The first of four thematically linked albums, tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin's The Freedom Book is an overlooked classic. The Song Book, The Blues Book and The Space Book were all subsequently recorded in 1964 for Prestige, but this seminal 1963 recording is a masterpiece of unconventional, advanced hard bop.
Less free than the title suggests, the album remains challenging and utterly contemporary. While not as willfully avant-garde as his contemporaries Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman, Ervin (best known as Charles Mingus' primary tenor saxophonist from 1956-1962) traveled the same subtle inside-outside territory as Jackie McLean and Sam Rivers. Equally capable of rich lyricism and electrifying tension, Ervin's distinctively plangent tone undulates with dramatic brio. His pithy timbre and slippery, unpredictable phrasing offers a welcome alternative to the Coltrane and Rollins imitators of the time.
Ervin is joined by visionary pianist Jaki Byard (a fellow veteran of the classic Mingus bands), a musician beyond category. Byard was post-modern before such a term even existed; his style encompasses everything from stride to free jazz.
The rhythm section is rounded out by imaginative bassist Richard Davis and the superlative drummer Alan Dawson (Tony Williams' future teacher). Davis' unique phrasing is coupled with an unconventional melodic sensibility. Dawson's fractured rhythmic attack provides an edgy undercurrent, insinuating time without overstating it. His endlessly modulating ebb and flow complements Davis' ability to stretch the time while maintaining the pulse perfectly.
Rarely has a rhythm section been so in tune with one another. On "Grant's Stand" Byard stretches a wildly oscillating statement into a series of descending arpeggios that Dawson accents as the two plummet, trading phrases before Davis enters, transposing their statements. For a line-up that never officially played out live, this studio group reveals a remarkable level of interaction and interplay, more than most veteran touring ensembles.
The album is dominated by a trio of scorching up-tempo cookers, with "A Lunar Tune" churning out irrepressible locomotive energy. Randy Weston's tender "Cry Me Not" and Ervin's somber dedication to the late President Kennedy, "A Day To Mourn," provide temporary respite. This edition also features a previously unissued bonus cut; a brief run through a sprightly "Stella By Starlight."
Re-convening ten months later for the even more exploratory The Space Book (Prestige, 1964), this quartet played at an almost telepathic level. Timeless in its appeal, this remastered edition of The Freedom Book belongs in the album collection of any serious jazz fan.
Personnel: Booker Ervin: tenor saxophone; Jaki Byard: piano; Richard Davis: bass; Alan Dawson: drums.