACM or playing with Pharoh Sanders or Lester Bowie or Archie Shepp or whatever, you know I also did the arrangements for Julie Taymor for Lion King, and you know scored music for movies like Mo’ Money, Love Jones, and for 24 years was a professor. So those kinds of things gave me stable income to take care of my children and the freedom to do this music which is my heart. The music of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, the Ritual Trio, or duos with David Murray, or you know the things I’ve historically done and what I believe is my life’s work. My parents taught me to have the practical application of entrepreneurship so that it allowed me the freedom of my lifestyle choices.
MB: That’s very cool. So at the age of 66, right? Do you see yourself slowing down or are you just getting started?
KEZ: I’m seeing myself learn how to use age as a growth pattern with time. And that time is not relative necessarily to speed, or the past, present, or the future, but much more about the frequency engagement. And a lot of older musicians find themselves comparing to youth, which will never happen again. I think our society is too attracted to a moment rather than the journey and I, at this age, have to be about the journey and what those graces come from age. So I accept where I am and learn to use time in a relevant way that I can express something meaningful now.
Michael Brenneisis a drummer, composer, and improvisor based in Madison, Wisconsin. A volunteer blogger for BlueStem Jazz, he wants everyone to know that he’s a musician, not a journalist.