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Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble

The Messenger

Live at the Original Velvet Lounge

(Delmark; US DVD: 4 Jul 2006; UK DVD: Unavailable)

As soon as the introductory fanfare begins, you just know this is a heavy one. Five guys on stage at that great free-jazz temple, Chicago’s now-departed original Velvet Lounge, building a noise with drums and brass and bass and moaning and even a little harmonica thrown in there just in case anyone didn’t already get the message that these Messengers are peddling: welcome to the heart of the blues. You can tell these dudes mean business, clad in the now-universal, post-Panthers, heavy North African jazz-cat chic of dashiki and fez. There’s no Marsalis-style Italian suits here, no hackneyed stance of ‘coolness’. This goes deeper than the jazz the Lincoln Centre would like to gift-wrap for you. This is the real deal; authentic jazz carrying forward the history and heritage, drawing deep on tradition without any of that insidious Ken Burns revisionism.


You know this is real jazz because every tune has that essential quality of familiarity that jazz inherited from the blues, the practise of taking a limited form and wringing every drop of expression and comfort from it. These tunes sound like you’ve always known them. You can hum them bar-for-bar after hearing them just once. This is what makes them real. They are part of a living history being lived right now. “Mean Ameen” is the hardest bop: a heavy drum swing, a modal bass anchor, blockish horn charts, a leaping alto solo, trombone sleaze, and a fiery young trumpet. It is, in all its ragged intensity and immediacy, a perfect expression of this particular art form. The same is true of “The Messenger”, a strolling homage to Art Blakey, patron of those other famous Messengers, with stomping drums and—this is jazz, y’understand—so everyone takes a solo.


But just in case you still didn’t get the message, Dawkins puts down his sax, picks up the mic, and leads a loose, impromptu blues jam with a half-spoken rap sketching out the realities of segregated Chicago in the mid-‘60s (“I always wanted to go downtown”), and the hard-won freedoms taken for granted today (“A lotta dues been paid for you to go downtown these days”). Dawkins is talking about short memories—not just social and political, but artistic too. He wants people to remember. You still don’t get it, people? Well, let’s see just how plain he can make it:


We not just musicians,
We not just artistes.
We carry the legacy of the music,
And we have to edutain.


Then it’s straight into a joyful, uninhibited blues with Dawkins whipping up the band with spontaneous conduction and cries of “Kick me!”—getting Maurice Brown to coax real mud from the end of his trumpet, and Isaiah Spencer to thrash long-bleached bones out of his drum skins. This is going straight home, you see?


And, so, because the tie-it-down-and-wrap-it-up, yesterday-watching, play-a-little-light-dinner-music brigade can kiss his ass, Dawkins lays down some cosmic jazz on “The Brood”—the same message in a different part of the language. We’ve got shakers and percussion, cowbells and ululation. We are exploring here, so don’t interrupt—we’re working our way back to the origins. Cut to “Lookin’ for Ninny”—a hot-blowing N’awlins romp with the three-way horn section blowing straight back to 1927, marching through the audience, straight out the front door, and onto the warm Chicago evening sidewalk, notes drifting into the night to mingle with the spirits.


The thing is, Dawkins knows what he’s going. He’s a veteran of Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene, a stalwart of the AACM, a figurehead. He’s talking about community here, about belonging, identity and respect. This is communion of the most immediate and joyful kind. And it’s the most inclusive community in the world. You may not be Dawkins’s neighbour, you may not live in Chicago, you may be half a world away, but—thanks to documents like this DVD—you can join the congregation. Thanks to this music, you can still believe in the power of spirit and soul to transform our time on this ball of rock and put fire on our tongues.


 

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