For years I’ve been meaning to catch up seriously on Ervin’s own albums, notably the series of them on the Prestige label referred to as Books. Ervin was known as “Book”, and this set’s name really means “The Freedom Booker Ervin”. The music shouldn’t be confused with the “Free Jazz/free form” that was starting to appear with some prominence around the time this album was originally issued in 1963 (barring “Stella by Starlight”, added here, but initially issued on a sampler), and for which Prestige’s Free Jazz label was initiated.
In fact, this music shouldn’t be confused with any other movement of any particular past time. It has a freshness not often found these days, and the freedom reference is mainly to the creative freedom of a tenor saxophonist as incapable of musical compromise as was Thelonious Monk. Ervin innovated in expression and substance without needing to be any kind of blatant revolutionary.
During a relatively short career ended by cancer in 1970, when he was barely forty, Ervin worked well with people doing the same serious thing he did, most famously Charles Mingus. The pianist in the perfectly organised quartet here is Jaki Byard, not only another sometime Mingus alumnus, but one of the great jazz pianists, and the most individual. The opener, “A Lunar Tune”, might seem by name to belong rather to the Space Book album in this valuable series, but here we are with Byard’s unique and heavy, confining chords. The startling rhythmic-harmonic structure resists possibilities of melodic development, so that when Ervin finds his improvisational line, it is — it had to be — intense and inspired. Though the complex chords are so much in Byard’s fingers that the composition really seems his, it’s in fact Ervin’s. The empathy is startling throughout this session.
There is a considerable sense of ‘cry’ in Ervin’s sound, passion and melancholy and a focussedness more to be expected from a soprano saxophone, rather than a tenor. I would compare him with Dexter Gordon. Though he takes more emotional risks than that unsentimental master, he’s never guilty of the least sentimentality. He might have learned from Coltrane’s sound, and from Texan and midwestern tenor playing, but he is his own man.
“Cry Me Not” is a Randy Weston tune, from when the pianist’s direction was more mainstream melodic (he has since gone to Africa, not least North Africa, for a new musical focus). Ervin also worked with Weston, and here the plaintive, lamenting presentation of direct melodic lines has a
considerable emotional and spiritual depth. This is the plainer on Ervin’s “A Day to Mourn”, with its obvious allusion to JFK’s murder in Dallas not so long before. It’s almost a suite, with sections at different tempo, in different moods, and profoundly moving. Byard plays wonderfully lyrically, for once you might not know it’s specifically him, but there can be no doubt that here’s the extraordinary expressiveness of a major musician.
“Al’s In” is named for Alan Dawson, the thoroughly admirable drummer who helped distinguish quite a number of Byard dates beside the present one. Through the melancholy opening, Dawson makes a considerable contribution, and then the pace picks up and Byard and the drummer are playing energetically and obliquely as Ervin weaves his way through choruses at once melancholy and driving, tending to produce something worthy of Fats Waller’s phrase “fine Arabian stuff.” The timekeeping work is in the extremely able hands of Richard Davis, very great bassist, another musician who has been at the top of his profession a long time. Davis has the power to lead the band in after a tour-de-force solo on which Dawson makes use of tuned drums. There are also solos of a high order throughout from the bassist, very notably on the slightly modified, energy-filled blues “Grant’s Stand”, where — as on every track here — everybody is on strong form.
These musicians are plainly concerned to say something all the time; they’re not just superlative technicians. By 21st century standards, they don’t lack anything in that respect, or in musical daring, least of all Byard. The session was supervised by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, and this is another of the series now appearing on the Prestige label in his remastering. I’ve not much to say about that, since by today’s standards the music has such unusual depth it’s hard to listen for anything else. It retains the abiding newness of any art which says important things: a very mature player, Ervin.
The lighter note of the added “Stella” is welcome at the end, but since it might well have been recorded specially and separately for the sampler it appeared on, it does allow a complaint unusual in this century. It’s not shallow, but it’s too short.