The Prairie Prophet
One of the best things about musicians associated with the AACM is that they don't limit themselves to one style of music. The Art Ensemble of Chicago might have a corner on the phrase, "Great black music, from the Ancient to the Future," but many of their peers and elders seem to feel the same way. Of course, when Sun Ra lived in Chicago, he had no qualms with jumping from big band swing to outer space free improvisation, and the Art Ensemble could likewise go from space to gutbucket R&B. Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins is the same way, knowing that playing changes over 4/4 isn't passe as long as you're pushing forward with the music instead of merely replicating your heroes. The Prairie Prophet succeeds because it gracefully goes from serious post-bop to the most rollicking of free excursions, and this group knows how to handle both.The album is dedicated to the late Fred Anderson, who lead by example with his far-ranging music, as well as his humility and the way he supported other musicians in Chicago. (Since he passed last summer, there have been many tributes to him, and expect to see more.) "Hymn for a Hip King" is a nod towards Anderson (and, Dawkins says, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X) and it begins the set with a bright waltz. Marquis Hill plays a flugelhorn solo marked by a serious of staccato figures, while Dawkins - on alto - sounds tough. Drummer Isaiah Spencer gets a little wild for such a straight ahead piece, but he never gets in the way.
The 12-minute "Sketches," follows with a complete about-face. The loose theme recalls both the writing of the Art Ensemble and, in the bridge, Grachan Moncur III. Shaun Johnson (trumpet) and Steve Berry (trombone) solo with spirit, the latter accompanied by Dawkins blowing both alto and tenor simultaneously. Things only get wilder during Jeff Parker's skronking, channel-shifting solo. Dawkins clearly loves to play with dynamics, and he follows this wild track with "Balladesque," a succinct two-minute piece that doesn't need any more than a strong statement that lives up to its name.
The rest of the album keeps the spirit going. "Shades of the Prairie Prophet" starts off free and tumbling, only to switch to a Mingus boogie, five minutes in. "Mal-Lester," despite its questionable title, pays homage to Messrs. Favors and Bowie. "Baghdad Boogie" has a groovy vamp with a repetition of the title that recalls Sun Ra. Towards the end, Dawkins gets on the mike for a well-spoken political testimony about the war and its effect on youth.
Too often jazz musicians make CDs that mindlessly bow down to the legacy of this music, and they don't attempt to reveal anything unique about their own identity. (How many tribute albums to the same few popular legends do we need?) Sometimes players who fit the description of free jazz musicians or avant garde get dismissed because they don't appear to have an affinity for the past. It'd be easy to go on a rant here about listeners being afraid of new directions in music, but the point is - Dawkins proves that there isn't a disconnect between any of this music. With the right amount of focus and devotion, you can have it both ways.
It makes me regret missing his Pittsburgh appearance last summer.