Any musician expecting to play for an extended period in Charles Mingus‘ band had to find his own voice quickly and learn to play at the peak of his abilities. Jackie McLean, who played several times with Mingus, said:
“As far as sax was concerned, I was content to play what Bird played, or try to. (But Mingus said) ‘Man, why do you keep playing those Bird things? Isn’t Jackie McLean in there somewhere? Bird already played that, man. Bird’s dead now,'”.
Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk will have heard the same while in his employ, as would Texan tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin. In the mad swirl that constituted the classic Mingus albums that Ervin appeared on, his moments in the spotlight are necessarily brief considering all the other star soloists in line waiting their turn and the dynamic nature of the compositions with frequent abrupt hairpin bends. It was only when he was given the opportunity to record his own albums that Booker Ervin was able to untether his monumental technique with extended, uninterrupted soloing. With the rhythm section of Richard Davis on bass and Alan Dawson on drums, plus various pianists, he recorded the stellar “Book” series of albums for Prestige; The Freedom Book (1963), The Song Book (1964), The Blues Book (1964) and The Space Book (1964). The first and last of these feature fellow Mingus alumnus Jaki Byard on piano, and these are most adventurous of the lot. For me, The Space Book is probably the best.
With an approach somewhere between John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, though far more sinewy than both those players, Booker Ervin solos throughout this LP with amazing dexterity and panache. The two Ervin originals ‘Number Two’ and ‘Mojo’ are free-falling bottle rockets, fizzing and dangerous and endlessly exhilarating. Notes ricochet and arc from all angles like a strobing pinball machine in multi-ball mode, the supporting players creating a rolling cauldron of tension and invention. Byard sets off multi-directional sparks with his flinty chordal clusters while Davis and Dawson delineate the dense primeval universe. Both tracks combined run to twenty minutes and there is never a dull moment.
For balance the two ballads ‘I Can’t Get Started’ and ‘There Is No Greater Love’ provide breathing room, but even within these more spacious arrangements Ervin’s playing, while yearning and ardent, is still intense. These solos are cries from the infinite soul that hides its insecurities with playfulness and pitiful laughter.
Booker Ervin later recorded with Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Andrew Hill and Woody Shaw. He died from kidney disease in 1970, at age 39, without having released a weak album in his career.