Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble: Mean Ameen

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.