Ernest “Khabeer” Dawkins is no stranger to education. As a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) — the Chicago-based musicians’ cooperative that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year — the saxophonist has dedicated much of his career to working with nascent jazz players as part of the organization’s commitment to providing musical training to South Side Chicago youth. But unlike many artists that have found the responsibility of education to be a disruptive force on their musical creativity, Dawkins apparently faces no such predicament as his New Horizons Ensemble has been one of the most consistently acclaimed working groups in Chicago jazz for almost 15 years.
While Dawkins has presented concerts in collaboration with some of his students, until recently his recordings have been strictly the territory of his peers. Last year’s New Horizons Ensemble release Mean Ameen (Delmark) was the first to present Dawkins in the company of younger Chicago players, with a revamped band lineup that included drummer Isaiah Spencer and hotshot trumpeter Maurice Brown. Misconceptions of a Delusion… continues this trend in a major way, with Dawkins stepping forward to conduct a large ensemble of predominantly young AACM-affiliated players, many of whom make their first recorded appearance on the self-released CD.
The disc captures a live performance of Dawkins’ long-form composition written in honor of the 35th anniversary of the Chicago Seven Trial (which sought to prosecute those responsible for the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests) and pays special attention to Judge Julius Hoffman’s separation of Black Panther Bobby Seale from the other seven Caucasian defendants. Appropriately enough, the piece captures a revolutionary fervor by recalling in both structure and attitude some of the era’s most ambitious works for large ensemble: John Coltrane’s “Ascension” and Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz”. Yet through the use of spoken word (courtesy of poet Khari B) and a more diverse range of pre-composed material, Dawkins creates an entity that is significantly more accessible at the same time that it retains the raucous spirit of its predecessors.
Mention jazz and poetry in the same sentence and most listeners either adopt a steely glaze of disinterest or run screaming in the opposite direction. But Dawkins employs Khari B’s spoken word sections quite effectively, as vocal bookends that introduce and summarize the story told by the music in between. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Khari B is a gifted poet, with a vocal delivery that combines the invective of Amiri Baraka with the finesse of some of contemporary hip-hop’s better MCs. His strong imagery in the opening section “Seven + 1” creates an anticipatory tension that the instrumental soloists capitalize upon throughout the rest of the performance; and even if he relies too heavily on alliterative wordplay later on in “Eight”, it doesn’t diminish his crucial role in the overall cadence of the piece.
Musically, several of the young players whom Dawkins has assembled state their cases for wider recognition: saxophonists Greg Ward and Aaron Getsug (on alto and baritone, respectively), pianist Justin Dillard, trombonist Norman Palm III, and trumpeter Corey Wilkes carry the bulk of the solo work with consistent passion. Wilkes, in particular, lays down an improvisation on plunger-muted trumpet during “Shady Shuffle” that offers tangible proof as to why he’s been recently been inducted as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Drummer Spencer also continues to impress with his hard-swinging energy; it’s a clue to his upward mobility as well that second percussionist Hamid Drake — one of the most dynamic and in-demand drummers in modern jazz — is content to provide color and accent while Spencer keeps the ensemble on a steady course.
For his part, Dawkins’ role is somewhat unobtrusive, although his shaping of the individual solo sections — dropping out the entire band to spotlight Getsug and Palm on “Delusional”, for instance — should not be underestimated. What’s unfortunate, though, is that his only audible contribution to the CD comes during the two appended encore tracks. While it’s entertaining to hear Dawkins give the French audience some scat-blues Chicago history, the loose, party-oriented atmosphere of “Encore 1” and “Encore Blues” doesn’t quite jibe with the gravity and depth of the preceding composition. As effective as it may have been in the moment, it ultimately distracts from the overall impact of the recorded work.
But over-documentation aside, Misconceptions of a Delusion… still stands as a powerful variation on the revolutionary advances in large ensemble jazz put into motion over 40 years ago by Coleman and Coltrane, the likes of which, due to the economic factors involved in putting together a band of that size beyond the auspices of Lincoln Center, occur almost as rarely today as they did back then. But even more importantly, considering the strength of the young players that comprise Dawkins’ group, the CD shows that the future of jazz in Chicago is a bright one indeed.