El'Zabar was born Clifton Blackburn in Chicago in 1953. The son of a drummer, he took to music at an early age, and was playing with members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago by the time he was in his teens. At 18, in 1968, he joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). While attending college during the early '70s, El'Zabar was given the opportunity to study mime with Marcel Marceau in Paris, but opted to use the money to study music and African cultures in Ghana instead. He started the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble upon his return in 1973. In 1975, he became the AACM's chairman. He made his recording debut with the album Live Without Fear by South Side jazz improv group Infinite Spirit Music in 1980. EHE couldn't find a U.S. label willing to record them, so their first three albums were released in Europe: Three Gentlemen from Chicago appeared from Germany's Moers Music in 1981, Impressions from Italy's Red Records in 1982, and England's Leo Records released 1984's Welcome. In 1985, Sound Aspects issued the first two recordings by Ritual Trio: The Ritual and Sacred Love. In 1986, the label released Another Kind of Groove, featuring Billy Bang as a collaborator. El'Zabar was on the road almost constantly during these years, playing more in Europe and Asia than at home. As the '80s closed, El'Zabar issued his first headline date, Golden Sea, in collaboration with David Murray. He was also chosen to do the arranging for the stage performances of The Lion King. As busy as the '80s were for El'Zabar, the '90s kicked up the intensity level. In all, he issued no less than 17 albums that bore his name during the decade, including such critically acclaimed outings as EHE's Dance with the Ancestors (1993), The Continuum (1997), and Freedom Jazz Dance with guitarist Fareed Haque (1999).
El'Zabar had established a relationship with Chicago's longstanding Delmark label in 1994, beginning with Ritual Trio's Renaissance of the Resistance and following with Big Cliff (featuring Billy Bang, 1995) and Conversations (1999), with Archie Shepp, Ari Brown, and Malachi Favors. He also branched out to acting in the '90s, appearing in the films Mo' Money and Love Jones, and scoring How U Like Me Now.
In 2000, El'Zabar kicked off the decade with a bang by issuing three albums: One World Family in collaboration with Murray; Ritual Trio's Africa N'Da Blues with Archie Shepp, Ari Brown, Malachi Favors, and Pharoah Sanders, and EHE's Ka-Real. He also co-founded the trio Tri-Factor with Bang and Hamiet Blueitt, and they released The Power for CIMP in 2000 and If You Believe in 2002. He was regularly touring the States, Europe, and Asia. El'Zabar issued four more albums as a leader or co-leader during the decade, including 2001's Spirits Entering with Bang. In 2004, he was named Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune. Love Outside of Dreams with Murray and Fred Hopkins, and Transmigration in 2007. El'Zabar and Ethnic Heritage Ensemble were followed and filmed during their Black History Month tour by filmmaker Dwayne Johnson-Cochran. It would be a decade before the film was issued. EHE and Ritual Trio were also quite active during the first ten years of the new century. The former issued Hot 'N' Heavy (2007), Mama's House (2009), and Black Is Back (2014), while the latter issued Big M: A Tribute to Malachi Favors with (2006), and Ooh Live with Sanders in 2008.
In 2010, El'Zabar and Ritual Trio released The Ancestors Are Amongst Us for Katalyst followed by What It Is! from Delmark from the Kahil El'Zabar Quartet with tenor saxophonist Kevin Nabors, pianist Justin Dillard, and bassist Junius Paul (all younger members of the AACM). In 2011, Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnics featuring Nona Hendryx released It's Time. In 2014, EHE released Black Is Back, their 40th anniversary project for Katalyst. El'Zabar's music was evolving, becoming more attuned to hip-hop and other urban sensibilities and included them as he expanded the depth and breadth of his aesthetic to embrace the complete spectrum of sounds of the African Diaspora. El'Zabar spent the next few years working in academia, as well as touring and composing.
2017 finally saw the release of Johnson-Cochran's documentary. Entitled Be Known: The Mystery of Kahil El Zabar, it was released to universal acclaim on the festival circuit. Two years later, El'Zabar began a working relationship with the U.K. label Spiritmuse Records and released the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble's Be Known: Ancient / Future / Music, which drew rave reviews from independent English publications celebrating the new directions and hybrids of British jazz in London as well as other European and Stateside journals and magazines.
El'Zabar's second offering for Spiritmuse Records was 2020's solo outing Spirit Groove, featuring Murray, upright bassist Emma Dayhuff, and Justin Dillard on synth, piano, and organ. In October, El'Zabar followed --just in time for the American election season --with the poignant, topical America the Beautiful. El'Zabar employed an extended ensemble of woodwinds, brass, strings, and Afro-percussion by a cast that included Corey Wilkes, Tomeka Reid, James Sanders, Josh Ramos, Miguel de la Cerna, Ernie Adams, and Hamiet Bluiett (to whom this album is dedicated, as this was his final recording). In addition to a unique reworking of the hallowed title track into a multi-layered cacophony of altered harmonies and contrapuntal rhythms, El'Zabar included radically reworked covers of Charles Wright's "Express Yourself," the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," and Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue," amid several originals including "Freedom March," "Jump and Shout (For Those Now Gone)," and "That We Ask of Our Creator." ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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