Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble: The Prairie Prophet (2011)
The Prairie Prophet is the fifth release on Delmark from reed player Ernest Dawkins and his band. It's clear that over the course of that association both leader and band have evolved to the point where they can be considered as one of the more vibrant, most urgently alive outfits on the scene. This album pays homage to the late and lamented tenor saxophonist and fixture on the Chicago scene, Fred Anderson, in whose Velvet Lounge these guys have also diligently worked at their craft. As a consequence, the music is simultaneously tight and loose and the manifestation of a stirring collective identity in everything they do.
The opening gospel-inflected ballad ("Hymn For A Hip King") features the distinct instrumental personalities of trumpeters Marquis Hill and Shaun Johnson, with the leader's alto sax heatedly preaching in between and the rhythm section exploring all manner of nuances all the while.
"Sketches" is something else altogether but it's pulled off with aplomb. Guitarist Jeff Parker turns in one of the most extraordinary solos of the date and is joined by bassist Junius Paul's urgent outing.
"Mal-Lester" is Dawkins' homage to both bassist Malachi Favors and trumpet player Lester Bowie, both men stalwarts of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a collective which has done much for the dissemination of that city's creative improvised music. It's a piece which carries the hallmark of having been constructed from the bottom up, thanks largely to the rhythm section's sympathy and drive. On tenor sax, Dawkins may not be as compelling as he is on alto, but his solo still more than matches the lithe grace of the accompaniment, in which Parker's off-beat work avoids the obvious as though it was life-threatening.
"Shades of the Prairie Prophet" exemplifies how the band can straddle seemingly contradictory musical territories with ease. In its rhythmic rolling the piece has no shortage of urgency about it, but Parker's accompaniment and trombonist Steve Berry's solo imbue the music with a sense of measured grace which in lesser hands would perhaps result only in the music breaking down. With a band of this caliber, the unit's overall cohesion avoids any potential breakdown.
Track Listing: Hymn For A Hip King; Sketches; Balladesque; Mal-Lester; Shades Of The Prairie Prophet; Mesopatamia; Baghdad Boogie.
Personnel: Marquis Hill: trumpet; Shaun Johnson: trumpet; Steve Berry: trombone; Ernest Dawkins: alto sax, tenor sax; Jeff Parker: guitar; Junius Paul: bass; Isaiah Spencer: drums.