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Chicago jazz legend Kahil El’Zabar plays with Shabaka Hutchings

Two stars of African-oriented jazz sounds perform together at the Chan Centre

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Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Shabaka

When: Feb. 21, 7 p.m.

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Where: Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, UBC, 6265 Crescent Rd, Vancouver

Tickets/info: chancentre.com


Chicago multi-instrumentalist Kahil El’Zabar has a resume that reads like the history of jazz over the past six decades.

From chairing the influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1975 to founding the highly influential

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free jazz collective known as the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and the outstanding Ritual Trio, El’Zabar has also worked with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone and Pharoah Sanders. His interest in incorporating all forms of music into his work is heard most recently on Open Me, A Higher Consciousness of sound which is released on Spritmuse in conjunction with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s 50th anniversary.

The group plays the Chan Centre on its double bill with British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings.

Considered one of the leading lights of the present U.K. jazz renaissance, Hutchings has blown Vancouver audiences away with his different groups ranging from the Comet is Coming to Shabaka and the Ancestors. His latest solo album, Perceive its Beauty, Acknowledge its Grace is out on Impulse! on April 12 and includes collaborators ranging from Esperanza Spalding and Floating Points to Andre 3000. Shabaka appears on Andre 3000’s recent hit solo album.

In a conversation with Postmedia, Kahil El’Zabar discussed generations of jazz prior to the performance at the Chan Centre.

Q: The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble has been dedicated to celebrating and exploring Black music in all of its forms. Open Me, A Higher Consciousness features a fantastic version of Eugene McDaniel’s hit Compared to What. How did you arrive on this as a selection for the collection that also includes classics from Miles Davis and other?

Kahil El’Zabar: My father worked two jobs to make enough to keep us kids in Catholic school and Saturdays (he would be) playing jazz all day. One of his favourite records was Swiss Movement by Eddie Harris and Les McCann, and Compared to What is a big song on that set. I wanted to do a piece that acknowledged his contribution to my 50 years of being able to do what I love and it was the right one.

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Q: Is it safe to say that what has kept the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Ritual Trio active over five-plus decades is that love of music?

A: I read a quote from Elvin Jones recently about what kept the classic John Coltrane quartet going with such intensity was a willingness to die for it. Everything you’ve got has to go into the music, and sometimes I think about the fact that my whole life has never been a nine to five but I’ve kept alive, put my kids through college and all mainly playing percussion.

Q: Do you feel that you are an elder statesman for a tradition that is undergoing a renewal of interest right now. Jazz is back on the charts?

A: Just looking at young people putting their money behind the Andre 3000 solo record, which isn’t jazz but is an instrumental thing, is a good sign. That album outsold all of his rap contemporaries in its first week and that’s a good sign.

Q: It’s been a rough few years for everyone, and younger people in particular. Could this be a similar thing to the postwar generation’s embrace of jazz?

A: I think that maybe the isolation and withdrawal of COVID and all the global awakenings and protests over important issues that it might be time again for a music associated with thought, improvisation and flexible possibilities of creative invention. The public acumen is open to that again.

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Q: Does it feel good to see people like Shabaka and others making waves in jazz from a young perspective influenced by the trail blazing of artists such as yourself?

A: The challenges facing young artists right now are very different from what we faced. Now it’s things like rent being too high to afford, of vanishing venues and diverse audiences that are hard to connect with. What we need to do is seize on the energy of this moment and find ways of instilling a need for the art’s utility in people’s lives that translates into more local scene support as the greater global community.

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