Graded on a Curve:
Booker Ervin,
The Freedom Book

While he’s remembered foremost as a key contributor to the bands of jazz titan Charles Mingus, tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin also recorded a slew of outstanding albums as a leader, none of them better than his 1963 outing The Freedom Book. If the accumulated weight of post-bop’s golden era can sometimes feel like an unfathomable musical avalanche, this casually faultless quartet outing is unquestionably one for the hearing.

If Booker Ervin had somehow managed to appear on only one specific LP in his career as a horn man, his historical significance would still be solidly in the pocket. That record is Mingus Ah Um, the 1959 classic from bassist Charles Mingus, an album that’s rightfully considered as a core document of the whole jazz experience. But Ervin not only thrived as the go-to tenor guy for Mingus’ most creatively fertile period, he also cemented his reputation through a wealth of sessions as both a crucial sideman and as a leader, debuting under his own name in 1960 with the superb The Book Cooks for the Bethlehem label and following it up with Cookin’ on Savoy later that same year.

If 1961’s That’s It found him bouncing around the label scene as a leader (this third record was issued by Candid) he kept busy not only with Mingus but also through appearances on vital dates by pianist Mal Waldron (The Quest), vibist Teddy Charles (Metronome Presents Jazz in the Garden at the Museum of Modern Art), drummer Roy Haynes (Cracklin’), and fellow tenor man Bill Barron (Hot Line). His fourth LP Exultation! hit racks in ’63 and with its release Ervin found a sturdy home through the Prestige imprint. His next four albums were all completed through the backing of that legendary company and they form a thematic quartet of releases that stand for many listeners as the collected highpoint of Ervin’s career as a bandleader.

The Freedom Book inaugurates this group of four, followed in quick succession by The Song Book, The Blues Book, and The Space Book, and for those unacquainted with Ervin’s work the series easily serves as the best place to begin. And while it’s not essential to the experience, sequential listening greatly enhances the achievement of these sleek beauties, their diverse and dynamic contents laid to tape in under a year’s span. And The Freedom Book not only provides an ample helping of Ervin’s edgy, blues-inflected tone, but it presents the debut of what’s arguably his strongest overall band.

For starters, there’s fellow Mingus alum Jaki Byard, simply one of the most interesting pianists of the ‘60s, as anyone that’s heard the Mingus Sextet’s 2CD Cornell 1964 or any of his own prime works for Prestige will attest. As a living breathing textbook of jazz styles, in some ways Byard is similar to multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk (with whom he frequently played), though he’s far less of a showman and more a stately maverick of uncommon subtlety and versatility. On his own he could run the gamut from ragtime to free, but when working in support he always adjusted his talents to the vision of the leader without sacrificing his own personality; he could connect with the unconventional ideas of an composer like Don Ellis, lend context to a harbinger of the New Thing ala Sam Rivers, and flesh out the strategies of a Texas tenor like Ervin.

Bassist Richard Davis has anchored so many top flight records that his status is ultimately immeasurable. Not only a contributor to undisputed masterworks by Eric Dolphy (Out to Lunch) and Andrew Hill (Point of Departure), he was also Stravinsky’s bassist of choice and played a defining role in the achy splendor of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Equally comfortable behind a trad vocalist like Sarah Vaughan, an R&B inflected tenor like Jimmy Forrest, or a more cerebral musician like vibist Bobby Hutcherson, Davis is what’s called an all around mensch.

If drummer Alan Dawson is a rather unheralded name, it should be noted that like Byard and Davis he was also an teacher; he just jumped into academe much sooner than his counterparts, signing up at Boston’s Berklee School of Music in the late ‘50s, far ahead of the jazz educational curve. And because of this, Dawson’s status for many is relegated to being the tutor of the great Tony Williams. But that’s a rather disrespectful miscalculation, for he played on a bunch of high quality records; the majority of them just didn’t catch the world on fire. In addition to Ervin, he backed some of Byard’s best sessions, assisted dates from august names like Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt, and sounds particularly strong on one of Illinois Jacquet’s best late albums Bottoms Up.

The result of putting these four in a room is unsurprisingly exquisite. Opener “A Lunar Tune” has Ervin presenting a teetering, somewhat knotty opening theme before falling in with the rest of the band and laying down an extended, fiery solo. There are detectable similarities to John Coltrane in his tone, though Ervin is a bluesier player, if no less inclined to experiment. Like Jackie McLean, he’s been described as an inside-outside guy, and his flirtations with the textures of the emerging avant-garde always feel natural and individual; “A Lunar Tune” makes clear that The Freedom Book is a study in advanced bop, a serious album interested in extending the possibilities of the form instead of just elevating it’s norms. After Ervin drops out, Byard solos with typical grace before Davis and Dawson get down to some fine rhythm business. In fact, Dawson shines throughout the track, using his full kit without ever feeling busy or overextended. Then Ervin comes back in with the head to wrap things up.

As is expected with post-bop studio outings, “A Lunar Tune” gives way to a change in tempo, the group working through Randy Weston’s ballad “Cry Me Not” (notably, the four other tracks are all Ervin originals). Here the saxophonist explores the gentleness required of the composition without slipping into sentimentality or cliché, his tone ranging from bold to introspective, and indeed all the players are actively involved in shaping the song’s success, never falling into the role of inexpressive support.

“Grant’s Stand” is what’s called a blowing tune, the sort of deceptively nonchalant excursion that can raise the heat and bring down the house, and in this Ervin nods to the stomping tradition of his Texas roots. And again, The Freedom Book doesn’t really divert from post-bop formula as much as it just pushes it forward with unvarnished mastery; here as on “A Lunar Tune” Ervin opens with an extended and ripping though never flustered solo and then lays out for Byard, who opens a little like Monk and then shifts into something a bit reminiscent of McCoy Tyner minus the block chords before hinting at some angularity that’s mildly associative of early Cecil Taylor or the yet to make the scene Don Pullen. To sum up Byard in two words; incalculably valuable. From there Davis’ brief spot soars with creativity, never falling into the giant rubber band tropes that often plague the bass solo. After some nice give and take between Ervin and Dawson, the tune concludes having packed a wealth of ideas into just eight minutes.

“A Day to Mourn” was written as a tribute to John F. Kennedy and recorded less than two weeks after his assassination. It’s a spacious, meditative dedication and a fitting one in how it avoids any sense of predictability; the tempo thoughtfully shifts, Davis’ pizzicato bass work and the diversity of Dawson’s percussion register less as solos or strategies than as highly effective shadings of mood, and Byard moves from contemplative to jaunting with nary a hiccup. But it’s in the sound of Ervin’s horn that the composition really succeeds in hitting home a half century after it was recorded. Innovation can be a fleeting thing, but inspiration and sincerity cut through the fog of time.

Closer “Al’s In” begins at a simmer and then shifts impeccably into a full boil, Ervin saving his most dynamic blowing for last as the rhythm section, particularly the thorny and assertive Byard and the wickedly committed Dawson go to work with vigor. The latter’s solo spotlight, one of the album’s brightest moments, is a clinic in non-hackneyed drum motion, the range of his expression capping the album, though the brief reemergence of the full quartet before a slow fade out leaves the ear nagging for more.

Of which there was, of course. The subsequent entries in the Book series found Ervin shuffling and adding some members, subbing pianists Tommy Flanagan and Gildo Mahones for Byard and adding underrated trumpeter Carmell Jones before returning to this splendid lineup for the final installment. And while the whole set is indispensible, The Freedom Book sits a little above the rest. Thankfully there is no mandate limiting ownership of Booker Ervin releases to just one LP, for he never recorded a bad one. But if that foul edict ever came down, this sweet pup would very likely be the one to choose.

Graded on a Curve: A+

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