Music Reviews


This is FRESH AIR. Tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin came to New York in 1958. Pianist Horace Parlan heard him and invited Ervin to sit in one night with a band he worked in. That's how Ervin got hired by bassist Charles Mingus, who featured him on albums like "Blues and Roots" and "Mingus Ah Um." Before long, Ervin was making his own records. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a reissue of Ervin's debut, "The Book Cooks."


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Saxophonist Booker Ervin's sextet, playing a blues in the style of a sometime-boss Charles Mingus. It's from 1960's "The Book Cooks," back out on the re-revived Bethlehem label. Ervin came from Northeast Texas, on the Oklahoma line, field hollers coming at him from the east and cattle calls from the west.

He punctuated his lines with high, lonesome hollers before he got to New York and discovered John Coltrane had a similar move. Ervin got ideas from Coltrane after that, but that cry was always his own. Coltrane's tone was glossy as varnished hardwood. Booker Ervin's sound was more coarse, a cane stalk shooting up out of rich earth.


WHITEHEAD: For the ensemble shouts and background riffs, Booker Ervin is flanked by trumpeter Tommy Turrentine from Max Roach's band, and a tenor saxophonist who traveled in different circles, Lester Young disciple and big-band vet Zoot Sims. Zoot could blow cool - he'd once recorded with Jack Kerouac - but also liked locking horns with fellow tenors. The saxophonists square off in a friendly way on "The Book Cooks." Zoot's tone is a little softer and rounder than Booker's.


WHITEHEAD: Booker Ervin and Zoot Sims' "1960," with Mingus' drummer Danny Richmond, and Tommy Flanagan taming an untuned piano. The late '50s and thereabouts was a great period for jazz rhythm sections - mighty bass players, in particular. Nowadays, most bassists set the strings low to the neck so their fingers don't have to fight so hard.

Back then, strings were higher, and players couldn't get around so quickly. But they could pluck a string so hard, it made bass a percussion instrument. Listen to the great George Tucker's bass beat and how Dannie Richmond's hi-hat and cymbals mail his message home.


WHITEHEAD: Trumpeter Tommy Turrentine, playing the blues. "The Book Cooks" was Booker Ervin's first album under his own name, and it kicked off an early-'60s hot streak. He'd make the classics "The Freedom Book" and "The Space Book" with another great rhythm section, and recorded other good dates involving Tommy Flanagan, George Tucker or Dannie Richmond. But what really makes all those records is Booker Ervin's Texas shout on tenor saxophone, a sound that's both down-home and majestic.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Down Beat and eMusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the reissue of "The Book Cooks," featuring tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin on the Bethlehem label.

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