Kahil El’Zabar: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

There is an interview floating around online where visionary percussionist Kahil El’Zabar says that after seeing a neighborhood musician in Chicago he knew he had no choice but to be a cool cat. Perhaps a path many have set out on, few have so flawlessly carried that mantle as the veteran bandleader, and former Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Dizzy Gillespie collaborator. 

With his latest album, Spirit Gatherer: A Tribute to Don Cherry, El’Zabar is once again joined by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, with vocalist Dwight Trible of the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, and multi-instrumentalist and son of the album’s namesake, David Ornette Cherry. Celebrating jazz luminary Don Cherry, the album is beautiful in its spatial depth, brevity, and intimacy, three attributes clearly set upon with masterful intention. 

We caught up with El’Zabar to discuss the living imagination of Don Cherry, the music village of Chicago, shoveling Mahalia Jackson’s sidewalk, and the eternal root of all inspired music. | n lekas

Aquarium Drunkard: What does Don Cherry mean to you?

Kahil El’Zabar: He means world acknowledgement. He was a very hip, universal being that understood language on various universal levels, and was able to communicate cross culturally, successfully. 

AD: I’ve heard you mention about Cherry, Coltrane, and a few others, that they moved beyond jazz into spiritual music, that’s an interesting differentiation that I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about. What does going beyond mean to you? 

Kahil El’Zabar: Genre is a specific observance of what becomes the norm in a certain style of music, and there are individuals who move beyond style, to direct communication to the source of the spirit. When you listen to A Love Supreme, or when Trane writes the piece for the girls in Alabama, there is no genre, there is the emotion, and a thought, and the impact of sound on our psyche, on our spirit, you know, on our life force. I saw Don Cherry do that live, and you can hear it in his recordings, he is beyond genre. 

AD: Is that more about intent or output? What they bring to it, rather than what they produce, or leave behind?

Kahil El’Zabar: I feel that a person, as an artist, is extremely successful when their intent and their execution gel. Because there are many folks with certain intent, but sometimes the execution doesn’t come across to communicate that. When you listen to the way he [Cherry] plays with Ornette on The Shape of Jazz to Come, there is no doubt that the intent and the execution are completely in sync with one another, and I’m excited, inspired and moved when that happens. 

AD: Is Spirit Gatherer: Tribute to Don Cherry the latest in a trilogy or trinity, with America the Beautiful being a sort of crucifixion, taking things to task, then A Time for Healing, the restoration, and now Don Cherry, the prototypical new god man? Is that the right way to think of these three albums? 

Kahil El’Zabar: I think that is a good analysis that I would resonate with. It’s where inspiration moves your expression. With American the Beautiful, my youngest son was in the Chicago Tribune newspaper, in a photo where the police were holding back the young protestors, and there was a baton struck upon him. My kids were like, “Nothing has changed Dad. It was the same when you were marching with Fred Hampton.” Which I did. And I said, no it’s changed…a little. 

You know, the discrimination laws didn’t come in until ’68, they weren’t actually enforced until ’69-’70. I graduated from high school in 1969 which meant that legally, when we went to visit our family in the south, I legally experienced, from five-years old to say 15, that’s 10 years of experiencing as a child, I can’t get on certain buses, I can’t go into certain bathrooms, I can’t go to certain restaurants, I can’t go into a hotel. I actually lived it, and my kids have never experienced anything like that. So, I tried to say that some things have changed. It still took my heart heavy to think of my child having to go through something similar 50 years later, as though no one had learned any lessons in regard to humanity. So, how can I address that musically, in an effective way. The realism is admitting atrocities and many problems in this society, culturally, rationally, politically. The ideals can be something to work toward and your beliefs and the possibility of change have to come from your heart, and then they have to be thought about with your mind, and so I wanted to make music that looked at the dichotomy of all of that, so that was America the Beautiful

Then with the George Floyd situation, for the social/political, and the issues of COVID, and basically the reconstruction of human behavior based on an incident that the whole world had to experience together, there needed to be a time for healing. This is an inspiration to me to hopefully find meaning as a communicator.

Then individuals who sometimes are remiss of proper recognition for contributions made need to be acknowledged. As Coltrane and Sun Ra, and recently my good friend Pharaoh Sanders had all gained luminary status for their contributions, I felt that Don Cherry was of the same kind of value. I wanted to bring this back home to an individual that was a friend, an individual that I had enormous respect for, and regards to the pedigree, the legacy, and the sacrifice, and at the same time, the celebration of Don Cherry still represents all of these other individuals as well. Job well done, vision, commitment, work ethic and belief in a higher humanity as a griot in the African tradition, one who carries a legacy and tells the story to the next generation. 

AD: What is the preparation process like for an album like this, is most of the planning done mentally, or is there a lot of working through arrangements in person? 

Kahil El’Zabar: I started working on listening, for maybe like four months, listening to things with Don from certain periods of time, stuff from the ’60s, stuff from the ’70s, from the ’80s, and then I wanted to connect with certain music that I knew that he loved, like you know we did a Monk tune because that was his favorite composer. Then the real introduction of Don as a player was with Ornette, so we had to do something with Ornette. I had to do something with Pharaoh because he was that iconic figure at that time, that was also Don, but Pharaoh was the epitome of that, The Creator Has a Master Plan, Don did a version of that himself, and so “Harvest Time” was acknowledging both Pharoah and Don as being those young artists that had taken the mantle of Trane and Ornette to a younger generation, which would be me. 

The rest were original compositions that I felt were different aspects of my acknowledgement of him. Holy Man, Don Cherry, Spirit Gatherer, because Don could be at a big festival, if he was in the audience, he would get all the people, 100, 200 people would sit around him, he had this thing, he was a living imagination. 

AD: To earn the description “living imagination” is a beautiful accomplishment. So, once you’re in the studio, the guys are there, you’ve all done your listening, picked tunes, what’s the recording process like?

Kahil El’Zabar: It’s always 2-3 takes, and it almost always ends up being the first two takes. We were in my studio. We wanted to get that Rudy Van Gelder, that old Blue Note kind of intimacy in the sound. We had four days of rehearsal before two days of recording so arrangements are tight, placements, a guide of where certain cats’ solos would be, all of that, and then after form and structure is understood collectively, then let instincts and the performance of the session be what it is. You know you are on something when you listen back and everyone is on point with one another like, we got something here. 

AD: The Chicago that you grew up in is the stuff of music legend. What was that like?

Kahil El’Zabar We grew up seeing music in a very holistic way. Musicians, they were parents, and Cub Scout directors and everything that every other human being did, Chico Freeman’s father was Von Freeman, and so we know him as Mr. Freeman that took Chico to school, and Chico and I went to Catholic grammar schools and stuff. You know Ramsey Lewis lived around the corner, Mahalia Jackson, I shoveled her snow. We had a group when we were in 8th grade, there was a guy named Hassan Khan, a guy from East India but his family moved into a black neighborhood. He got married when he was like 16 to this girl, and they would rehearse in my garage, and we ended up playing with Baby Huey & the Babysitters and the girl who was singing backup, that was Chaka Khan, she became Khan because she married Hassan. This was just everyday life in Chicago. 

Our A&R guy, when we were doing the stuff with Baby Huey was Donnie Hathaway, we didn’t even know him as Donnie yet, until he went away to Howard and came back with a contract. So it was very exciting. One of my roller-skate partners was Natalie Cole, we would go roller-skating. 

People like Clifford Jordan the great saxophonist, Herbie before he moved to New York, everyone knew each other, everyone was warm. That’s something Duke Ellington always said about Chicago, that it was a real music village. In Chicago musicians played baseball together, they knew each other’s children, we came up growing with people watching us, and developing. I think that’s why there is so much mythic viability to what those early experiences were with Chicago, from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, until the ’70s, then it started changing. 

AD: Sounds like an environment of mentorship. Is that something that you worry is getting lost in modern—often technologically centered—music culture? 

Kahil El’Zabar: Jazz moving from predominately a mentorship education to the last 40 years of the academy being the catalyst of how people receive information about performance has changed and created a somewhat clandestine approach, rather than the collective approach. So, you’re in school, you gain the information, you go home and you practice it, when you come back there is a standard of what is considered excellence from the academic value system. So now there are all these individual approaches without a real sharing of some of that common synergy that had been a part of how Art Blakey put a group together, or Benny Goodman, or listening the way that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did their phrasing. The school is teaching you how to play like Dizzy, and how to play like Charlie Parker, but they’re not teaching you the breathing that Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had for the phenomenal voicings of BeBop interpretations. 

For me, I’m hoping that the technology today, the way we’re gaining information will allow us to have another kind of temple of acquiring and learning, and that conversation amongst us, both physically and virtually, to look at what we think are those assets, those caveats, those rare nuggets that we can embrace and help one another empower, so that the music remains human. 

AD: It has changed a lot. Are you hopeful? Is there anything you’d like to see new artists learn from luminaries like Don Cherry?

Kahil El’Zabar: Sound, rhythm, heart, spirit, have been the same aspects for inspiration for thousands of years, before the current acknowledged modernity. Young people always fell that their moment is the moment, without the realization that everyone has a ten-year adult -youth cycle. After that, you are maturing, if you can connect to basics as a source for foundation, however you later interpret, you’ll still be connected to that source that has always connected us. Everybody today is so focused on nutrition and health, but when it comes to sound and art, they are not thinking that organic connectivity has the same physics as it always has, and that no matter what time we’re in those physics are relevant and useful. 

AD: It can be hard to reconcile innovation with tradition, is that dichotomy something you were consciously thinking about going into this record, or even in general as an artist?

Kahil El’Zabar: One of the statements of the AACM is “ancient to the future, power stronger than itself.” The paradox of new and old, in constant rekindle to invent possibility. So, back to the point of organic, as we because fascinated with technology there has become an imbalance of the synthesis of what is natural, and what feeds along with the attraction of what can be created in the moment through the technology. Don Cherry was very experimental, I mean he was working with synthesizers, electronic music, he was looking at third string composition, Eastern modal music, he was looking at all of these things, as I do, but there is a core truth to self that can guide you as you invent so that there is a sense of authenticity to your voice, there is a connection to tradition. What you’ve used as resources and inspiration to build roots, and that the branches can be of many colors, of many forms, many movements because it’s connected to a source that allows itself to transcend whatever inspirations come from it. We can find that, and we can help one another find that, but it has to be a dialogue. 

A lot of time, in the attraction [to] the quick source of communication in mediocre consumerism, we lose site of the idea that there is a deeper meaning for what inspires us as artists. And I hope to stay true to that, and to use that as a source for myself. 

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