Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble pays a double homage with its new single, "Harvest Time"
Pharoah Sanders was broke when he arrived in New York in the early 1960s. His horn was in shambles. He was sleeping on park benches and trying to scuffle a living playing music few people wanted to hear. Enter Don Cherry, who had by then played cornet or trumpet on definitive free jazz recordings, with saxophone titans of the era: Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. Cherry offered Sanders a gig and a lifeline.
The two musicians converged a handful of times on record — notably in Cherry’s Quintet recordings for ESP-Disk in 1963, and in his later efforts for Blue Note, Symphony for Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn? They can now be heard in virtual communion on “Harvest Time,” a new single from percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. From the opening rhythm on balafon and kalimba, the piece conveys a sense of something ancient and timeless that connects to the astral plane where Cherry and Sanders now rest.
“Harvest Time” is the latest single from Spirit Gatherer - Tribute to Don Cherry, due out March 10 on SpiritMuse Records. The album marks a milestone for Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, which El’Zabar formed 50 years ago in Chicago — during that city’s most fertile era for the experimentalists collectively known as the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The AACM was committed to a musical macramé that knotted patterns of interdisciplinary art and world music together, redefining how improvisation meets freedom in time and sound. El’Zabar, who would serve as chairman of the AACM from 1975 to 1982, poured those principles into the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. Rhythm, meet universal music.
Artistically, Don Cherry was in the same zip code as Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, though he was literally on a different continent. A former member of Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking band of the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was living in Sweden with his wife, Moki, and pioneering his own elixir of global integration under the banner of Organic Music Society. There’s real kinship to the world-fusion concept here, and plenty more when you hear Cherry’s “Degi-Degi” and El’Zabar’s “Don Cherry” on Spirit Gatherer.
“Harvest Time'' honors Sanders, another spirit seeker in music, who died last year at 81. While the original version is not readily available on most streaming platforms, you can find the 20-minute jam on his 1977 recording Pharoah, on India Navigation Records.
Ethnic Heritage Ensemble’s take on “Harvest Time” is shorter by two-thirds, but packs extra dimension with El Zabar’s percussive flair. Or is it a flare? There’s a denser burn with Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, including ritual solos from trumpeter Corey Wilkes and saxophonist Alex Harding, and vocal incantations from Dwight Trible. There’s also plenty of ambient space in the recording. No member really takes the foreground; you’re hearing everyone in a space playing together, and there’s less emphasis on using the mix to create a feeling.
And Cherry is here organically on “Harvest Time,” as his son David Ornette Cherry is the pianist. Sadly, David’s final performance was a tribute to his father with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, at the Barbican in London on Nov. 20, 2022. Two days later, he suffered an asthma attack and died at 64.
Don Cherry didn’t make it that far. He was gone at 58, but his pioneering work in global music is a complete communion due for reassessment. Kahil El’Zabar and Ethnic Heritage Ensemble are harvesting some of Cherry’s best ideas on Spirit Gatherer. His spirit, much like Pharoah’s, lives in tribute.
Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble performs at Solar Myth on Feb. 9 and 10.