Superb trio emerges as polystylistic marvel


(June 16, 2005) Ethnic Heritage Ensemble gets my vote for being the most original and satisfying group playing at the fourth annual Rochester International Jazz Festival.

This trio, which gave a bracing performance Wednesday at Kilbourn Hall, performs a kind of music that can best be described as polystylistic.

The ensemble percussionist Kahil El'Zabar, saxophonist Ernest "Khabeer" Dawkins and trumpeter Corey Wilkes freely mixes various kinds of jazz with traditional African drumming and folk music.

Interestingly enough, these extremely original guys were never afraid to wear their musical influences on their sleeves.

Just as an example, in one song Wilkes played a series of trumpet notes that would have seemed right at home in Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, while Dawkins blew some saxophone counterpoint that was derived from John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

And just in case you missed the point about influence, the band followed with a song called "Ornette," a tribute to El'Zabar's hero, saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The tune included not only references to that great jazz master, but also some wonderful Love Supremesque chanting (of Coleman's name) near the end.

Clearly, you can get away with that kind of stuff (in art it's called homage) when you're as original as Ethnic Heritage.

All the same, it's a credit to the group that this music always sounded original and organic, never derivative.

Formed in Chicago in 1976, Ethnic Heritage has featured various players over the years, but the group's center of gravity and spiritual inspiration has always been its founder, El'Zabar.

A veritable Energizer Bunny of jazz, El'Zabar played an amazing assortment of percussion instruments always at full throttle during the group's early set on Wednesday. He opened with a raucous drum-set solo, moved on to play a hand-held thumb piano and then sizzled on the African drums.

And El'Zabar never let you forget he was the leader. In most bands, drummers exist primarily to beat time. El'Zabar, however, was always at the center of attention and the creative process, singing, chanting, improvising it was a marvel.

His band was equally impressive.

Dawkins, for example, not only played a mean sax but also enough rattles, whistles, whirling hoses and percussion instruments to fill a hardware store.

Wilkes, for his part, pulled off the most impressive musical trick of the evening, blowing a trumpet and a flugelhorn at the same time. Amazingly, the sound was actually quite beautiful.

So in all, it was a thrilling afternoon of music from a group that truly embodied the best of the Rochester fest's exotic eclecticism.