Ernest Dawkins has what one could describe as a healthy attitude towards both old traditions and new pastures. His style of jazz has the modern touch, not the avant-garde gut-punch. His treatment of melody and overall structure is symmetrical and accessible without being starchy and stifling. He certainly doesn’t seem to play favorites when it comes to his jazz heritage, and his willingness to let his sidemen take the spotlight so often suggests that the same attitude applies to his band. This is the kind of perfectly balanced style you can reach when it has been woodshedded at and fostered by Chicago’s Velvet Lounge. The Prairie Project is dedicated to the late Fred Anderson, who apparently gave you license to get up on stage and do whatever the hell you wanted purely for art’s sake. He was “the Lone Prophet of the Prairie,” according to DownBeat’s Aaron Cohen.
Although his music won’t be confused for freeform noise anytime soon, Dawkins does shoot from the hip when putting his saxophone to his mouth. This technique likely shapes the aggressive melody lines of “Shades of the Prairie Prophet” and “Sketches”, two pieces which boast challenging horn lines reminiscent of the way Charles Mingus would push the technical abilities of his horn players. Even the easy-going nature of “Hymn for a Hip King” clouds the polyphony at play.
“Balladesque” is, you guessed it, the album’s token ballad – Dawkins exploring the “feminine” side of the horn, as he calls it. Trombonist Steve Berry composed “Mesopotamia”, giving the album a chance to stretch its contemplative side a little more. Not that the album would suffer from a lack of diversity in the absence of these two songs. “Mal-Lester”, a tribute to AACM and Art Ensemble of Chicago masters Malachi Favors and Lester Bowie, rolls along like all of the other post-bop greats with skills and melody lines to burn.
The only tune I haven’t mentioned yet is the last, lengthiest, and most controversial of the seven on The Prairie Project. If you are thinking that “Baghdad Boogie” may look like a strange title for a song since it combines a happy dance name with a place of such political and military unrest, you would be right. Dawkins nails this juxtaposition in such a way that he, according to the liner notes, lost a gig over this song. The song brings the funk, the groove, and the cool before bringing in the biting lyrics almost ten minutes into the thing. “The Old Grey Mare” and the WWI anthem “Over There” are referenced around the main refrain “Baghdad boogie / sure ain’t pretty”. After that, a condemnation is laid upon the 21st century human race for its inability to stop the killing. It’s hard to believe someone in this day and age getting dropped from a bill because they wrote a song pleading for peace and understanding, a message popular music has been carrying since the Summer of Love. But whoever said things were fair or had to make sense? In the entertainment industry, no less?
Well, nuts to the politics. The New Horizons Ensemble has talent and guts on their side. Dawkins’ songs are sharp and challenging; Marquis Hill and Shaun Johnson share trumpet lines with grit in their horns, and Berry barnstorms his way through every solo without falling victim to obnoxious showmanship. Only guitarist Jeff Parker doesn’t seem to be used to his full potential, though he seems to meet every criteria to make Ernest Dawkins’ tunes really swing. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the veracity and versatility of his other projects. Otherwise, it’s nice to hear an old school vet like Dawkins point his horn towards new horizons.