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Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble: The Prairie Prophet

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Opening with the brightly hued, somewhat sweet melody of “Hymn for a Hip King,” the latest by Ernest Dawkins’ longstanding New Horizons Ensemble pays apt tribute to the late, great saxophonist Fred Anderson-not coincidentally, the proprietor of the venue where the band’s last release, The Messenger: Live at the Original Velvet Lounge, was recorded.

Like Anderson’s renowned Chicago club, the New Horizons Ensemble embraces a wide swath of jazz styles, where the bop- and gospel-tinged material can share a stage with the patchwork abstraction of “Sketches,” ceding way to the Middle Eastern evocations of trombonist Steve Berry’s “Mesopotamia.” The latter’s sinuous serenity is displaced by a more modern update on the state of the same region, the Mingus-flavored political tirade “Baghdad Boogie.” Closing the album, the track begins with a Dizzy-style call-and-response recitation of the title before Dawkins intones an impassioned vocal decrying the war in Iraq, complete with caustic paraphrases of “Over There” and “The Old Grey Mare.”

Dawkins has infused the ensemble with some new blood of late, stocking the frontline with two trumpeters, Marquis Hill and Shaun Johnson. His most integral collaborator is returning drummer Isaiah Spencer, who at times seems to share a pulse with the leader. He responds empathetically throughout, and his explosive outbursts form a give and take with guitarist Jeff Parker’s skronky accompaniment to Berry’s solo on “Sketches.”

Though replete with vivid individual statements, The Prairie Prophet is a definite group effort. “Balladesque” in particular is all about the ensemble’s control of dynamics, consisting entirely of a noir lament over a surging tide of sound. That factor is also evident in the way each player instigates the others, such as when Dawkins’ lithe tenor is forced to navigate between Parker’s stark chording and Spencer’s insistent rumble on “Mal-Lester,” an homage to two other fallen AACM members, Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie. Anderson, always one to encourage community, would no doubt be pleased to share his tribute.

Originally Published