Ernest Dawkins: Afro Straight

Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins is best known as the leader of Chicago’s New Horizons

Ensemble. Admirers of that group will recognize on Afro Straight Dawkins’ gift for imbuing even his most outward-bound flights with a gritty swagger that invokes his city’s hard-swinging heritage.

Apropos of the title, this is a primarily “straight”-ahead offering, featuring a couple of fresh creations along with choice borrowings from others (Trane and Wayne, especially). The “Afro” half of the dialectic consists of Ruben Alvarez (congas, bongos, chimes, shaker) and Greg Carmouche and Greg Penn (congas), who deftly augment Dawkins’ longtime collaborator Isaiah Spencer (traps). Their Afro-Cuban impetus adds textural and timbral depth yet never overwhelms the easy-riding but propulsive swing that is this set’s primary mode. This extended rhythm section is showcased most fully on the title track, a multilayered percussion outing with a powerful melodic thrust as well.

Only occasionally (as on the free-blowing intros to “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” and Wayne Shorter’s “JuJu”) does Dawkins really stoke the engines and set his sights on more distant realms. Yet he and his compatriots-who also include trumpeter Corey Wilkes, pianist Willerm Delisfort and bassist Junius Paul-discover plenty of sparkling new beauty within the relatively conventional frameworks they’ve established here. Wilkes alternates between a neo-Miles-ian languor and a crisp but understated postbop friskiness; Delisfort evokes McCoy in places, but his creations are strictly his own, consistently probing, lively and deeply colored. Through it all, Dawkins melds life-affirming melodicism with his personalized fusion of wit, good humor and militancy.

David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.