Review by Brad Walseth
As master drummer/percussionist and bandleader Kahil El' Zabar explains in the intriguing commentary track that accompanies this wonderful new Delmark DVD relase - the Ascension Loft musical sessions are a way of bringing people together a into a community of humans sharing communication and a love of the arts, music and life itself. El' Zabar has been joined by inumerable great musicians over the years - many often pulled from the AACM ranks - and on this particular outing it is saxophone icon Ernest Dawkins, young lion trumpeter Corey Wilkes, and colorful guitarist Fareed Haque accompanying the drummer on his adventerous musical questing.
Utilizing earth drums, kalimbas, vocals and a drum kit, El' Zabar builds the groundwork for the players to erect their expressive motifs around. Using uniquely created thumb pianos tuned with blues tonalities such as flatted fifths in order to achieve a jazzier center, the percusionist's repetitive (in a good sense) rhythmic patterns drive the bass-less quartet along, while Dawkins, Haque and Wilkes provide the melodic/harmonic panaorama and take energetic yet thoughtful solo turns. Saxman Dawkins shows the fiery skills that have made him one of Chicago's preeminent saxophonists, while Haque's tasteful and rhythmic work on the guitar is a potent element. Meanwhile, Wilkes horn work is brassy, but reverent toward his elders, and his playing of trumpet and flugelhorn at the same time is never an exercise in showboating, but rather a truly unique and compelling sonic treat. El' Zabar also creates some spark-filled soloing, but in the end all the members treat the music as the final goal, understand the importance of countering silence with sound, and there is no egotistical overplaying.
Less "just a band" than a way of life - the Ethnic Ensemble combines freeform blowing and hypnotic West African rhythms with modern jazz sensibilities filtered through Chicago urban grooves. El' Zabar's long history of playing with so many of the greats of Chicago jazz music (and indeed the world) colors his viewpoint, and the end result is music that moves nearly as free as the wind over the Sahara, yet flows together almost like a painting or film soundtrack. The production of the DVD heightens this connection nicely by fading between the colorful musicians and works of African art that are displayed. This highly recommended DVD would be worth the price based on the music and El' Zabar's penetrating commentary track alone, but the visuals add a seductive and valuable document of what obviously was a great session featuring hot 'n' heavy yet sensitive interplay among some of Chicago's finest musicians.