On Bill Dixon

I have a piece on Bill Dixon’s Tapestries for Small Orchestra in the new issue of the Mexican journal La Tempestad (page 24). I can’t vouch for how it reads in Spanish. The headline means “An Approaching Ship.” The subhead reads: “Each recording of Dixon’s is an event for music in general and jazz in particular: we speak of a composer who believes in the permanent revolution.” Didn’t write it, but I like it. Here is the full text in English.

Bill Dixon
Tapestries for Small Orchestra
(Firehouse 12 Records)
Review by David R. Adler

Bill Dixon is one of the most distinctive figures to emerge from the tumult of the ’60s jazz avant-garde, and he didn’t just reconceive the trumpet — he proposed new models for composition and collective improvisation, fashioning a language of elongated space, stark dynamics and textural novelty that has only grown more ambitious over the decades.

Dixon turns 85 later this year, and even in light of the music industry’s collapse, these are relatively good times for pioneers of his stature. New independent labels have emerged, willing to take risks and further the music’s living legacy. We are also seeing a new generation of musicians who are deeply invested in the approaches handed down by their elders, but strong enough as individuals to exert a reciprocal influence, boosting their mentors’ careers in the process. Henry Threadgill’s releases on the Pi label have highlighted his work with such younger players as Liberty Ellman and Stomu Takeishi. The late Andrew Hill made a comeback in 1999 on Palmetto before returning to Blue Note and finding an elevated rapport with bassist John Hebert, saxophonist/clarinetist Gregory Tardy and others. Anthony Braxton has forged alliances with such protégés as saxophonist Steve Lehman, guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, all of whom appear on 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006, Braxton’s mammoth boxed set on the young Firehouse 12 label.

Dixon’s Tapestries for Small Orchestra, a newer Firehouse 12 product, takes its place in this unfolding history, following up two vibrant 2008 releases, Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey) and 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (Aum Fidelity). This time, Dixon scales down to a nine-piece group featuring no fewer than five trumpeters (or cornetists): himself, Bynum, Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes (no relation) and the Exploding Star Orchestra’s own Rob Mazurek. To this brass-centered sound, Dixon adds Glynis Lomon on cello, Michel Côté on contrabass clarinet and bass clarinet, Ken Filiano on acoustic bass and Warren Smith on drums and percussion. There are three discs in all — two CDs with four extended compositions each, plus a DVD with Robert O’Haire’s 30-minute documentary “Bill Dixon: Going to the Center” and full footage of the orchestra playing four pieces in the studio.

The stark red-on-black lettering of the Tapestries cover mirrors aspects of the music itself, which is ethereal and dark in mood, yet offset by splashes of bright color. Bynum and Stephen Haynes each contribute liner-note essays, establishing historical context by citing such Dixon landmarks as Intents and Purposes and November 1981, while conveying their own personal love for the music and its methodology. In a footnote, Bynum also points us to Stanley Zappa’s blog The Dixon Society (the dixonsociety.blogspot.com) and saxophonist Andrew Raffo Dewar’s MA thesis “This Is an American Music”: Aesthetics, Music, and Visual Art of Bill Dixon, which says something about the depth of research, and perhaps healthy obsession, that Dixon has inspired.

According to Bynum, Dixon has always been less concerned with harmonic innovation than with “asserting the primacy of sound itself,” and we hear what he means from the first notes of “Motorcycle ’66: Reflections & Ruminations.” Far from the “energy music” commonly associated with the ’60s avant-garde, Dixon tends to emphasize gradual evolution and finely sculpted sonorities. Smith’s vibraphone tremolos frame Côté’s ghostly contrabass clarinet and the overlapping legato statements of the brass, as cloudy dissonance gives way to a doleful C minor tonality by the end. “Slivers: Sand Dance for Sophia,” a skittering trio dialogue between Dixon’s hallmark echo-enhanced trumpet, Smith’s vibes and Filiano’s bass, also moves away from tangled ambiguity to finish in the clear, unambiguous key of E minor. And somewhere within “Adagio: Slow Mauve Scribblings,” there are subtle electronic bleeps and murmurs, another fresh sonic departure provided by either Mazurek or Graham Haynes.

Breaking away from vibes and marimba, Smith moves to drum set for “Phrygian II” and the second disc’s “Durations of Permanence,” which gives the music a harder edge and, at least briefly, something close to a defined tempo. On the trio piece “Allusions I,” which begins disc two, it is Filiano who coaxes Smith (on vibes) into tempo. The roles are perpetually in flux, and as Lomon remarks during the film, “the form itself is always improvised.” But Dixon exerts control as well, employing the horns as a kind of understated choir, a brass section that talks rather than shouts. Dixon’s signature breath effects and reverb-soaked low notes can bring to mind an approaching ocean liner, evoking a world beyond standard pitch and illustrating his words from the DVD: “You can stand in one spot and blow a mountain down.”

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One Response to “On Bill Dixon”

  1. Stephen Haynes says:

    Thanks for the lovely commentary on the new work. We are reconvening this ensemble for a performance at this year's FIMAV/Victoriaville Festival in Quebec. The performance will be recorded for release. Folks who love the music are encouraged to make the trek to Quebec to experience the music live. Needless to say, this will be an all to rare experience, particularly here in North America.

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