December 2004

Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble
Mean Ameen
Delmark Records

The "Mean Ameen" in the title is the New Horizons' late trumpeter Ameen Muhammad-who, if the vibrant and ebullient music contained herein is any indication, was anything but mean. Muhammad died in 2003 at the age of 48. The depth of love and respect bandleader/saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins feels for his longtime friend is well expressed here.

The performances are fairly straight-ahead but enormously creative within slightly loosened conventions of small group jazz; think Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth band. The tunes (by Dawkins and the band's trombonist, Steve Berry) are largely modal constructs-tightly harmonized horns playing knotty, free-boppish or riff-based heads over swinging rhythmic vamps. Dawkins is a spontaneous, communicative soloist; he's got an aggressive, in-your-face manner on alto and tenor, and a supple rhythmic sense. He swings hard without being chained to the pulse.

Unfortunately, I never heard Muhammad play, but I have to imagine he'd be pleased with Maurice Brown, his successor in this band. Brown has a bright, snappish tone and an aggressive way of swinging the ensemble; his overall manner brings to mind Freddie Hubbard. Trombonist Berry is a fine composer and a plain speaking improviser. Bassist Darius Savage and drummer Isaiah Spencer lose themselves in the group sound. They put swing and interpretation ahead of flash, as the music requires.

Originally published in December 2004

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