"Given the strength of South Side Street Songs, it is almost frightening to think that this band probably still has a lot of unrealized potential. Certainly the broad stylistic terrain mapped out here would reward further exploration. In the meantime, we have this noteworthy milestone, which ranks with the best of Silkheart's stellar jazz catalog."
Glenn Good, Cadence, June 1994
And now Chicago presents Ernest Dawkins and the New Horizons Ensemble. Like their illustrious predecessors, they play hot band music, and they, too, are among the finest jazz bands of their time, anywhere. It's exciting music to hear - New Horizons' music is enthusiastic, energetic, and perhaps inevitably, Chicago being the kind of city it is, rich with the substance of the blues.
This disc's title is perfect: "I want to call it SOUTH SIDE STREET SONGS," says Ernest Dawkins. the delightfully startling alto saxophonist, composer, and leader of New Horizons. "The compositions came out of the environment that I grew up in as a little boy, hearing the watermelon man, the fire engines, the riots, the first man on the moon, the scenes on the streets - the sweet and sour kinds of sounds, the melodious and atonal things that you see and hear, and some things are bizarre, too - all of that."
There was music around him, too. Anthony Braxton and Chicago bop tenorman Sonny Seals lived nearby, and Emest heard them practising their saxophones. Since he grew up in the '50s and '60s, his first loves included the likes of Smoky Robinson and the Temptations. On the other hand, his father played Charlie Parker records for him and took him to that grandest of Chicago theaters, the original Regal, to hear Count Basie and Duke Ellington (many years later, Ernest was told that trumpeter Willie Cook was a distant relative). In boyhood he had a chum, Ameen Muhammad, and, "When I was eight I used to play bass and Ameen used to play guitar. After that I started playing drums and he started playing clarinet." About 1973, when Ernest settled on the saxophone, "My father said, 'I'm not buying you anything else, you're going to have to get it yourself'. My first saxophone was an old World War II silver Conn that my friend's father sold to me for $15 it's still a good horn."
By then, jazz was clearly Ernest's music While practising in Washington Park one day he met bassoonist James Johnson, who encouraged him to attend the AACM School. There, on his first day, Ernest's teachers "tried to have me play 'Hot House', or some other hard Bird tune I was just learning. I was, 'Okay, you got me this time, but I'll be back."' He enrolled at the Vandercook College of Music, "got my thing together, and after 6 or 7 months I came back." His AACM teachers included Joseph Jarman, Chico Freeman, and Douglas Ewart, "It was original, and I was young and inquisitive I went everywhere to see everything "I came through a tradition - there are certain things you're supposed to do, certain people to study with. You're supposed to go to Von Freeman's jam sessions on Monday nights, then you're supposed to play in the AACM Big Band, and I played in Jimmy Ellis's workshop band. Then we had our own jam sessions, that's the only way to learn how to play, hands-on "
By 1979 he'd met Ben Israel and the expansive drummer Reggie Nicholson, and with old friend Muhammad he formed New Horizons; in another year or so Steve Berry joined. From the beginning New Horizons' fire was manifest. They embraced free jazz, modes, and hard bop, for, says Emest, "That's one thing Muhal taught me: Play it all, don't limit yourself. Some guys learn a period and style of jazz and they become that period and style. I was told, you learn it, then even if always you try to throw it away, it's always there. People can't pigeonhole us, because we carry the elements of traditional jazz but we also have the elements of the other side of music " New Horizons grew together. Its foundation was the very best possible kind: the terrific swinging drive of Ben Israel's bass, over which it would surely be impossible to play without fire and swing. The ecstatic abstractions of Muhammad's trumpet grew in time to embrace more lyrical lines, while the lyricism of Berry grew in ingenuity and expressiveness and Dawkins' alto sax art gained potent structural definition.
Throughout the '80s they played plenty of concerts, then added club dates, festival dates, and toured in Europe and America. Late in the decade, when Nicholson moved to New York, Avreeayl Ra was moving back to Chicago after extensive tours with Sun Ra's Arkestra; the master of a world of rhythmic intrigue, he inflamed New Horizons with his excitement. In 1992, then, Dawkins met Jeff Parker: "When I heard him, I said, 'That's the other ingredient, a little spice in this jambalaya.' All the ingredients unto themselves are meals, and when you mix it up, you make this dish."
Ah, those ingredients. The growly solo that Muhammad molds out of a rude phrase in the first "Maghostut", the heat and mocking humor of his "Whence to Whither" solo, the marvelous interplay of trumpet and drums in "El Hajj". If Muhammad virtually defines 'hot jazz', Berry at least seems more intimate yet even his somber solo at the beginning of "Whence to Whither" is superbly varied in phrasing, and there are his very much alive solos in both "Maghostut"s. In contrast to his mates' rugged extroversion Jeff Parker plays guitar with a sweet sound - note especially his lovely tones and melodies in "Whence to Whither". Dawkins' phrase structures are recurringly call-answer in shape and his solo forms theme-derived, cherish Ameen Muhammad his bite and staccato lyricism "Goldinger", his brief passage of lovely, singing alto that concludes "Half-Step for Granny", his long, dramatically staged "Just Is Me" solo, eventually propelled by Ra into the extreme alto ranges, and the richness of sound and near-bop phrasing of his (for a change) tenor sax in "Maghostut". Ra, whose ever-active interplay inspires so much of this music, makes "Ashes and Dust" his showpiece, while Ben Israel, whose swing and harmonic instincts are crucial to this disc's success, offers a fine solo in "Just Is Me".
All are lyric improvisers, oriented to swinging. It's the compositions that unite them into a band, and Ernest's writing has grown in color, detail, and authority over the years. Originally, he says, he composed brief tunes; now, "I try to do more extended pieces. The writing is a little more angular now. Most of my harmonies are melodic, but some weren't as atonal as they are now. I think a composition can stretch the group's imaginations and capabilities out into another approach, to another level. I want to go a little further. When I get to the level of Braxtoniancy, then I know I'm there."
This program is a typically varied selection of inside and outside grooves. "'Ashes and Dust' is one of our old standards - we've been playing it since the group started. Though its inspiration was a meditation on 'the end of life as we know it on this earth - the bodies turn to ashes and dust, but the spirit lives on', the performance proves to be a musical forest fire, Ra pouring gasoline on the flames. And New Horizons has been playing "Just Is Me", with its stunning opening phrase, since the mid- 1980s. The rest of these works were composed in 1992. "Half Step for Granny" is dedicated to Ernest's late grandmother, Linnie Benjamin. "El Hajj" is El Hajj Malik El Shabazz - Malcolm X - and the tempo is medium-up, the harmonic setting earthy. The fast "Goldinger", not to be confused with gilded fingers, was composed for a black artists' group concert at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Two works are, I think, especially formidable settings for New Horizons' mastery. "Whence to Whither" is an abridged version of a long work that Ernest composed for a Meet The Composer grant. New Horizons first played it at Southend Musicworks, which with Hot House, is Chicago's leading new music showcase. It is a succession of moods and tempos, recurringly changing, and arriving at some complex interplay of truly sustained improvising.
The other is "Maghostut" (the 'g' is silent), dedicated to Malachi Favors Maghostut, the master bassist who replaced Ben Israel on New Horizons' first European tour in 1986; it's also dedicated to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Not only do the two versions here capture the Art Ensemble's subversive humor, with bursts of chatters, growls, collective wailing, and perverse tempos - the theme is one of those get-next-to-you lines that sounds as if it was more discovered than composed-something inherent in jazz's chromosomes, like Monk's "Blue Monk", Morton's "Dead Man Blues", Fred Anderson's "Saxoon", Henry Threadgill's "Bermuda Blues". It's no accident that New Horizons offers an encore version of "Maghostut" on this disc, for the way they play it, with their contrasting sounds and lyricism, their wit and fire, certainly does call for more. Hot jazz, indeed!, from one of the most gifted and stimulating jazz bands of the 1990s.
Author of Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life
1. Whence to Whither 14:03
2. Maghostut 08:50
3. Goldinger 06:17
4. Half-Step for Granny 03:49
5. Ashes and Dust 05:46
6. El Hajj 04:54
7. Just is Me 13:06
8. Maghostut Two 08:59
Ernest Dawkins alto sax, tenor sax, flute
Steve Berry trombone
Ameen Muhammad trumpet
Jeffery Parker electric guitar
Yosef Ben Israel bass
Avreeayl Ra drums