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Ernest Dawkins New Horizons Ensemble: Cape Town Shuffle

Like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and various other offshoots of the AACM, Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble pursues the calling of a contemporary pan-African aesthetic. Dawkins is a saxophone-wielding AACM alumnus; New Horizons, his primary outlet since 1979, embodies a synthesis of diaspora-wide traditions within the framework of modern jazz.

Cape Town Shuffle finds ample inspiration in the melting pot of South Africa, where Dawkins performs and teaches twice a year. The album opens on a rollicking, Mingus-like “Toucouleur,” featuring appealingly blustery solos by Dawkins, trombonist Steve Berry and trumpeter Ameen Muhammad. A follow-up track, “Third Line and the Cape Town Shuffle,” weaves together the scattered strands of New Orleans parade grooves, Cape Town carnival music, Gospel shouting and straight-up swing. At the midpoint of the tune, Muhammad literally sermonizes, in a call-and-response with the horns: “The Holy Ghost says / That freedom ain’t free.”

The album’s second half maintains this urgency but focuses more explicitly on the Northern Hemisphere, with nods to the 12-tone row in jazz (“Dolphy and the Monk Dance”) and to the expression of modern griot traditions (“Jazz to Hip Hop”). The latter features an enthusiastic but amateurish spoken-word poem by the AACM’s Kahari B., making a weaker case for a jazz and hip-hop cohesion than it could. (It’s telling that the song’s great release occurs when the ensemble shifts into foot-tapping swing.)

As the album’s subtitle indicates, this is a live recording, and Dawkins’ crew clearly feeds on the spirit of the moment. The music of New Horizons spills over with vibrant energies, conveying the life-affirming exuberance of cultural expression.

Originally Published