One of the best things about jazz is its openness—its language and its improvisational ethos make possible the kind of spontaneous collaborations that help propel the tradition forward. Free improvisation often happens in unrehearsed encounters whose supposedly nonidiomatic output long ago congealed into the idiom of "free improvisation," but it can also take place in more conventional settings. Chicago saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, a longtime face of the AACM, has built a career balancing postbop fundamentals and free-jazz prerogatives; he emerged from a vaunted tradition and holds tightly to its roots while circumventing its orthodoxy.
A few years ago Dawkins and his New Horizons Ensemble—his primary vehicle as composer and bandleader—played at the Winter Jazzfest in New York, and singular pianist Vijay Iyer was in the audience. The two musicians shared their admiration for each other and agreed to play together down the road. That eventually came to pass in Chicago in 2015, resulting in an appealingly loose, largely unstructured recording called Transient Takes (no label). The group, with bassist Junius Paul and drummer Isaiah Spencer, included three Dawkins tunes in the session, but otherwise everything they played they invented on the spot. The breadth of their output is impressive: it includes ruminative explorations such as "Infinite Wisdom of the Science of Sound" as well as the darting "Simultaneous Realities of a Parallel Universe," where Dawkins blows twin sax lines a la Roland Kirk and Iyer plays sly, furtive feints that occasionally open up into irresistible extended interjections.
This new album doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it makes no effort at any sort of statement—except perhaps that these are versatile, adaptable musicians who take joy in playing together. The best way to experience this sort of partnership is when it happens live, and considering how busy Iyer is with his own career, it's remarkable that he's made time to jet into Chicago for two nights with Dawkins and his band New Horizons. The concerts on Friday and Saturday at Constellation promise to be excellent examples of hothouse artistry, offering a pairing we won't likely see again soon. Below you can hear my favorite piece from the new album, "Monkness & the Ethos," where Iyer summons the spirit of early Cecil Taylor.