LIVE THE SPIRIT BIG BAND premiered A Dream Deferred or A Dream Or A Dream Come True + ‘1919’ at The Tabernacle in Ladbroke Grove.
Fresh from concerts in Brest and Paris, Chicago’s Live The Spirit Big Band touched down at the Tabernacle in Ladbroke Grove and blew the house down with a musical tsunami that controversially addressed the legacy of Martin Luther King’s I Had A Dream speech. Through the dynamic arrangements of the ensemble’s conductor Ernest Khabeer Dawkins’ and the fiery spoken word of Kahari B we were immersed in the rich constantly evolving tradition that is Jazz and forced us to question the relevance of a seminal slice of African American oratory that has had, and continues to have, an impact worldwide.
The ten piece Live The Spirit Big Band unites a host of players from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) – a Chicago based, non-profit organization that supports and encourages jazz performers, composers that is devoted “to nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music” – and this piece by Ernest Khabeer Dawkins, A Dream Deferred or A Dream Or A Dream Come True, more than fans the flames of cultural resistance.
At the Tabernacle, Dawkins and the ensemble presented two original compositions, the second one being ‘1919’, which was constructed in four parts to evoke the context and rage unleashed during the 1919 Chicago race riots. Both ‘A Dream Deferred… ‘ and ‘1919’ delivered powerful and compelling messages and proved to be valuable additions to the incredible canon of work already produced by other celebrated luminaries from the AACM like Philip Cohran and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago.
Though billed as a 45 minute piece, the momentum of the music washed away any time restricting parameters. The music conjured up a continuum from swing era Duke Ellington through the bass driven muscular arrangement of vintage Charles Mingus to the joyous intergalactic spirit of Sun Ra. From trumpeter Corey Wilkes’ mind-blowing initial solo and seasoned explorations of trombonist Steve Berry the whole audience knew we were in for something special. The organic nature of each solo in relation to each movement was truly energizing. At the Tabernacle Ernest Dawkins swapped his horn for the conductor’s baton. So, it was down to a tall slim tenor player with the pace and dexterity of classic be-bop era Dexter Gordon and the superb alto player, Chris McBride, to hold the saxophone section. The latter had echoes of early Black Arthur Bythe and Bird and on the night Dawkins declared McBride’s tone to be, “Sweet like he’s touchin’ his wife!”
The only non-American in the ensemble was trumpeter Byron Wallen. He was in tough company but he more than acquitted himself in his solos by negotiating the subtle twists and turns of the superb rhythm section of Isaiah Spencer on drums and Junius Paul on bass and Willerm Delisfort on piano/keys. It was nods and smiles all round.
Kahari B is president of the AACM and a professor at Purdue University, and this slim, goateed, Seventies flares wearing poet bent to the force of his own words and the weight of his imagery. “The night falls…” and the people step out and “exhibit the super powers they dream of in the day…” At a restaurant with Dr. King joy turns to hate and humiliation … “you don’t belong here nigger” … “I can’t eat around niggers!” and we picture him, head down, the words from ‘We Shall Overcome ‘ going round and around in his head.
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it stink like rotten meat? Does it explode!”
Those words ignited a cathartic fury that manifested as a cacophony of sound underpinned by a raging solo on baritone sax from Aaron Getsug. It drove the piece relentlessly forward but eventually it fell in with a healing groove of gospel funk that rode on a swell of handclaps which had travelled from ensemble to audience. As it breaks down all we are left with our thoughts … A Deferred Dream Or A Dream Come True?
A short break allowed the gathering to savour the unique nature of the performance and prepare for the next. ‘1919’ introduced to those African American men and women who, post emancipation, abandoned the South for industrial north only to meet an alternative form of segregation – life on the other side of town. Those who enlisted to fight for America against the Kaiser came home “to the land of the free but not for me…” and were ready to resist, “ to make it red!”. It was a story that’s not that different from what happened in Ladbroke Grove in 1958 but the soundtrack was different. Alongside the ensemble’s ecstatic drummer emerged a loose’n’funky bass line that shifted shape beneath the layers of orchestration only reappear down the line and draw us ever nearer to a wild climax that declared “America is a revolution still waiting to happen”.
Ernest Khabeer Dawkins music and Kahari B’s words are rooted in near history. The lessons of the past and the nature of each piece demanded we look to the future. The pride and knowledge imbued in the music that Live The Spirit Big Band created promotes a genuine legacy of resistance against a system built on an obscene disparity in wealth and shouts from the rooftops that a change has got to come.