|| Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble
Chicago Now vol.1
Cat. No.: SHCD140
Ernest Dawkins alto sax, tenor sax, flute, percussion, vocals
Steve Berry trombone, percussion
Ameen Muhammad trumpet, percussion, vocals
Jeffery Parker electric guitar
Yosef Ben Israel bass
Reggie Nicholson drums, percussion
1. Improvisation #1 (Ernest 'Khabeer' Dawkins) 6:24
2. The Time Has Come (Ernest 'Khabeer' Dawkins) 14:37
3. Improvisation #2 (My Baby Blues) (Ernest 'Khabeer' Dawkins) 3:37
4. Bould Souls (Ernest 'Khabeer' Dawkins) 7:44
5. Dream For Rahsaan (Steve Berry) 10:20
6. Zera (Ernest 'Khabeer' Dawkins) 10:53
7. Flowers for the Soul (Ernest 'Khabeer' Dawkins) 12:20
8. Runnin' From the Train (Ernest 'Khabeer' Dawkins) 6:04
Total time: 67:06
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"Ernest Dawkins' Chicago Now (vol 1) is definitely in the category of lively,
colorful music and is full of surprises and unpredictable music. He and his versatile
sidemen perform a wide variety of originals. Improvisation #1 evolves from
sound explorations to a riff section and back while Improvisation #2 is
a lowdown but spacey blues. The longer pieces tend to be episodic and a little
reminiscent of Charles Mingus in the way they reinvent the past a bit to form
a new and uncertain future. Dawkins' fiery alto playing on Dream For Rahsaan
is a tribute to Roland Kirk. The final three numbers are consistently exciting,
trumpeter Ameen Muhammad adds power to the group, trombonist Steve Berry blends
well with Dawkins' alto and the pianoless rhythm section is alert and driving.
This is a highly recommended disc that keeps alive the Chicago AACM tradition."
Scott Yanow, Cadence, December 1996
Surprise. Of the three albums on which Ernest Dawkins has led his New Horizons Ensemble, this one presents the group at their most exciting, their most accessible and yes, their most surprising. In fact, "Chicago Now" may startle all but the most loyal fans of this truly contemporary sextet. With this outing, the level of their musicianship seems to have risen yet again. The musical and emotional range of their work has jumped to another level. And each of the individuals in this most tight-knit of groups shows us new details of his personal development as well.
But then, is that really such a surprise? In actuality, the continued growth
of New Horizons (spelled out in detail by critic John Litweiler on the band's
earlier Silkheart album, "South Side Street Songs") has distinguished this band
for more than a decade now; at the same time, it has provided keen enjoyment and
even edification to observers of Chicago's progressive music scene. Yet the sounds
alone don't tell the entire tale. The New Horizons story remains a great source
of satisfaction not only for the increasing quality of their music, but also for
the way in which their development reflects Chicago Now.
"This band has been together for 16 years," Dawkins points out, adding that "Chicago
is just about the only place you can keep a group together on a consistent basis.
You can't do it in New York. The market is smaller in Chicago, and it can't support
that many bands playing our kind of music. So here, musicians have more dedication
to an individual group, guys here just believe more in the group concept.
"The people in this band kind of matured together at the same time, I mean, Yosef
Ben Israel was the bassist on the first professional AACM gig I ever played. Meanwhile,
being in Chicago, our comparative anonymity during those years gave us a chance
to expand our repertoire." By the time their first big break came, in the form
of a call to play the Moers (Germany) New Jazz Festival in 1983, New Horizons
was sound, accomplished, and ready even though no one besides those in the band
actually knew this. "We've just attempted to turn every negative into a positive,"
recalls Dawkins; "we just felt, it'll be our time soon enough."
Ever since it first appeared as the title of a book by Norman Vincent Peale,
"the power of positive thinking" has emerged as something of an American cliché.
But rarely has it found such a telling exemplar as in the music of the New Horizons
Ensemble: music both inviting and dynamic, well-rounded and well-balanced; music
that radiates a powerful and focused energy, no matter how slow the tempo or how
quiet the texture.
You may not get much of a clue about all this from the album's title. "Chicago
Now" merely locates the music in time and space; but between the staffs, these
two words tell it all. "Chicago Now" alludes not only to this particular recording,
but also to the entire progressive music scene in a city renowned for its jazz
avant-garde. And in 1995, no band can capture that big picture better than New
Horizons. With this album, they emerge as contemporary standard-bearers for the
The AACM the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music has experienced
something of a decline in recent years, and to say so takes nothing away from
the music, the people who create it, or the 30th-anniversary celebration that
occurs this year. Founded in 1965, the organisation quite literally changed the
world of modern music, adapting innovations of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor
and Albert Ayler and developing a body of music both instantly recognisable and
satisfyingly diverse. But growing pains were inevitable, and a combination of
factors have taxed the efficacy of the AACM. These include the migration of such
influential early members as Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton,
Joseph Jarman, and Henry Threadgill to New York; the challenges of renewing the
energy and redirecting the focus of the organisation; and the very success of
the AACM in gaining acceptance for its music, which has all but erased one of
its initial reasons for being.
Just as inevitably, however, a new wave of younger artists emerged in the late
1970s and throughout the 1980s: musicians dedicated to preserving the AACM philosophy
and to refreshing the wellspring of enthusiasm and commitment that has nourished
the music from the start. And while no one would want to burden any single band
with the responsibility of leading this wave, it remains true that no musical
outfit would deserve that honor more than the New Horizons Ensemble.
From its origins in 1979 when Dawkins and his boyhood music partner Ameen Muhammad
joined with bassist Ben Israel and the group's original drummer, Reggie Nicholson
Dawkins knew what this group should do. "I wanted to combine the new and the old,
the AACM sounds with the older concepts of traditional swing," he states simply.
Hence the band's original instrumentation, which represents the four main sections
of the big swing bands: trumpet, trombone, reed, and rhythm. (The decision to
add another instrument didn't come until Dawkins first heard guitarist Jeff Parker
a few years later. Says Dawkins: "When I heard him, I thought 'Mmm, he's such
a good player.' Then we talked, and, 'Mmmm, he's such a nice guy.' I could tell
he was looking for something else to do with tunes, and I thought we could use
some kind of harmony instrument. He fit in perfectly, and I didn't think anyone
could do that." But part of the credit must also go to the rhythm section that
Parker leaped into: bassist Ben Israel and drummer Avreeayl Ra combine to create
a marvelously supple beat, whether driving the band from above or superimposing
an elastic percussive cushion undemeath.)
Dawkins's desire to bridge the stylistic generation gap coincided with the movement
toward neo-classicism in mainstream Jazz, and more important, it represented a
turning-point realisation in the history of the AACM. After years of trailblazing
new paths and setting new boundaries, the organization's members had come to a
vital realisation: they no longer had to prove either the possibility or the value
of such experimentation. And that, explains Dawkins, "actually gives you MORE
freedom because then you can do ALL of it, not just the one thing. If you get
labeled 'avant-garde', then people know you only for that, and they can start
to expect that from you only."
So New Horizons along with their contemporaries, The Ritual Trio and 8 Bold Souls
have crafted individualistic repertoires that straddle that line between the new
and the timeless. They challenge and provoke the expectations of both avant-gardists
and traditionalists, bringing new techniques to established forms and yanking
long-familiar concepts into the realm of the new. In the process, they find themselves
reiterating the initial (but often forgotten) credo of the AACM "Ancient to the
future" which underscores this continuum of musical expression.
Listen, for instance, to the second track on this album, which bears the Mingus-like
title "The Time Has Come For All Good Men To ???" ("I guess I'm saying it's time
to put up or shut up," Dawkins explains; "it's not so much a matter of things
being either black or white, but actually a kind of sarcasm POINTING at situations
where everything is black and white.") This elaborately constructed piece is actually
a sort of suite, with the first section dovetailing two distinct melodies and
connecting them with a counter-melody echo; then, after solos from Dawkins and
Parker, a third melody sets up a separate framework for the brass players. This
melody returns as a riff behind the trumpet and trombone solos, and the piece
returns briefly to the "A" section before it ends.
Much of what I've just described reflects the compositional virtues of earlier
eras. But that main theme in the first section comprises fragments of nine measures
each, an unusual phrase-length that immediately throws the listener's expectations
out of kilter. And the solos, starting with Dawkins' own clipped-phrase lyricism,
have an often subtle but unmistakable modernism; they may reflect past models,
but they could never belong to an earlier era.
On the succeeding "Improvisation #2," a not-so-slow blues drag, Dawkins pays his
respects to such blues masters of Chicago jazz as Louis Armstrong, pianist Art
Hodes, and even Sun Ra. ("It's not the traditional interpretation of the blues;
it's rather sort of the space version.")
The remaining music includes some more obvious homages to musical heroes in the
New Horizons pantheon. For instance, trombonist Steve Berry's lovely "Dream For
Rahsaan" memorialises Roland Kirk, discovering an almost flute-like quality in
the densely textured wind chorale that opens the piece. When Dawkins' alto saxophone
blossoms up out of the theme for his solo, his choppy phrasing wrestles with the
stately tempo and sets up a spectacular tension, which resolves in the long-limbed
guitar lines of Parker, and in the light, dancing elegance of Berry's own solo.
Meanwhile, both "Zera" (which uses modal composition to pepper the harmony with
fourths and fifths) and the recently penned "Flowers For The Soul" refer back
to Ornette Coleman. On the episodic "Zera," another gently textured theme opens
into an exotic section at full throttle; but it is Dawkins' own solo that strikes
the Ornette allusion, with its hard sound and blurred-focus articulation. "Flowers,"
Dawkins says, is actually dedicated to Ornette: "I was inspired by his music,
and I wanted to write something kind of delicate in the beginning, then kind of
spatial but intense in the next. It reminds me of Ornette's phrasing." So will
the sax solo, which again suggests the pioneering altoist's own innovations of
saxophone technique not to mention the way in which all this music benefits, if
only indirectly, from Ornette's trailblazing. And when Muhammad begins to reiterate
the theme behind Dawson, it serves to remind us that this band exhibits the same
cooperative democracy that Ornette perfected in his groups of the late 50s and
Muhammad enters on a more typical note hot, brash, and searingly articulate when
it comes time to solo on "Running From The Rain"; throughout the album, he captures
the spirit of trumpeters from Armstrong up to Lester Bowie, stoking the fire whenever
he gets the chance. As for the title, Dawkins likens the song to "when you're
a kid and and you're outside playing and you see the rain coming. Metaphorically,
it's as if you're running from the pitfalls of life, the darker side of life.
It's just human nature," he adds. "And sometimes, it's good to run."
I've saved "Bold Souls" and "Improvisation #1" for last, because they provide
such an effective set of bookends for New Horizons' history. "Bold Souls", the
oldest piece in this collection and one of the first pieces in the New Horizons
book, took shape in the late 70s but has lain dormant since the 80s. Dawkins explains
why: "I wrote it to be played on the soprano sax, which was new to me at the time.
But the soprano got stolen, so we stopped playing it for a while. See, I don't
like to cross instrumentation; if I write a song for soprano or tenor, I want
it to stay there." The tune on which most of the players use the traditional practice
of rifling as a structural element of their solos resembles a minor blues. But
instead of resolving in the last two measures (the way an actual blues would work),
each chorus resolves on the first measure of the succeeding chorus. That comes
as some surprise; so does the fact that the title inspired the naming of Ed Wilkerson's
well-known octet instead of vice versa. ("I wrote it for a quartet gig that featured
Ed," recalls Dawkins, "and he liked the composition and the title" as Wilkerson's
band, the 8 Bold Souls, will attest.)
As for "Improvisation #1," it represents one of the newest New Horizons pieces,
and even one new direction for the band. "Almost nothing was prefigured for this
one," says Dawkins; "I wanted to write it 'live', as we played it in the studio."
Totally improvised, it coalesces out of a cloud of percussion and trombone, and
as it begins to brighten and shimmy, becomes more and more rhythmic; it builds
to a crescendo and ends on the high note Dawkins had set as the endpoint. "For
something like this to work, you have to know who you're playing with, and the
kind of thing they sparkle on."
Dawkins hopes to perform more pieces like this in the future. But wait. Isn't
this exactly the kind of thing New Honzons wanted to get away from? Didn't the
Art Ensemble prove the utility of this kind of music so that others wouldn't have
"Well, the main purpose of the band is still to combine the new and the old,"
says Dawkins. "But I think conceptually I'm getting ready to do some other things
with the group. Now that we have established that first part, maybe it's time
for US to take it in another direction." Surprise, surprise.