Live the Spirit at Hothouse: June 2002
reviewed by Rahsaan Clark Morris
I had been hearing about Ernest Khabeer Dawkins’ Live The Spirit Band and, in fact, I had seen various combinations of the group at places like Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge and of course, Hothouse. But, earlier this summer there was a CD release set thrown by the Hothouse for the band’s last project—a recording of a live concert from late 2001, after 9-11.
I’ve always enjoyed Khabeer’s work with Kahil el Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, the Ritual Trio, and of course with his own great group New Horizons Ensemble. The man’s work is marked by a continuous originality and freshness that is somehow unmatched by even some of his AACM peers.
This originality is probably due in no small measure to the fact that his focus is on the now as far as Black music is concerned—you will never hear a song from anybody’s “standard” songbook, nor some Tin Pan Alley redux—and to the fact that he is a teacher of younger musicians, bringing their adventurousness into his arrangements, much the same way Duke Ellington would famously write pieces with, say, Johnny Hodges or Juan Tizol in mind, creating settings in which his young charges will shine. What I saw that night at the Hothouse exceeded my already high expectations.
I actually missed the first set where the group performed original compositions by some of the members, but the music performed in the second set was a suite of tunes written by Khabeer and dedicated to the memory of those who perished on September 11th and in the ensuing violence, and to a search for a lasting peace.
The arrangements for the three main tunes, “The Castle”, “Unfinished Love Poem”, and “The Eagles”,— this last being a collection of six separate movements— would have been daunting for a more experienced ensemble; yet in the hands of this youthful group (average age no more than twenty-five years), they were tightly and cohesively performed; the many ensemble passages sounding nicely rehearsed and smooth.
This is obviously due in part to the leadership within the ranks, as flutist Nikki Mitchell and saxophonist/band Assistant Director David Boykin, both leaders and composers in their own right, hold down important chairs in the band and bring their own improvisational talents to bear during certain sections.
All this is part of an AACM-inspired continuum, going back to the late-Sixties when the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians’ Big Band, led by Muhal Richard Abrams, would convene in the Pumpkin Room, the lounge of a bowling alley at 71st and Jeffrey. At any given time in that band, you might find the likes of Joseph Jarman, Kalaparusha, and Anthony Braxton on saxes and reeds, Malachi Favors Maghustut on bass, Muhal on piano, and Steve McCall on drums.
Another aspect of that tradition carried on under the Khabeer Dawkins-led AACM, besides the all-important ones of education and maturation of the younger musicians in the community, is that of humility. As with Braxton or Kalaparusha Ara Difda, you are a leader, writing and leading players in performing your own compositions on one date; the next date you’re seated in the third reed chair with Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, being conducted by Muhal.
In other words, individual accomplishment has always been stressed alongside selfless group ethic and purpose, a good definition for community as well as good musicianship. (I seem to remember a re-convening of a small version of the Muhal-led Big Band in New York in a small theatre on upper Broadway in the early Eighties, and it was a joy to see some of the old members of those Pumpkin Room days mixed in with the likes of Adegoke Colson, Douglas Ewart, and Steve Coleman.)
These same traits are obviously still stressed within Khabeer’s project. Looking at the make-up of this band, one saw some of the brightest young stars coming out, along with some of the veterans already mentioned: in the trumpet section, there was Maurice Brown, and—at least on the CD—David Young, with a young brother who has a sound that is a cross between Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan and who also bears maybe a purposeful resemblance to Roy Hargrove— the hot Texas-bred trumpeter.
There was the young baritone player Aaron Getsug, already a standout in Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, taking a beautiful solo in the opening section of “The Eagles”; he was seated with David Boykin and young altoist William Porter. The trombone section yielded another member of Black Earth filling out the bottom of the ensemble passages admirably, Tony Herrera, who is also adept at playing conch shells, probably following in the footsteps of another trombonist Steve Turre.
I’ve touted the talents of young drummer Isaiah Spencer elsewhere and his work here with fellow percussionist Myron Cherry was consistently interesting throughout the different movements of the suite. Young bassist Kurt Schweitz will be heard more and more as time goes on and he kept the bottom alive that night. Pianist Brian Nichols, holding down the chair for regular pianist Miles Tate III, was exemplary in his one solo spot, displaying a love for the stylings of Bill Evans in his meandering poignancy. And finally, I have to point up the stylish piccolo work of Nikki Mitchell in a later section of “Eagles”. Her speed and accuracy of note selection were amazing to behold. When she returned on flute for the final ensemble section, her free playing contributed to the over-all effect of the group, sounding similar to the final crescendo on John Coltrane’s "Ascension".
I mentioned that you will hear more from bassist Schweitz. I will amend that to say, thankfully, we will hear more from all these young men and women of the new AACM under the tutelage of Khabeer Dawkins. After all, the motto of the organization is “Great Black Music.... Ancient To The Future”. Just you wait.