Lazaro Vega: Let's get started by talking about Fareed Haque, the guitar player: I'm wondering how long have you been a musical associate of his and what was it that made you decide you might want to use him in the ensemble?
Kahil El'Zabar: We met I think about 12 or 13 years ago when he was a student at Northwestern University. Ari Brown and I did a residency at the University. We were doing a duet performance and there was this guy looking me straight in the face. I told Ari, "This is going to be a bad mother -." You can just look at some people and see the seriousness of what there commitment is, even if you don't know what they do. You just see a person who's fixed with an idea of trying to do something well.
And then I heard him three or four years later during a Von Freeman jam session at The Apartment, and what I saw in him watching Ari and I was the same thing I heard in his playing that night.
About four years ago someone came up with the idea of putting together Fareed, Kurt Elling and myself and it was called Chicago Now, for the Frump Tucker Theatre Company at the Aenthaenum Theatre that holds about 900 plus people. The reason they picked the three of us is that we were the most visible musicians in the city at that time.
We oversold it. Then the three of us after then just did things together all the time. Fareed invited me to play with his band about three years ago. So I play off and on with his group when he puts percussion with it. So he'll usually have his regular trio and then he'll put a tabla player and myself on percussion.
Vega: So it's been a long and on-going association.
El'Zabar: Yeah, so when I was thinking about this record Atu (drummer/mentor Harold Murray) had gone back down south to Alabama, so I said well I'd see Fareed. I knew I wanted to do "Freedom Jazz Dance" based on the complexity of the harmonics of the composition and then the real groove flow of that composition. So to have a badass guitar player that has all kinds of interesting chordal modulations but then can play really funky but also can swing, Fareed is the cat.
I'm very happy with how the record has some out. I just finished talking to Delmark Records a minute ago: they're on their third printing. Everybody in Europe is calling for that record.
Vega: Oh that's great. That's fantastic. I've noticed a change in the band, in the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble's overall concert presentation. I want to make sure you don't take this negatively, but I've just noticed a change since Edward Wilkerson Jr. left.
I remember the performance you gave when Dr. J's Jazz Coffeehouse opened in Grand Rapids. That was a monumental performance. There was a tendency for the band at that time to take really simple four note themes and improvise them into these tremendous climaxes of musical exploration and sonic explosions, really. It was something else. It seems to me now when I hear the band, for example the last performance you gave in Grand Rapids at Schuler Books and Music (2-99) and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble with Fareed Haque performance in Chicago at the Lester Bowie Tribute, those struck me as more of the ancestral meditation concern with texture and almost a trance inducing sort of feel that I get out of the band. I'm wondering if you would please comment on that? Do you think there's been a change like that?
El'Zabar: Well yes, I think there's a difference in personality, as soloists, and from the transitions of Edward being a key soloist from the personnel changes of Light Henry Huff to Kalaparusha Maurice Mc Intyre to Hanah Taylor and then to Joseph Bowie because those have been the transitions of that third person in the last 20 years.
Vega: So it's been an on-gong chair with different players filling it.
El'Zabar: Right, you know what I mean? So Edward had been a key solo voice inside of that. I think the once it balanced out, with Joseph first coming into the group as almost the rhythmic adjunct to what was happening sonically to becoming much more of the central solo voice, as being the melodic instrument that's been around the band the longest at this point with Edward leaving.
So the sonority has changed from the multi-phonic tonal sensibilities that are associated with the tenor saxophone, and the more texture sensibilities. Because with the trombone there are no exact notes. You follow what I'm saying? The attack is based on a measurement of placement to get sound. With a tenor saxophone you're hitting exact keys for at least a similarity of a half step up or down of a note quality: G, E, D, C, B, A or whatever.
I really write for the people who are in my band. Because Joseph is a percussionist we have this way now of almost blending what he and I both do on percussion and then what happens with the trombone with now Ernest as a compliment to what that sound is rather than from the other side, before.
Vega: The dynamic has shifted around to the back of the band, to the rhythm side.
El'Zabar: I'm telling you physically how it happened, psychologically and then musically. So you're accurate.
The other side of that is it was always an element of the band, but individuals had a choice about how they approach the music. Because if we go back and look at tunes like "Golden Sea," "Ancestral Song," "Music is the Key," "Music is a Gift From God," "In the Spirit," and "Brother Malcolm." I' ve got tunes that go back 25 years that still represent that kind of aura because I believe very much in the transcendental force of music.
Then if we look at the stuff that say happened in, say, 1916, 1918 or whatever, the cacophony and the relationship of the collective sound was much more important than the individual soloists. The individual soloist could never have created jazz. It could never happen, because it was a communal form that as it advanced structurally, you know, you're moving from early hot jazz to Jelly Roll Morton compositional jazz.
But the point is that it's happening from the collective cacophony. In each period it's the same thing. Bebop is a form that is developed by collective groups changing the beat, harmonic and melodic structures. Then upon that developing the soloist can now extend the form. The soloist can't extend unless there is a form to extend from.
So we're going through a transition and really understanding the fabric of what I've been working on for now 25 years that it is a formula of sound. So where we're going to go next there's no telling.
Vega: Into this mix Fareed's sound, like you said, is very diverse in his ability to make music with you, but also the guitar texture adds to that rhythmic priority the ensemble seems to have now. It enters the trance and is lays down another color. I mean, everybody solos, and Ernest is a very good soloist. That's why I'm saying I don't want to be negative about this, but there are eerie unison parts now that seem to be concerned with being colorful. Rhythm, color and texture seem to be the primary things I'm getting out of the music when I listen to it now. Putting the guitar in that makes it even more so.
I like "Mama's House," that's the one I've been playing on the radio. And then "Catch Me." Now "Katon" was the little guy on stage with you at the Bowie Tribute.
El'Zabar: Yeah. That's my son.
Vega: I recall the last time you played in Grand Rapids you played a kind of energy piece called "The Christening of Kari."
El'Zabar: Right, that's his older brother. Yeah, and his personality is like that. Katon's personality is like, you know, it takes me time, usually a couple of years to get their tunes together because I'm watching their personalities.
Vega: So Katon is more like a thumb piano, kind of a -
El'Zabar: Just an easy, real smooth. Kari is an agitator. I constantly have to just be on his ass, you know, that's just his natural personality. I did a tune with David Murray called "Kahari Romare" who is their older brother. He's just very intellectual. He paints, plays drums and discusses things as if he's a teenager. He's only five years old. I saw that in his personality when he was three years old. The piece I did with David speaks to a more mental, structural kind of personality. That piece I wrote for the record called "The Tip" with David Murray, Bobby Irving and Darryl Jones.
Vega: I noticed in the Chicago Sun Times review of the Bowie Tribute they noticed that you didn't introduce the Vandermark 5. Is there something there that you want to comment on?
El'Zabar: It happened that Ken went on right after I finished performing. Usually a performer needs at least a second to cool out before he deals with the public or whatever again. Rather than slow everything down I asked the poet Reggie Gibson to do me a favor and introduced Ken only because I had just finished performing.
The reason I invited Ken to be part of the tribute is that I wanted him there. I thought that everyone represented himself or herself well. From a journalistic side I was a little perturbed about the things that weren't mentioned. It looked like from his opinion that I was slighting representing Ken the right way. Well, that's his opinion. But to not let the public know that people drove from Grand Rapids, from Iowa and Madison, Wisconsin, in below zero weather; that $5,000, about, was given to Lester Bowie's family.
A lot of times you can't do anything about what a person's opinions are about what they thought happened, so I'm not going to worry about that too much. But if we're trying to inform the public, was it important that people drove some six hours there and six hours home based on the significance; and what was the aura of the room? Was it an aura that he picked up that people were disinterested? It seemed like on that night there was a lot of interest in the moment.
Vega: It seemed to me like a neighborhood thing. That's what I got out of it. If you want to have a very carefully organized concert is one thing, but to do a tribute in the neighborhood that really brought that music out, and to do it with the label that brought it out, Delmark, all of those things allowed me to take it with a grain of salt. The only thing I would have thought is when you do a concert of that size the sound guys should be there at four in the afternoon getting ready. And they weren't and I told the people I came with there's going to be problems with this at some point tonight. But you don't have so much control over that.
El'Zabar: Oh, I agree. Sure. At this point of life, and I think I mentioned it at the event, about how no matter what our differences are it's our similarities that bring us together. No matter what camps we come from we're all working for the idea of celebrating creativity and supporting individuals who do that.
This is not the 20th Century, this is the 21st Century so, you know, I don't want to really play the race card, stuff like that, at this point.
Vega: Jazz has always been right out front in integration of the races, right in Chicago with Benny Goodman and his Quartet. That's the first band that stepped out there and said this is bullshit, we're playing music together. You're talking about the transcendental forces in music, that's one of the biggest one's in America right there.
That you're doing that, bringing in the whole scene that's been influenced by what happened in Chicago in the 1960's, I mean, Vandermark's music is a result of that as a tangent, and it's important that it's all seen that way. I think there should be more of that.
El'Zabar: That's right. I think there will be. Lester was always an extremely open cat: doing stuff with orchestras in Sardinia, or Mariachi musicians with him as a soloist, just a whole lot of stuff that was in him in a way that a whole lot of people weren't broad enough to accept. As the years go by we'll see him as a more important contributor than what we really see him as now. So, the idea of inclusion is a much more successful representation than exclusion.