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Ernest Dawkins and New Horizons Ensemble: Jo’Burg Jump

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Even though they’re firmly rooted in the AACM credo, saxophonist and composer Ernest Dawkins and his New Horizon Ensemble may be the most accessible ensemble to come out of erstwhile institution. Sure, they can orchestrate a symphony with whistles, African drums and miscellaneous percussion in the tradition of Art Ensemble of Chicago, as evidence by “Turtle Island Dance” on the new Jo’burg Jump, but thanks to drummer Avreeayl Ra’s flinty ride cymbal and hard snare snaps, and Yosef Ben Israel’s nimble bass lines, New Horizons Ensemble swings fiercely like a small quartet, despite the heavy brass front line.

Sonically, the New Horizons Ensemble fits somewhere between Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus and Ed Wilkerson’s 8 Bold Souls. Dawkins’ playing isn’t as stringent as Threadgill and Wilkerson’s; instead he often opts for a salty tone and bluesy swagger more akin to Von Freeman. But he does share Threadgill and Wilkerson’s wry humor and love for dark textures. On the rumbling, “Jo’burg Jump,” Israel lays a buoyant groove that’s suggests Charles Mingus’ impish fervor, while Dawkins, trumpeter Ameen Muhammad, and trombonist Steve Berry engage in a blues theme that seems to come from Threadgill’s whimsical, yet obtuse pen, before all delivering fiery solos. The charging horn opening on “Goldinger” has the density of 8 Bold Souls, yet the rhythmic sensibility of Threadgill’s Sextet.

Influences aside, what makes New Horizons Ensemble so intriguing is how it’s able to assimilate various AACM touchstones and make them sound accessible-well, comparatively speaking. The misty midtempo, “Shorter Suite,” featuring guitarist Jeff Parker, is the New Horizons Ensemble at their most conventional, even with the intriguing harmonies created by guitar, tenor sax, trombone and trumpet. With all the essential eccentricities associated with the AACM, Jo’burg Jump is one of the best AACM primers for the straight-laced listener to come down the pipe in years.