Ernest Dawkins, Afro Straight

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 11.29.12 in Reviews

Afro Straight demonstrates once more the rousing creativity that can ensue when a supposed “outside” player tears into some standards. Saxophonist Ernest Dawkins is a past president of the AACM and a torch-bearing purveyor of the sort of musical-cultural-political intersections that make Chicago such admirably rugged jazz terrain. Dawkins is already renowned for blending hard bop with more experimental, “avant-garde” jazz concepts, and this is his first disc mostly devoted to standards, with three tunes apiece from John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter along with two older chestnuts and a couple of minor originals filling out the program.

Hard bop brandished with innovative aggression

It cooks with a ferocity that warms the soul. Dawkins retains the rhythm section from his New Horizons Ensemble and adds pianist Willerm Delisfort and a trio of percussionists for a pervasive Latin flavor. But his masterstroke is recruiting fellow Chicago dynamo Corey Wilkes on trumpet, whose celebratory, clarion strut on “United” (written by Shorter for Blakey’s Jazz Messengers) is reminiscent of vintage-’90s Nicholas Payton. Like Dawkins, Wilkes has an affinity for sonic brambles, and it is a treat to hear them flirt with freedom and dissonance while never really losing fidelity to these classic compositions. The two-horn head arrangement on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody n’ You” yields to a succinct and spirited Wilkes solo on mute, soon followed by a rendition of the standard “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” that gives us Coltrane’s ominous, piano-laden opening, a little wayward murmuring among the horns and then an inspired workout on the familiar melody.

These are less successful moments. Recruiting a B-3 organist for “God Bless the Child” imprisons it in gospel cliché, and the two Dawkins numbers – a 94-second percussion romp on the title track and a takes-your-time amble entitled “Old Man Blues” – pale beside the thoroughgoing creative standard set by the other material. But if you like your hard bop brandished with innovative aggression, the rest of Afro Straight has your number(s).