Booker Ervin: The Freedom Book
Analogue Productions CPRJ 7295 SA
Part of the ultimate audiophile Prestige stereo reissues from Analogue Productions — 25 of the most collectible, rarest, most audiophile-sounding Rudy Van Gelder recordings ever made. All cut at 331/3 and also released on Hybrid SACD
All mastered from the original analog master tapes by mastering maestro Kevin Gray
Booker Ervin's recordings with Charles Mingus and Randy Weston brought him good reviews and a bit of notoriety. But it was his series of Song Books for Prestige Records that broadcast the stentorian announcement that a jazz orator of gigantic stature had arrived. Ervin's tenor saxophone sound was haunted by the loneliness and spaciousness of the Texas plains where he was raised. The Southwest moan was an integral part of his playing. But his style went beyond the classic Texas tenor tradition to incorporate the intricacies of bebop and suggestions of the free jazz that was initiating one of the periods of self-renewal that keeps jazz fresh and interesting. The Freedom Book, recorded at the end of 1963, was one of Ervin's masterpieces. He is abetted by the power and drive of Jaki Byard, Richard Davis, and Alan Dawson.
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Review by Mark Werlin - June 9, 2018
Analogue Productions’ Prestige Stereo series includes three of tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin's small catalogue of self-led albums, transferred from original master tapes by engineer Kevin Gray. The Freedom Book comprises six distinctive original compositions, given first-rate performances by a group of musicians who had never previously performed together.
A clue to the special qualities of this session can be found in the reproduced liner notes; at the end of the text, in all caps, is a credit:
PRODUCED BY: DON SCHLITTEN
That name may be less familiar than those of Norman Granz, Alfred Lion, Bob Thiele, Orrin Keepnews or Teo Macero. I've been listening to some of Don Schlitten's productions for decades, and it was not until researching this review that I appreciated the extent of his contributions to recorded jazz music.
As a freelancer working for Prestige, Schlitten guided the recording sessions of Booker Ervin from 1963 – 1966, Ervin's most artistically productive years as a leader and composer. When the diminishing jazz economy and the widespread closure of nightclubs in New York City was driving American musicians into European exile, Schlitten's commitment to saxophonists Ervin, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Criss and Lucky Thompson, and pianists Jaki Byard and Barry Harris, helped extend their careers even while the music they championed was falling out of popular favor.
When Don Schlitten called the session at Rudy Van Gelder's studio for December 3, 1963, he ran an artistic — and commercial — risk by placing Booker Ervin, best known for his hard-driving "Texas tenor" sound in Charles Mingus' bands, in the company of two Boston-based players associated with new directions in jazz, pianist Jaki Byard and drummer Alan Dawson, and the genre-crossing bass virtuoso Richard Davis. Ervin, who had studied for a year at Boston's Berklee School of Music, was aware of Byard's reputation for being "far out", though he'd only heard Byard play saxophone, not piano. The set wasn't built on a solid foundation of performing together, but on the hope that the players' rough edges would spark each other's creativity.
The opening head of Ervin's "A Solar Tune", with its wide-interval leaps, suggests the stylistic influence of Ervin's fellow band member in the Jazz Workshop Eric Dolphy. It's a declaration of musical independence from the strictures of hard bop, and as the performance moves into high-energy choruses powered by Jacki Byard's stabbing staccato piano chords and Richard Davis' rapid-fire bass lines, Ervin recapitulates the historical development of his instrument, from the harmonic sophistication of Coleman Hawkins to the borderline atonality of Ornette Coleman.
Byard, Davis and Dawson offer sympathetic support on Randy Weston's composition "Cry Me Not", a showcase for Ervin. It's an essay in 'the cry' — the soulful gesture that many players aspire to and few attain. Ervin's tenure in the Jazz Workshop, well documented on Blues and Roots, the underrated Mingus in Wonderland, Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Dynasty, the 1960 Nat Hentoff sessions and 1961 concert in Juan-les-Pins, placed the Texas-born tenor at the intersection of bebop and blues, gospel and Ellington, Hollywood noir and post-jazz New Thing. With Mingus in one ear and Dolphy in the other, Ervin held a solid middle ground. Neither an avant-gardist nor a conservative, he perfected a distinctively personal voice. Listen to the way he allows the final notes of "Cry Me Not" to drift from gentle sustain into wide vibrato, then into silence.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 produced an outpouring of public grief. As Ervin listened to radio and television broadcasts in the days after the traumatic event, he composed the suite "A Day to Mourn" to share a voice missing from the chorus—the voice of African-Americans. An opening lament theme is repeated over a pedal point bass, gently shifting substitute chords on the piano and a muffled slow march drum rhythm. But death must not prevail. The drums change up to double-time, the bass walks proudly, the piano and saxophone rise in affirmation. At an unexpected turn in the procession, Ervin and Dawson lay out, leaving the piano and bass to perform an intricate duet. With fleet fingers Byard emulates a harp's arpeggios while Davis, unmoored from the drum's anchor, freely roams the upper register of his bass. Rudy Van Gelder enhances the mood by floating the instrument in a mist of reverb during Davis' solo. When Ervin returns for a recapitulation and development of the opening melody, Dawson plays a soft rat-a-tat with his fingertips.
The emotional depth and technical subtlety of this performance, the delicacy of the piano chords, the soulful cry of Ervin's melodic lines, mark "A Day to Mourn" as one of the most memorable and affecting musical expressions of the era.
Booker Ervin's heartfelt contribution to the development of American music was cut short by kidney disease, which took his life in 1970 at age 39.
A Lunar Tune
Cry Me Not
A Day To Mourn
Booker Ervin, tenor sax; Jaki Byard, piano; Richard Davis, bass; Alan Dawson, drums.
Produced by Don Schlitten. Recorded at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, December 3, 1963
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