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Ernest Dawkins' Live in the Spirit Residency Big Band: Memory in the Center, An Afro Opera: Homage to Nelson Mandela

Hrayr Attarian By

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Perhaps no statesman (or woman), of the second half of the 20th century, personifies struggle for freedom and human rights as much as Nelson Mandela. This is because the late South African president dedicated his long life to ending apartheid and the injustices associated with it. His perseverance crowned by his success resonated globally.

Saxophonist, and bandleader Ernest Khabir Dawkins composed and premiered a stirring suite as tribute to Mandela for the 2014 Chicago Jazz Festival. The concert is documented on Memory In The Center: am afro opera, Dawkins' self released CD. On it he conducts a 16-piece ensemble made up mostly of his Live the Spirit Residency collaborators. Live the Spirit Residency is a non-for profit cultural program that organizes after school jazz education sessions for the youth of Chicago's Englewood neighborhood.

The music on this album is quite dramatic but it is not an Opera in the strictest sense of the word. The only vocalist in the group is the inimitable Dee Alexander whose agile voice flows hauntingly over the languid orchestral refrains on "Savior of the Nation." Her unique singing style has a woodwind like virtuosity and her solo seamlessly gives way to altoist Rajiv Halim's muscular and melancholic improvisation. Halim weaves meandering lines around pianist Neil Gonsalves sparse, tolling keys and drummer Isaiah Spencer's deep thumping beats setting a tense and contemplative mood. The ambience is perfect for poet Khari Cabral to let loose an erudite and ardent recitation of his fiery verse. The poem filled with equal parts introspection and rage places Mandela's legacy in the context of modern history and the continued fight to end discrimination in the USA.

Dawkins melds gospel and blues with intricate explorative phraseology and inventive harmonies. Similar to Alexander evoking instrumentalism with her singing the saxophone section sometimes mimics voices. Baritonist Aaron Getsug opens "Song Bird" with a call and response as he trades bars with the other horns. The collective, booming sound of the chorus and Getsug's gritty exchanges with it infuse the piece with a strong devotional sense. Trumpeter Maurice Brown enters with a soulful swagger and a cool burnished tone further enhancing the spirituality of the movement.

Another trumpet player, Marquis Hill highlights the angular modernity of Dawkins' composition with his stimulating performance on "Subterfuge." His provocative extemporization brims with intelligent twists and turns and reserved passion. It matches Dawkins' cerebral yet equally emotive writing.

Free flowing exuberance permeates the record and often bursts to surface as on the delightfully riotous "Homage To The Man." Gonsalves' sweeping piano arpeggios and Spenser's crashing percussion usher in Alexander's hypnotic, ethereal chanting and the band's lilting, rocking vamps. Trombonist Steve Berry underscores the turbulence of the piece with his buttery growl and fierce spontaneity. His exciting flood of notes matches Khari B's stormy eloquent spoken word.

Memory In The Center: am afro opera is a vibrant and apt memorial to a truly inspirational man that is both timely and timeless. This intriguing and singular disc promotes social consciousness without sacrificing musical innovation and is sublimely complex while remaining accessible. It is testament of Dawkins' exquisitely creative acumen and courageous sense of morality.

Track Listing: The Sacrament; Mandela, Mdiba, We Honor You!; Homage to the Man; Sap’s; Subterfuge; Mandela’s Blues; Savior of the Nation; Unjust into Right; Song Bird; Migration/Reprise.

Personnel: Ernest Dawkins: composizione, direzione, arrangiamento; Neil Gonzalves: pianoforte; Khari B, Dee Alexander: voce; Raliv Halim, Brent Griffin: sax alto; Irving Pierce: sax tenore; Aaron Getsug: sax baritono; Marquis Hill, Corey Wilkes, Phillips Perkins: tromba; Steve Berry, Norman Palm: trombone; Junius Paul: contrabbasso; Isaiah Spencer: batteria.

Title: Memory in the Center, An Afro Opera: Homage to Nelson Mandela | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Dawk Music

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