Nostalgists pining for the days of “live-in-the-studio” recordings will rejoice: Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins and his New Horizons Ensemble (bassist Isaiah Spencer and drummer Junius Paul), along with pianist Vijay Iyer, recorded this set in Chicago last year over the course of about four hours. It features 10 selections, seven improvised on the spot; three others are Dawkins compositions that Iyer had never recorded or rehearsed previously.
“Dawkness” opens the set with a salvo that could also serve as a declaration of purpose: Dawkins’ astringent, clarion-like tone clears a space, and then he claims it—planting his sonic flag of conquest and breaking into scurries, engaging his bandmates in antic delight as they traverse this newly liberated territory. Iyer hews somewhat closer to conventional tonalities than Dawkins, but he remains jubilantly defiant of Western scalar/harmonic norms. Spencer and Paul, meanwhile, lock so tightly they seem to become a single instrument with multiple voices, melding rhythmic, sonic and even harmonic conceits into a roiling, furious whole.
Dawkins’ sardonic humor is evident throughout, as he ignites sparks and scatters shards over the ruminations of his colleagues, which often tend toward the darkly meditative (although Paul’s solos evince a trickster-like wit). Iyer’s attack can be fierce, even violent, yet the lines he unspools weave and flow, wresting optimism from aggression. At times, as on Dawkins’ “South Side Breakdown,” things verge on the conventional—the piece swings breezily, and Dawkins’ playing is appropriately bluesy and rough-edged. “Transient Sounds,” by contrast, finds Dawkins at his most unfettered, creating and then annihilating constructs with every breath.