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Nazir Ebo is the Philadelphia jazz scene's next breakthrough talent

Torri Green
courtesy of the artist

On a warm, sunny day in the summer of 2011, a roly-poly 11-year-old with thick-framed glasses disappeared behind a drum kit at the West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival, to a chorus of “aww”s. They were soon followed by gasps of another kind, as this kid, who seemed like he could barely reach the cymbals, propelled the Clef Club Youth Ensemble with a vigorous swing that was anything but cute.

Perhaps the Philly-area audience shouldn’t have been so surprised at Nazir Ebo’s beyond-his-years talent. Not only was he not the first drum prodigy to come out of the city in recent years; he wasn’t even the first to come out of his own house. Conducting the band was his older brother, Justin Faulkner, who at 20 had already logged two years on the road with the Branford Marsalis Quartet. (The band that day also happened to feature a 13-year-old sax phenom by the name of Immanuel Wilkins.)

Big brother Justin, seven and a half years older, was Ebo’s earliest inspiration on the drums. “He was in the Kimmel Center [educational] program when I first grasped onto what he was doing and took an interest,” Ebo recalled recently at a café on Broad Street. “They would play these killing big band charts and it was just so cool, to the point where I would go home immediately after and try to imitate the things that I was hearing him play. When he started playing with Branford, being able to watch him move through such a big gig at a young age prepared me for where I am now.”

At 23, where Nazir Ebo is now is on the cusp of a promising career. Cutting a more striking figure these days in full beard, dark glasses and head-to-toe black garb, he recently made his debut at New York’s Apollo Theater with saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III, and was enlisted by Joshua Redman for the first of a string of planned gigs. He toured with British saxophonist Soweto Kinch straight out of high school, and plays frequently with keyboardist George Burton and saxophonist Logan Richardson. With his own band, Ebo recorded his debut album last summer at producer Tom Spiker’s Undercarriage Recording, with a release planned for later this year.

The album will include tracks like “Rocket,” on which dub-inspired rhythms echo underneath buzzing, nearly subaqueous bass tones. In this live performance at WRTI last year, shimmering and fluid guitar adds to the sensation of floating deep below the water’s surface, where light can barely penetrate.

Ebo’s unusual quartet features two guitarists, Simon Martinez and Russell Gelman-Sheehan, and longtime Bilal bassist Tone Whitfield. Together they’ve crafted a hybrid sound fueled by the leader’s elusive fusion of agitated swing, swaggering funk, hip-hop syncopation, and airy atmospherics.

With Whitfield’s thundering lows and the two guitarists’ electronically mutated sound palettes, the band often sounds like it’s remixing itself in real time, a live version of the post-production wizardry that built up Miles Davis’ most experimental albums. The lurching groove of “Stilt Walker” wouldn’t feel out of place on albums like On the Corner or Jack Johnson, its erratic funk drawing spider-walking lines from the two guitarists and building to an outburst of livewire improvisation.

Davis is a primary influence on Ebo, though less for his electric-era sound than for the way his 1960s quintet melded five singular voices. “I love the individual roles that they all played and the way that they were able to have such a unique sound together,” Ebo explains. “It’s hard to build a band and build a sound together, but with these guys it feels like home. With my original music, I always tell them to make it their own and it all meshes together. That’s what makes it special.”

Eclecticism was central to Ebo’s musical life at an early age, from his mother, classical pianist Carol Mitchell-Faulkner, to the diverse range of influences that Justin brought home. “I grew up listening to everything in the house, from rock to jazz to avant-garde,” he says. “Growing up in such a deep pool of music bled into everything that I'm doing now. It’s a life thing: we do so much as musicians and we try not to be boxed in.”

Ebo’s ballad “Beyond” exists well outside of category, with the drummer dancing with a hint of Paul Motian’s airy toughness, while Gelman-Sheehan plays wistful, folksy melodies cushioned in Martinez’s gliding electronic clouds and Whitfield’s tender, elastic undertones.

Outside the house, Ebo was shy about his burgeoning abilities. He attended middle school at St. Francis de Sales, which was the flagship school for the recently established Play On Philly program. When Wynton Marsalis arrived to teach a master class, young Nazir kept his secret even though the school’s small jazz band was in search of a drummer. His family dropped in to attend the event and weren’t about to let him remain quiet: “They pulled me out of class and were like, ‘We need you to play.’ I didn't really want to, but they told me, ‘No, you have to.’ So I played. All I had was a snare drum and a hi-hat.”

After that impromptu debut, Ebo was invited to join the program, but due to its primarily classical focus he was encouraged to pick up an alternate instrument. Thus began his secondary specialty on the bass, which he studied classically through high school and still brandishes from time to time, playing in church with his brother on drums. He took the stage on electric bass in 2019 at the family’s Community Unity Music Festival, a neighborhood-focused event that has brought such high-profile stars as Bootsy Collins and Branford Marsalis to West Philly’s Clark Park.

During those years, he was also a regular at the Clef Club, part of an estimable class that also included Wilkins, Snacktime co-founder Yesseh Furaha-Ali, saxophonist Dahi Divine, bassist Alex Claffy, pianist James Santangelo and others. “I was too nervous to be in ensembles with other instruments at first,” Ebo admits. “But Daren Metz ran a drum ensemble with seven or eight drummers, so I did that for maybe a year before joining the full ensemble. Those were great years, because I met some of my best friends — amazing musicians that are currently killing it and representing this city.”

“VI” is ample evidence of how far out of his shell Ebo has come, his skittering snare engaging in intricate conversation with his bandmates’ knotty lines. The feel of the tune veers from agitated breakbeats to driving rock and soaring lyricism.

Like Faulkner before him, Ebo received early opportunities from the ever-adventurous bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. At Tacuma’s 2016 Outsider’s Improvised & Creative Music Festival, he was thrown into a trio with veteran improvisers Elliott Sharp and Bobby Zankel, and later recorded with Tacuma on sessions that included the likes of Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, legendary saxophonist Odean Pope, and the late bassist Henry Grimes. Zankel has since become a frequent collaborator and mentor.

“I remember seeing Nazir at the Clef Club,” Zankel says. “He was nine or ten, but when he sat at the drums I thought, ‘He swings like a grown man.’ When he started performing with his own group, it [reminded me of] Tony Williams. It’s a thing unto itself. There’s a freshness and a wonderful sense of exploration to it.”

The comparison to Tony Williams and his excursion into the groundbreaking fusion of the Lifetime band is insightful. Like Ebo, Williams was a prodigy playing professionally by his early teens, and a drummer whose straight-ahead credentials could not be disputed. But when Williams emerged from the Miles Davis Quintet, it was with a visionary new band that imbibed the most adventurous currents of the day and forged a new path forward.

While Ebo’s story has yet to fully unfold, he seems to be carving out a similarly audacious identity for himself. As young as he still is, he’s put in the hours gleaning knowledge from his elders and honing his skills in the tradition. His own music doesn’t reject those roots so much as stretch forward with curiosity and restless imagination, seeking out novel combinations of the sounds that fall on his young ears. There’s a thrilling promise in the future that he’ll doubtless play a part in creating.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.