Alan Dawson with Booker Ervin

David A. Orthmann By

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...under the leadership of the volcanic, blues-saturated tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin for Prestige is perhaps the zenith of Dawson's percussive artistry.
One of the great jazz drummers of the mid-to-late twentieth century, Alan Dawson (1929-1996) did not enjoy a particularly high profile, largely because of choosing to gig and teach in the Boston area for most of his career. Dawson combined a crisp drum sound, excellent utilitarian technique, a heightened awareness of melodies and song forms, and the belief that his role was to help other musicians play their best. His heyday was the decade of the nineteen-sixties, when he took part in noteworthy records by Charles McPherson, Dexter Gordon, Eric Kloss, Sonny Criss, and others on the Prestige label. Sides recorded between 1963 and 1966 (available on eight compact discs) under the leadership of the volcanic, blues-saturated tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin for Prestige is perhaps the zenith of Dawson's percussive artistry. Along with pianists Jaki Byard, Tommy Flanagan, and Gildo Mahones, bassists Richard Davis and Reggie Workman, Dawson proved to be an ideal foil for Ervin's extended solo flights. Responding to Ervin's frequent changes in direction, he was adept at taking chances and contributing dynamic rhythmic conceptualizations without succumbing to self-indulgence, as well as always maintaining a swinging groove that, depending on the circumstance, could be taut or relatively flexible.

"The Lamp Is Low" (Booker Ervin, The Song Book , Prestige) is taken at a wickedly fast tempo that, unlike some of the other tracks in the Ervin/Dawson collection, swings in a conventional linear fashion. As quickly as it moves, you can still feel the pulse, largely due to the dry metallic ping of Dawson's ride cymbal. The cymbal is also surprisingly similar in timbre to his snare, particularly when the drum is lightly struck. During Ervin's first solo chorus, Dawson maintains a constant chatter on the snare drum that is very articulate despite the brisk pace. Shifty and elusive, he's everywhere at once. Just when you begin to detect a specific pattern Dawson's on to something else. He creates a course that runs parallel to the visceral nature of Ervin's playing, yet the jittery drumming never stands out too much.

Throughout Ervin's second chorus Dawson becomes much more pushy. His bass and snare drum configurations are conspicuous, working against but never totally breaking up the continuity established by the ride cymbal. He delights in working from the bottom to the top of the drum set, constructing patterns that feature one part of the kit then another, eventually erupting into mini climaxes only to briefly abate and start building once again. Dawson begins one segment with a five beat bass drum pattern that is repeated twice over four bars. Spread out over a few measures, single and buzz strokes on the snare follow, and are topped off by three slashing hits to the partially opened hi-hat cymbal. He begins variations of the same motifs, the snare going off like a string of firecrackers, then again bringing the bass drum to the forefront. Dawson sounds even more agitated than before, running alongside Irvin with a pattern of hard accents between the two drums before smacking the hi-hat several times, accelerating the pace of the strokes as he goes along. The effect is like a kid stomping on his own sand castle, and in doing so Dawson gleefully destroys his carefully constructed edifice.

Taken at a middling tempo, "All The Things You Are" (Booker Ervin, The Song Book, Prestige) enables the listener to catch more of the nuances of Dawson's style. His drumming on the head is painstakingly crafted. During the first eight bars, the rough snap of his hi-hat pedal on beats 2 and 4 is the most prominent ingredient. The ride cymbal is less brittle then on "The Lamp Is Low," and he leaves out the snare accents, including only intermittent bass drum punctuation. Playing under Richard Davis' bass line throughout the tune's second eight bar section, the music struts a little more as the ride cymbal increases in prominence and terse bass and snare combinations begin to kick in. Abandoning the ride cymbal for the bridge, Dawson throws us a curveball. As the stick executes a Latin-like, three stroke rhythm on the hi-hat in the space of one bar (the strokes fall on beats 1, between 2 and 3, and on 4), two quick hits to the bass drum are inserted between the first and second strokes. Repeated seven times, the cadence creates a choppy movement that is the antithesis of the constancy of conventional jazz time. It also alludes to pianist Tommy Flanagan's merry introduction to the track, as well as the halting, nearly inaudible cymbal taps that Dawson plays behind him. The steady ride cymbal returns for the last 12 bars, along with the bass and snare comments, plus a bustling four-stroke fill between and snare and bass drums.

Throughout Ervin's solo on the standard "Just Friends" (Booker Ervin, The Song Book , Prestige), Dawson finds ingenious ways to buttress the tenor saxophonist's mercurial changes in direction. At the onset of a remarkable eight bar segment, he matches Ervin's rapid-fire lines by integrating single hits to the bass drum into pieces of eighth-note triplets on the snare; for all of its precision, this combination produces a clattering, agitated sound. Anticipating Ervin's descent, each of the drummer's two strokes immediately precede a blues-drenched honk, giving the impression that the two musicians are playing in unison. Then while Ervin pauses after a neat nine-note phrase, Dawson jumps right in, continuing where his partner left off by striking the partially closed hi-hat cymbal several times over the course of seven beats. With each stroke the cymbal's hiss gets longer and more pronounced. On the eighth beat, he climaxes by means of a thunderous fill between the snare and low tom-tom.

In contrast to his persistent goading (busy comping, acrobatic fills) of Ervin, Dawson is restrained throughout pianist Tommy Flanagan's two choruses on "Our Love Is Here To Stay" (Booker Ervin, The Song Book , Prestige); nonetheless, he finds subtle ways to influence the music. Consistently staying at a low dynamic level so that Davis' bass can clearly be heard, Dawson keeps the snare and bass combinations to a minimum. The steady pulse of the ride cymbal and light snap of the hi-hat pedal on beats 2 and 4 are executed in equal measure. As a result the trio swings in a settled, even-tempered manner. On the 11th bar of Flanagan's first chorus, Dawson begins a brief series of light cymbal crashes, falling both off and on the beat, each crash ringing until the next one hits, and he ends the phrase with two rapid bass drum thumps. It's nothing spectacular, just a little spice that doesn't detract from Flanagan. The same applies to some very reserved footwork and sticking to the hi-hat at the end of the same chorus. The pedal is pressed off of the pulse, making a clipped crack, and a hissing stroke to one of the partially opened cymbals follows. Repeated a half dozen times, rhythmically speaking the pattern bears a strong resemblance to the earlier cymbal crashes; and though barely audible, the music wouldn't quite be the same without it.

Dawson's drumming on the head of the leader's up-tempo blues "Grant's Stand" (Booker Ervin, The Freedom Book , Prestige) is one of his most thrilling performances in the Ervin discography. Once again the manner in which he contrasts high and low pitched sounds is very effective, as is his changes in dynamics and the ability to gauge the weight and relative impact of each drum and cymbal. Dawson accompanies pianist Jaki Byard's introduction with only a stick to the hi-hat cymbal, his swinging, irregular rhythms matching the pianist's right hand. Then in the space of a couple of beats the music goes from blithesome to insistent. Ervin enters and everything explodes, in part because Dawson smacks the bass drum in unison with the tenor saxophonist's shouting two-note riff. Jammed into the space of one bar, the riff falls between the first and second beats then squarely on beat three; aside from one variation, it is the tune. Into the tiniest of openings after each repetition, Dawson nimbly inserts a variety of brief fills on the snare, toms, and cymbals that rebel against the solidity of the bass drum. Ranging from single to multiple strokes, some of them demand attention, others speak softly.

Selected Discography

Booker Ervin, The Song Book (Prestige)

Booker Ervin, The Freedom Book (Prestige)

Booker Ervin, The Space Book (Prestige)

Booker Ervin, Heavy!!! (Prestige)

Booker Ervin, Groovin' High (Prestige)

Booker Ervin, The Blues Book (Prestige)

Booker Ervin, Setting The Pace (Prestige)

Booker Ervin, The Trance (Prestige)

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