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Kahil El Zabar

Jazz Scholar / Percussionist,
Ethnic Heritage Ensemble
There’s something voyeuristic about a Kahil El’Zabar performance. The Chicago drummer, percussionist and leader of the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble (which performs in Washington each year during Black History Month) comports himself with tremendous dignity and restraint between his tunes, then during performance unleashes a spiritual fervor. His manner as a musician — grunting, grimacing, bellowing lyrics, humming behind his soloists and dancing in place — is raw, primal and open, in a way that never ceases to startle. If anything, his 19th annual D.C. performance, Sunday night at Bohemian Caverns, was even more powerful than usual.

Actually, this time El’Zabar announced the band as the New Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. His previous 10 (at least) D.C. concerts featured saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins and trumpeter Corey Wilkes; this time, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and trombonist Craig Harris rounded out the trio. The effect of this change was profound, even beyond the earthy rumble that the lower registers created.

Bluiett pulled from a deep reserve of blues. On “Footprints,” the second of three songs in the first set, he played at a languorous pace but with as many blues licks as he could squeeze in. The previous (unnamed) tune found him drawing so much soul that Harris spontaneously put his horn away and began clapping off the beat. Meantime, the trombonist achieved a masterful balance: He kept his volume under tight restraint, but he managed to communicate aggression and rhythmic punch anyway. On the funky “Urban Bush People,” his solo consisted of a vocalized line somewhere between a warble and a gargle — uproarious, but attenuated, even when it went into atonal shrieks.