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.
Perhaps their restraint was a deliberate contrast with El’Zabar’s lack of it — which, make no mistake, easily dominated the performance. Indeed, the arrangements they played were remarkably simple (built on riffs that were never more than three notes), the more room for El’Zabar’s paroxysms. He commented wordlessly (in moans and grunts) on Bluiett and Harris’s “Footprints” solos and went into a frenzy on his five-piece drum kit; his soft hand-playing on “Urban Bush People’s” earth drum gave way to a vocal that mixed mutters with howls (“Running in the streets made of concrete/ No love can you find”), ending in a mad shuffle-like dance on the stage. He moaned along with his own kalimba playing on the first tune, shaking his head with each note as if it were on a swivel; his solo was a fragmented jumble of notes that, instead of a mess, was an ecstasy.
As fervent as El’Zabar could be, there wasn’t a moment of his performance that didn’t feel like a meditation — or a communication with a higher power. For this writer, born too late to see the great spiritualist John Coltrane, it’s as close as jazz comes to a religious experience.