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Ernest Dawkins’ Live in the Spirit Residency Big Band: Memory in the Center, An Afro Opera: Homage to Nelson Mandela

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This orchestral jazz suite, written in tribute to Nelson Mandela and recorded live on the opening night of the 2014 Chicago Jazz Festival, grafts elements of South African dance and melody onto a characteristic Ernest Dawkins fusion of postbop melodic and rhythmic thrust, jubilant swing, freedom-bound improvisation and militancy leavened by compassion and spiked with acerbic wit.

Dawkins, who conducted the 16-piece orchestra, doesn’t play sax here; the soloists-including Rajiv Halim (alto) and Aaron Getsug (baritone); trumpeters Marquis Hill, Corey Wilkes and an uncredited Maurice Brown; trombonist Steve Berry; and pianist Neil Gonsalves-are focused yet unconstrained, and charged with iconoclastic brio. Vocalist Dee Alexander negotiates Dawkins’ asymmetrical melody lines deftly, breaking out into her trademark multi-octave improvisational flights at appropriate moments. Poet Khari B., while acknowledging Mandela’s monumental gift for forgiveness and redemption, is also uncompromising in his rage as he cites parallels between South African apartheid and the ongoing racial and social inequalities in the U.S.

Dawkins’ melodies, arrangements and rhythms, as well as the various solos, evoke the mercurial moods-revolutionary fervor, solidarity and spiritual commitment, victory tinged with unsparing acknowledgment of its costs and uncertainties-that characterized Mandela’s movement and its aftermath. Khari B.’s indictment of modern-day American injustice (“We know apartheid, Madiba!”) and the “sellouts” who betray their own people for the false lure of profit and individual empowerment, ramps up both the angst and the outrage. The overall spirit, though, is exultant. Once again, Ernest Dawkins has given us a work that exemplifies the inseparability of struggle and celebration, both in music and in life.

Originally Published