At the moment Chicago is blessed with an especially strong crop of excellent postfreedom jazz bands (including the various groups led by and featuring Kahil El’Zabar, Ken Vandermark, Ed Wilkerson, and Mars Williams); but until recently nobody would’ve thought twice about calling the New Horizons Ensemble the best such outfit in the city, and maybe in the midwest. The name is a little bit misleading: having moved beyond the need to pierce the stratosphere at every opportunity, New Horizons constructs an effective bridge between old and new musics. With sprightly themes, firm structures, and bop-styled riffing, leader Ernest Dawkins’s compositions provide a strong underpinning for the soloists. And the soloists–particularly trumpeter Ameen Muhammad and the scintillating guitarist Jeff Parker–pull hard at those structures with their decidedly postbop improvisations, while Dawkins’s own alto saxophone dances atop the themes with asymmetrical phrases and rough-toned glee. The variety among these soloists provides the kind of moveable feast that distinguished the great jazz units of the 50s and 60s–when you consider the shaping hand of Dawkins’s writing, comparisons to the groups led by Horace Silver become germane. The Swedish Silkheart label has just released its third album by the band; this weekend, Dawkins will use his regular Saturday-night gig at the Velvet Lounge for a live recording session–a move at least as adventurous as his music. The Velvet is not known for either its sound system or its natural acoustics, though it has loads of ambience, a gracious owner in inspirational saxist Fred Anderson, and an almost frightening intimacy in its two-car-garage-size performance area. This last attribute could work to the recording’s advantage: a good engineer using pinpoint miking might, in effect, turn the room into a remote studio that happens to have an audience in it–as opposed to trying to capture a large-scale concert as well as the acoustics of the hall in which it takes place. Clearly Dawkins hopes this will happen, allowing the band to shine in a comfortable and familiar setting. Saturday, 10 PM, Velvet Lounge, 21281/2 S. Indiana; 312-791-9050. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ernest Dawkins by Marc PoKempner.