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Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble
Chicago Now vol.1

Cat. No.: SHCD140

Personnel:
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

Track Listing:
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
 
 
Liner Notes

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 world-renowned AACM.
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 early 60s.
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 to?
"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.

Neil Tesser, Playboy Magazine
 
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