ERNEST DAWKINS’ NEW HORIZONS ENSEMBLE

Mean Ameen
Delmark DE-559

ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO
Sirius Calling
Pi Records Pi 11

An organization’s influence is reflected in how well it continues to evolve after it becomes old enough to become established. So it is with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. Heading into its fifth decade, its membership has dispersed away from Chicago — though the majority of AACMers, young and old, continue to reside in the Windy City — and some of its more prominent members are starting to die.

Particularly affected is the band that could be called the AACM’s flagship, if the non-hierarchical organization had one: the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC). Over the past decade the AEC has survived the defection of Joseph Jarman, one of its saxophonists, the death of trumpeter Lester Bowie in 1999, and finally the death of bassist Malachi Favors early in 2004. SIRIUS CALLING is Favors’ final AEC session that took place after Jarman decided to rejoin the band after an absence of eight years. Thankfully throughout the CD’s 14 tracks the players — sometimes divided into duo and trios — prove that the AEC’s sum is greater than its parts — even when one part is missing.

A much younger band than the AEC, Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble faced a shattering setback in 2003 when its most colorful soloist and member since 1979, trumpeter Ameen Muhammad, died of a heart attack at 48. The Ensemble has soldiered on with MEAN AMEEN, the band’s first post-Muhammad CD, designed as a musical tribute to Dawkins’ friend since childhood.

Imbued with more bluesy swing then the AEC date, like other more recent Chicago-based AACM discs — only AEC drummer Don Moye still lives in Chi-Town — the CD features young trumpeter Maurice Brown taking the brass parts. An Illinois-native who now lives in New Orleans, Brown studied at Southern University in Baton Rouge and played with heavyweights such as pianist Mulgrew Miller. In contrast the present day AEC soldiers on with Detroit bassist Jaribu Shahid, a member of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory, filling in for Favors, and other players joining the front line.

In a way, it’s easier to deal with MEAN AMEEN, since Brown fits seamlessly into the band. More of a technician than Muhammad was, his preference is for showy triplets and ozone grazing jumps and wiggles that often head into Maynard Ferguson territory. This is apparent as early as the title track, where Brown works his way up to what seem to be the trumpet’s highest notes, then surpasses even that, mixing bugle calls and dog whistles, until he finally concludes in comfortable moderato range. Dawkins adds a rhythmically exciting tenor solo, Darius Savage contributes some woody slap bass and Isaiah Spencer offers fine-tipped ruffs and flams.

Even more impressive is trombonist Steve Berry’s more-than-15-minute tribute to Muhammad’s own band, “3-D”. Sort of a contrapuntal round, its highlight is a buzzing and hollering rubato section from the composer that spreads a brassy resonance. Emotional, tenor saxophonist Dawkins uses a wide vibrato for slurred, irregularly pitched work, breaking his solo up into growly multiphonics, bellowing through his horn, then sliding from upper partials to wet, baritone-like honks and snorts. Until Brown ends the piece with spiraling triplets à la Ameen, both brassmen provide counter harmonies and the drummer lays into claves, cowbells and other off beat percussion.

Other tributes, including a balls-to-the-wall “The Messenger” which seems equal parts Art Blakley-like press rolls and Benny Golson style melody, don’t impress that much. Even with Brown using what sounds like a bucket mute, it’s merely yet another tributes to Bu. Dawkins’ overlong (nearly-16½ minute) “Buster and the Search for the Human Genome” is similarly weakened by round robin solos.

Still the tune does feature a generous collection of wiggled and irregularly vibrated slurs and split tones that leap so quickly that you get a mental picture of Berry and Dawkins jumping in the air to follow them. Soon the ever-shifting horn ostinato breaks up into pinched alto saxophone lines, slide trombone triplets and a racetrack fanfare from Brown. Deplorably, after theme variations that seem to move from Klezmer to “Frankie and Johnny”, space is made for Savage’s speedy, mainstream solo and one from Spencer’s that spends too much time on the sock cymbals, bass drum and snare.

Brief interludes on slide whistle, police whistle and rattling tambourines appear on that track, with more so-called little instruments in earshot on “Haiti”. Along with the bird calls and concussion drums, plush toy squeaks, conch shell blows and berimbau resonation are echoes of what the AEC was doing in the 1960s and 1970s. This impression is confirmed when the track ends with a simple harmonica line — a Favors specialty — wooden flute textures and a concluding drum pop.

If AACM descendents, New Horizons Ensemble can sound like the AEC circa 1973, SIRIUS CALLING showcases the band itself 30 years later working out new strategies. Fourteen tracks and the 35 instruments they play among them allow the group to mix’n’match themes and personnel. Of course the versatility of the members has always been such that at times you can’t tell how many musicians are represented.

“Till Autumn”, a call-and-response groove piece written by Mitchell is one of those instances. Spurred by Favors’ walking bass and Moye’s shuffle and sand dance drumming, it revolves on the stentorian timbres of the composer’ bass saxophone. Although he’s usually an altoist, it’s then likely Jarman who takes the loping southwestern-style push-and-pull tenor solo. But is it he or Mitchell who shines on the smooth, leisurely Lester Young-like tenor solo on “Slow Tenor and Bass”?

With its Sun Ra-like title “He Took a Cab to Neptune” features both saxmen wailing and vamping. Then after a low-pitched, double-stopping bass excursion, Mitchell contributes the echoing mountain-top bass flute line and wide echoes from the bass recorder, bookending a frenzied, slurry alto solo — from Jarman? — that circles into itself with a tone that’s half-folksy Ornette Coleman and half-rating Jackie McLean.

Considering another piece is entitled “Cruising with JJ”, it could be Jarman who plays both the buoyant flute cadences and dissonant Eric Dolphy-like sax licks. That would leave the snorting tenor saxophone split tones to Mitchell. Whoever it is, he has fun sneaking up and down the scale in polyphonic unison with Favors’ bass after the bull fiddler introduces the tune with rumbling sluicing stops.

Then there’s “Taiko”, the longest track, which relates back to the AEC’s percussion-intensive past. During the course of its nine minutes plus, it appears as if any manner of little instruments are being resonated from within and without a percussion cage. Echoing waveforms take in timbres from wooden marimbas, metallic xylophones, ringing bells and concussed gongs as well as more exotic tones — for North Americans —that could come from the balophone. All four participate in this percussive group grope, yet you can also assume that it’s Jarman who sounds the melancholy flute line.

Favors himself titled the CD just before his death with an expression from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Sirius is the brightest star in the universe where the soul goes after leaving the body. Thus it’s almost certain that the bassist, who had been ill for a couple of years before this, was thinking of his impending demise as he improvised. That makes the penultimate piece, “Voyage” that much more poignant.

Written and performed by the bassist and Mitchell, it’s a pensive track built around rock-solid stops by Favors, with the saxist’s sopranino’s double-tongued altissimo with moderated vibrations played in counterpoint. As well as a first-class exhibition of close cooperation between musicians, the composition offers a real sense of motion, perhaps from this plane to a higher one.

Both discs serve as more examples of the AACM’s ongoing legacy and proof that the performance of the music overcomes the loss of any one — or two — players.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Ameen: 1. Mean Ameen 2. 3-D 3. Jeff to the Left 4. The Messenger 5. Haiti 6. Buster and the Search for the Human Genome

Personnel: Ameen: Maurice Brown (trumpet); Steve Berry (trombone); Ernest Dawkins (alto and tenor saxophones); Darius Savage (bass); Isaiah Spencer (drums)

Track Listing: Sirius: 1. Sirius Calling 2. Come On Y’all 3. Two-Twenty 4. He Took a Cab to Neptune 5. Everyday’s a Perfect Day 6. Till Autumn 7. Dance of Circles 8. Cruising with JJ 9. You Can’t Get Away 10. Taiko 11. There’s a Message for You 12. Slow Tenor and Bass 13. Voyage 14. The Council

Personnel: Sirius: Joseph Jarman (wooden flutes, C flute, Eb flute, flute and bass flute, Eb sopranino clarinet, sopranino, alto and tenor saxophones, percussion, wooden stand drum, bells, gongs, table vibraphone and whistles); Roscoe Mitchell (piccolo, flute, bass and great bass recorders, sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophones, percussion cage); Malachi Favors Maghostut (bass and percussion); Famoudou Don Moye (drums, congas, bongo and counsel drums, bells, gongs, chimes and whistles)