ERNEST DAWKINS’ NEW HORIZONS ENSEMBLE

Cape Town Shuffle
Delmark DG-545

Rollicking as only a live date by saxophonist Ernest Dawkins’ ensemble could be, the happy grooves established by the five Chicago musicians here are tempered by an incident that happened six months later. Trumpeter Ameen Muhammad, Dawkins’ closest confrere, who had been part of the New Horizons Ensemble from its beginnings, died at 48 in February, of apparent heart failure.

Luckily there are plenty of examples of Muhammad’s literally larger-than-life character on the four long tracks that make up CAPE TOWN SHUFFLE. What the audience at Hothouse saw in August 2002, and we hear on the disc is a portrait of a broad-chested brassman who had the power to twist his trumpet lines every which way to do his bidding, whether he was playing the blues or exploring the stratosphere.

Take “Dolphy and the Monk Dance”, a composition like all the others by Dawkins. It stays true to the ancient-to-future ethos of the venerable Association of the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), which counts all the bandsmen among its members. A melodic 12-tone row, it’s dedicated to tenor saxist Vandy Harris, another AACM member, who like Dawkins has worked with percussionist Kahil El’Zabar. The composition uses elastic, repetitive rhythms to show how the advances of Monk and Dolphy fit right into the community.

Playing chromatically straighter and smoother on alto then Dolphy ever did, the sax man still studs his solo with trilling and flutter tonguing like Dolphy, though, probably owning to his more extensive travelling, he has more of a Caribbean lilt when running the changes. Leavening the extended techniques is trumpeter Muhammad, who was a Mississippi native. Muhammad comes out with a burst of ricocheting triplets, reminiscent of the work of Memphis’ Booker Little, who was Dolphy’s most famous playing partner. Soon the trumpet man is spraying whole phrases in screech range, the way Cat Anderson, another Southerner did, and then holding extended notes over the shifting rhythms of the others as Louis Armstrong would. After the horns trade fours, bassist Darius Savage, who often plays with AACM flautist Nicole Mitchell, and drummer Avreeayl Ra, who has recorded with both Mitchell and tenor man Ari Brown, combine for some slinky time changes that suggest Monk. Everyone joins in for a freebop coda that reintroduces the head.

This community attachment — a constant theme of the trumpeter, who worked with student musical groups — is reiterated on “Third Line and the Cape Town Shuffle” albeit mixed with the band’s growing internationalism. Almost 20 minutes long, it’s Dawkins linkage of the New Orleans marching band/Mardi Gras tradition and the feel of certain South African fêtes, especially Cape Town’s Carnival. Buoyed by slurring split tones from the alto saxophone and more cowbell rhythms that have been heard in a jazz club in Chicago since the heyday of Baby Dodds, here, as elsewhere, Steve Berry, whose trombone is also prominent in trumpet Malachi Thompson’s ensembles, comes out with some smeary, blues-influenced positions, assuaged by micro-quick quoted snatches of jazz standards. With the other horns riffing in the background Muhammad then reveals the theatrical part of his persona. As the others moan like his congregation, the trumpet semi-seriously converts himself into a Pentecostal preacher, rapping on the theme of freedom and calling for “Amens”. Midway between the sermonizing of Jessie Jackson and the pseudo deacon-act of Louis Armstrong, the solo concludes with Muhammad blasting a few sets of triplets into the air, which bring forth the composition’s gospel-like theme. Growling from his valves, Muhammad brings back the Crescent City Second Line feel, amplified by a rapid, bombastic drum solo, and which is followed by a Mingusian bass solo and unison amplification from the horns.

Mingus’ shadow looms over “Toucouleur”, as well. Featuring Dawkins only extended tenor saxophone honking foray and little instruments like tin whistles and kazoos that join with a beat derived from the Toucouleur tribe of Senegal. Berry’s solo features chromatic elevations, while Muhammad’s is triple forte and triple tongued, showing off his breath control.

Hard bop slides and trills, shaking over the R&B-derived beat of “Jazz to Hip Hop” characterize the trumpeter’s work on the last tune. Rapper Kahari B. vocally expressing the appeal of black music, is very much in a 1970s Nationalist groove, though for all his exhortations about the musical “color of revolution” the most impressive parts of this toe-tapping, finger-snapping tune are the instrumental riffs and solo behind and around him.

As good a laser replication of a go-getting New Horizons Ensemble performance as you can imagine, despite a few lapses, this CD serves as a fitting memorial to the trumpeter whose name meant “one who strives for honesty”. But it leaves unanswered how well the band is going to function now that Muhammad’s oversized personality and football player bulk has left the building.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Toucouleur 2. Third Line and the Cape Town Shuffle 3. Dolphy and the Monk Dance 4.Jazz to Hip Hop*

Personnel: Distance: Ameen Muhammad (trumpet); Steve Berry (trombone); Ernest Dawkins (alto saxophone and tenor saxophones); Darius Savage (bass); Avreeayl Ra (drums); Kahari B. (poetry)*