top of page

Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is an anachronism. Led by percussionist and vocalist Kahil El’Zabar, the group plays acoustic instruments, including ancient ones like mbira, cajón, bells and voice, and their itinerary reads like those of a bygone era.

EHE is in the thick of playing 24 gigs in 26 days throughout North America. El’Zabar has taken the Ensemble on the road like this for 49 consecutive years. In today’s jazz world, nobody does that. The 69-year old percussionist estimated he has five years left of this kind of non-stop touring.

This incarnation of the band, featuring trumpeter Corey Wilkes and baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, played for 95 enthusiastic listeners at the Parlor Room in Northampton on February 8. Their 90-minute set came on the heels of one of their two days off. They made the drive on Tuesday from Washington, DC, where they played to a full house at Rhizome.

Playing mbira (African thumb piano), cajón (Afro-Peruvian box percussion), drum kit, and fit with ankle rattles, El’Zabar cut quite the figure. Fit and debonair, the Chicago-born drummer exudes charisma and has lived a full and interesting life. A natural storyteller, he regaled us with tales of playing basketball in a Rucker tournament all-star game with Nate Archibald, George McInnis and Billy Bang. He told us how as a boy, he would mow the lawn and do errands for his neighbor Mamie Till after her son was murdered. His mentor, Phil Cohran, who helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and named the organization, taught him to play thumb piano. Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble served as inspiration for Zabar’s band. Another influence was Acklyn Lynch, an early member of the UMass W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies, who guided him towards a career in the arts.

Over the course of his career, El’Zabar has served as chair of the AACM and was knighted by the French government. He has taught at the university level, published poetry, released more than 50 recordings and founded OOHnow, a cultural e-commerce network. El’Zabar was the subject of the documentary film Be Known: The Mystery of Kahil El’Zabar, and has performed with Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and Nina Simone. He has scored and appeared in feature films ("Love Jones", "Mo' Money" and "How U Like Me Now" and "Savannah"), and did arranging for the stage performance of The Lion King. He tailors clothing for himself and others.

El’Zabar’s music flows. His original melodies are simple and beautiful. When he played them on mbira, they had spiritual luster. His vocals were as virtuosic as his drumming. His unaccompanied vocal break during “Bebop”, filled with yodels, scat and various mouth sounds, is peculiar to El’Zabar; the people erupted. The band brought energy and innovation to the standards, “Caravan”(Juan Tizol, Duke Ellington), “Bebop” (Dizzy Gillespie), and their encore, “Freedom Jazz Dance” (Eddie Harris). The unusual instrumentation gave new life to the tunes, and the addition of foot percussion and vocals gave the band five voices to play with. The group had great dynamic range, moving from whisper to roar and back again over the course of a tune, giving us access to a wide range of moods and emotion.

Now 43, Corey Wilkes has been a colleague of Kahil’s for over 17 years. He’s featured in the film, Be Known, which documents a 2007 tour by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. When Makaya McCraven moved to Chicago, Wilkes was one of the first persons he connected with; they’ve become fast friends. Jazz Shares stalwart Jon King and I, who have known both Makaya and his father, Steve, since their Valley days, were happy to mug with Corey and send the results to our drummer friends via the internet. This was Wilkes’ first appearance in the Bay State since he left Berklee over 20 years ago. Dressed in black and wearing shades, he looked every bit the hip jazz man. Playing the custom made Lotus trumpet he got last month, he blew melodious statements all evening. He was meticulous about his pre-concert routine: no eating past 2:00pm, a special elixir to open up the breath, a specific warm-up regimen. He is serious about his craft and the results speak for itself. In 2003, Wilkes replaced Lester Bowie in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and subsequent work with Roscoe Mitchell, DJ Logic, Nona Hendryx, and his own projects, have confirmed he is on the right path.

Alex Harding has been with the Ethnics for four years and is featured on their last two albums. Born in Detroit in 1967, he recently moved back to the Motor City after decades in New York to be close to aging parents. We talked about the Detroit scene, and especially Yusef Lateef, a patron saint of both Detroit and western Massachusetts. Harding seemed moved by the on-line celebration of Dr. Lateef’s centennial I helped put together, as we watched responses by Benny Maupin and his friend Ralph (Buzzy) Jones. We also talked about his fond memories of the two weeks he spent in Amherst in 1990 at Jazz in July with Brother Yusef and others. Harding started on tenor sax, but was persuaded to switch to the baritone sax by the legendary band director, Ernie Rogers, who was trying accommodate the arrival of a new student, James Carter. Harding has been playing the same horn Mr. Rogers found him in high school. “My parents paid $400 down and $100 a month for a year”, he said. Harding was the music director for the Broadway production of Fela!, and had the good fortune to be a part of Julius Hemphill’s Saxophone Sextet. He’s a veteran of bands led by visionaries like David Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams, Hamiet Bluiett, Craig Harris and Oliver Lake. I saw him last spring, sharing the bandstand with Sam Newsome, Román Díaz and others in Francisco Mora’s very hip band, Afro-Horn.

It was great to share my home (and washing machine) with these committed road warriors. I first presented Kahil El’Zabar (with Ernest Dawkins, Joseph Bowie and “Atu” Harold Murray) at UMass in 1998, and I love being a stop on his February barnstorming tours, now and again. His dogged pursuit spreading the Great Black Music gospel is what we need now.

The jazz world has plenty of working bands, but only a few work hard enough and are talented enough to achieve true lift off. We saw one of them at the Community Music School of Springfield on January 6. Led by guitarist and composer Miles Okazaki, Trickster is a five-year-old ensemble that ranks among today’s finest. They made their western Massachusetts debut on Friday.

With three studio CDs and a soon to be released double live album, Trickster is the real thing: a band that can play impossibly complicated music with straightforward immediacy. Their set combined complex harmonies and counterpoint with a healthy dose of funk.

The band: Matt Mitchell, piano, Anthony Tidd, electric bass, Sean Rickman, drums and Okazaki on guitar, owes their sound to Steve Coleman. Coleman’s mid-1980s recordings on JMT, and his later work on RCA Novus, BMG, Label Bleu and Pi Recordings, are hugely influential and define the looping, free funk of the so-called M-Base movement. Tidd and Rickman have worked with Coleman since the late 1990s. I first met Okazaki when he appeared with Coleman at a Magic Triangle Jazz Series concert in 2012.

But Trickster’s sound covers more sonic territory. Unlike Coleman’s approach, which is compelling but can be unrelenting, Trickster’s repertoire includes pools of introspection and subdued tempos. Friday’s set even included a version of “Lush Life”, played first by Okazaki before the rest of the band joined in to taffy pull Billy Strayhorn’s beautiful composition. The night unfurled like a suite, with themes drawn from the band’s three Pi Recordings releases. The uninterrupted flow mirrored the format of their latest recording, Thisness, where they create grooves and themes that slowly transform over time.

“The borderlands are where the Trickster hangs out,” Okazaki wrote in the liner notes, “the undefined space where logic dissolves and creativity thrives. My hope was that the listener would enjoy the experience of passing through these boundaries of contrasting episodes.”

Guitar, piano, bass and drums are all rhythm section instruments, but Tidd and Rickman kept the pulse that provided the evenings through line. Tidd’s bass lines were thick and propulsive, sometimes subverting the groove with altered rhythms to produce a layered, disorienting effect. I was seeing him for the first time, and I wished for a Jazz Shares reception or another opportunity to chat with him. Born in London, Tidd came to the U.S. in 1997 and has toured all over the globe with Common, Greg Osby, Bhekki Mseleku, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Ursula Rucker, while producing records for Jill Scott, Macy Gray, Zap Mama, Lady Gaga, Pink, The Black Eyed Peas and The Roots. He has a career composing scores for major film and television projects, most recently Jay Z’s Paramount/BET docuseries Rest in Power – The Trayvon Martin Story, and he has been a major teaching force in Philadelphia at Jazz Camp, the Kimmel Center and now at Ars Nova.

This was also my first chance to hear Rickman live. He cut quite the figure, exuding the cool demeanor of someone who grew up in the performing arts. His father is the legendary guitarist Phil Upchurch, and his mother, Renee Morris, sang the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar. His stick grip, which seemed out of the ordinary to me, was taught to him by an uncle, while another uncle was a dj who opened up his musical world. Like Tidd, Rickman has lots of experience with artists in the popular music world. Angela Bofill, Maxwell and Meshell Ndegeocello are all past employers of Rickman, who has also worked with Dapp Theory and spent four years with the fusion group Garaj Mahal. He often played in double-time, creating an energy that felt sped up, but not loud. His control was brilliant, and everything he played on the snare drum was special.

Meanwhile, Mitchell and Okazaki played impossibly fast unison lines, then completed each other’s thoughts with traded phrases. Mitchell is one of today’s premier pianists, someone with a ridiculous amount of technique and an equal measure of creative juice. He also records for Pi, producing five releases since 2013, including his latest, a six-CD box set, Snark Horse. Previous Jazz Shares appearances include dates with Anna Webber’s Simple Trio and Jon Iragabon’s Quartet. It’s time for him to lead a date in western Mass.

Okazaki’s last Valley appearance was a hypnotic, 2021 duo with drummer Dan Weiss. The guitarist has a light touch as a leader, directing the group through eye contact and by advancing thematic material on his guitar. Having responsive musicians helps. Although they hadn’t played together in a month, Trickster’s three-week June residency at Seeds in Brooklyn undoubtedly helped solidify their sound.

Speaking of sound, the Quartet marveled at the acoustics in the space. Because of the immense stone walls, they were dubious when they first arrived. But the halls walls are soapstone, not marble, and their porosity provided a warm, nuanced feel. The musicians, relaxed and accomplished, gave a marvelous performance.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. This Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event was a homecoming of sorts for Ehrlich, who taught at Hampshire College and lived part time in the Valley for 15 years, before retiring in 2019.

Although they have played together over the years, Ehrlich’s Friday performance with Trio Expanse: Matt Pavolka, bass and Mark Ferber, drums, was their first as a threesome. With one rehearsal under their belts, the musicians nailed a program of Ehrlich originals and one Julius Hemphill tune , with precision and élan.

Since producing the Marty Ehrlich Quintet (Tony Malaby, Michael Cain, Michael Formanek, Bobby Previte) in 1997 as part of the Magic Triangle Jazz Series, I’ve had the honor of presenting his large ensemble (“A Trumpet in the Morning”) in 2014, and his Philosophy of a Groove Quartet (with James Weidman, Jerome Harris, Chris Beck) and Duende Winds (with Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Sara Shoenbeck), both in 2018. The breath of his imagination as a composer, instrumentalist and bandleader, is impressive. We discussed having his next western Mass visit be a duo, a context in which he also excels. In May, he’s playing with pianist Kris Davis as part of his week at The Stone. Hmmm.

Speaking of The Stone, Ehrlich introduced his piece “Stone”, with a beautiful story about Irving Stone, who befriended musicians like William Parker, Mark Feldman and Roy Campbell, and with his wife, attended thousands of jazz concerts in New York from the 1970s until his passing in 2003. A retired City employee, Irving once rented Town Hall for his friend Ornette Coleman, who complained that he wanted to be recognized for being more than a jazz artist. Part of the concert, featuring a new trio and a string quartet, was released as Town Hall, 1962 (ESP-Disk). John Zorn named his club after him.

Many years ago, Marianne Faithfull, for whom Ehrlich worked briefly, told him he should do stand-up. Indeed, his comedic timing and his storytelling skills are well above average. His musical phrasing, primarily on alto saxophone and clarinet, were also outstanding, producing streams of mini-melodies in voice-like patterns that went on for minutes on end. Ehrlich played flute and soprano saxophone on one tune each, but left his bass clarinet home.

I love hearing Ehrlich in trio format. It allows his compositions to shine, while providing a showcase for his considerable chops. For it to work, of course, you need a strong rhythm section. Ehrlich’s Trio Exaltation, with John Hébert and Nasheet Waits, might have a higher profile, but his new Trio Expanse is strong and supple.

Bassist Matt Pavolka deserved all the solo space he got, and then some. I was flabbergasted to learn that although he dabbled in high school, he only got serious about the bass while at Berklee; he entered college on a trombone scholarship. Growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, Pavolka had a solid music education at home (his father was a professional trombonist) and in school (he studied with David Baker). His facility on his instrument, his easy navigation of the material, and the wealth of his ideas, proved he was well prepared for the moment. I have him on records by Ohad Talmor, Noah Preminger, Guillermo Klein and Alan Ferber, and was glad to hear him live for the first time.

I first met Alan Ferber’s twin brother Mark when he performed with Linda May Han Oh in Miro Sprague’s Trio in Greenfield in 2014, and it was great to spend some quality time with him. Ferber was looking at the 25th anniversary Magic Triangle Series book we produced and saw Alex Snydman in a crowd photo. He taught Alex in LA many years ago and didn’t know he grew up in western Massachusetts. I love those points of coincidence. Ferber was completely comfortable with the material, hitting every signpost with precision and understated flourish.

I had the sense that both Ferber and Pavolka, a generation younger than Ehrlich, relished the opportunity to work with a veteran whose career involves the best musicians of our time. Hearing him share jazz lore and personal stories about Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and Julius Hemphill were precious.

Since retiring from Hampshire, Ehrlich has immersed himself in preserving the legacy of the great alto saxophonist, composer and conceptualist, Julius Hemphill. Both have a connection to St. Louis; Ehrlich was born there, and Hemphill moved there in 1968, where he helped launch the Black Artists Group. Ehrlich worked with Hemphill from 1978 until his passing in 1995, and spent a good part of the pandemic organizing Hemphill’s archives, now housed at NYU’s Fales Library. In 2021, Ehrlich curated, supervised and wrote extensive liner notes for The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony (New World Records), a critically acclaimed 7-CD box set of previously unreleased Hemphill material.

The night after their Easthampton performance, Trio Expanse played at Brooklyn’s Bar Bayeux. “The two gigs were a great shot in the arm for me,” Ehrlich wrote. “Great to play in front of the Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares family.” Ehrlich is now off to Poland, where he is recording with Michael Bates Acrobat and the Lutoslawski String Quartet. Hopefully, now that his scholarly labor of love is complete, Ehrlich can turn his attention back to the stage, where he continues to dazzle.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
bottom of page