Sunday, April 29, 2012

Being a part of the whole (when I play it, I mean it): Bill Dixon [pt. 4]

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Cover of 'Bill DIxon 1982', Ferrary Gallery, 1982
Time to get a little deeper into Dixon’s discography from 1980. As reported in the previous post in this blog, about all the material of the period was issued by Italian label Soul Note, with a couple of exceptions. The Lp Bill Dixon 1982 was released as a limited edition - probably 450 copies – as accompaniment to an exhibition catalogue of the trumpeter’s paintings in Verona at the Ferrari Gallery. While a couple of trumpet solos will feature in 1996 Odyssey box set, the three part Relay was written in collaboration with improviser dancer Judith Dunn, whose collaboration with Dixon is extensively narrated in Ben Young Dixonia – A bio-discography of Bill Dixon with a small excerpt on part 2 of this article.

The relationship and reciprocal influence between Dixon painting and music is complex. English journalist Graham Lock provided a full exploration with Dixon himself for an online interview on Point of Departure, added with a beautiful photo gallery, and while my strong advice is to enjoy it in its entirety, the following lines can be a good introduction for the curious listener:

GL: Do you see any similarities in the way you prepare and perform your music and the way you prepare and present your artwork?
BD: Not now. Perhaps at one time. Don’t forget, in the performance of music now, for me, the whole preparation is being able to play the instrument. If I was going to play tomorrow, whether solo or with a trio or quartet, I will practice the instrument based upon trying to maintain flexibility, so if in the process of playing I need to execute something, I will have traveled that route before and I can execute it. I don't try to practice things that I can play. I don’t try to practice sequences. When it’s time for me to play, I don’t know what I’m going to do until the minute I play the first note, and the first note I play will dictate what I’m going to do. What I try to do is be a blank slate upon which things can be imprinted.
With painting, with the other artwork, I can work on something and it can be finished; but I can look at it again the next day and if I don’t like the way it looks, I’ll take a part and move it around. I move things around when I write music.

In 1981, photo by Hans Kump
With this in mind, try to listen, again or for the first time, recordings such near in time as Bill Dixon 1982 and Bill Dixon in Italy vol. 1 - on Soul Note, 1980. One thing that is really clear to me as a listener, is that the solo exhibitions on the first record, as the excerpts from previous recordings you can get to at the end of my previous post, were realized using the same idea of space, of abstraction, than in the Soul Note’s, while at the same time the timbres and echoes are here more raucous, dissonant; since this is a characteristic of the material featured in the Odyssey box, one can think at first sight about an expressive shift at the turn of the eighties, while this 1982 record shows that possibly, Dixon changes of nuances both on trumpet and piano can be assigned to the different temperature of playing completely alone – even if with overdubbed parts - or with a group of musicians.

It is difficult to say if this shift was conscious or unconscious, while the effect is that of a musician that, in solitude, try to occupy the background space and shift on the foreground, and viceversa, by himself, whereas while accompanied by another musician or a more or less extended group, the levels shifting is realized through superimpositions from the different players.

Firenze piano introduction on the 1980 Soul Note release has brighter nuances, while Arthur Brooke and Stephen Haynes trumpets, Alan Silva’s double bass nods, Stephen Horenstein’s small, dark strips on baritone saxophone, and Freddie Waits’ interventions on drums are all creating a constantly fluctuating pattern that gives the music its pulse shifting, in an exchange of rhythms and colors. This is a constant in Bill Dixon works or that period, and we can extrapolate the wider meaning of his work as a composer and instrumentalist from that.

Bill Dixon on 'Jazz Hot', December 1973
Something Clifford Allen well noticed on his AAJ comprehensive article on the musician, as quoted on part one of this series, but now’s the time to go a little further. If Dixon, as some of his contemporaries and next generation followers, worked extensively on both the aural and visual paradigm – as an example, Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith do this, as clearly evident even from the interview the AACM-rooted trumpeter gave me last year, and as will be from my following writings on the multi-instrumentalist, composer and ‘tri-axium’ writer, it is also true that in this he was only making the same effort of many contemporary artists, which is to go beyond the divisions in the world of the art we suffer in Western culture since the separation of music from other arts and disciplines, as from the half of 1700 on.

While inviting to read Davide Sparti’s writings on the subject, I’d love to contextualize more Dixon’s place in the evolution of Black Creative Music. If, as Bill Dixon openly suggested to Graham Lock, music is the less segregated of the forms of art disposable to self expression, and if in New York in the Sixties there were complex relationships between Black and White artistic milieux, involving notions of race, gender, identities, political visions, ideals, Dixon attempts to create a music able to incorporate improvisation, contemporary composition, dance and painting, was possibly the only alternative attempt to the post-modern collagistic and interpenetretional strategies that in the Seventies took ground from the Chicago-based AACM migrations on the NY ‘loft’ scene.

As much an outsider as sopranist Steve Lacy, possibly the nearest figure, since both were working ‘on the border’ – of sound, on the most imperfect of the reeds instrument family Lacy; of music, painting and teaching/composing Dixon - the trumpeters’ was one of the most vivid efforts to create an organic expression and artistic vision. Going on in listening to his Soul Note recordings, this will become irremediably clear.

Bill Dixon in Italy, Soul Note 1980
Both the volumes od Bill Dixon in Italy stress the continuity and the constant progress from his 1967 masterpiece Intents and Purposes. Three trumpets - while Dixon sometimes passes on piano, tenor or baritone saxophone, double bass, and drums. This ensemble of musicians, and the music as its result, is an evolution of the attempt to both transfigure a brass palette echoing the ‘third stream’ orchestras and transform the original free-jazz pantonal polyphonies into a multi-layered plane-shifting.

Alan Silva was taking part of Dixon environment since their Cecil Taylor Unit and Jazz Composers Guild days, and if you listen to his ESP and BYG records, Silva’s – also a painter, as Dixon - conductions, inspired by the history of the African-American music from Louis Armstrong to Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, with whom he directly collaborated, passing through his teaching, go into a similar direction – the use of permutations so to create structures out of notes, his love for Xenakis’ steps ahead in written music and his clashes with Pierre Boulez’ IRCAM after creating his own IACP school.

Cornetist, trumpeter and composer Stephen Haynes, is still today the direct witness and creative legacy-sharer of Dixon’s inheritance, through both his music and writings. Defining himself ‘a product of the historic and fertile Black Music Division at Bennington College directed by Bill Dixon’, he’s responsible of a continuity that through records as Parrhesia (Engine, 2010) with bassist/guitarist Joe Morris and drummer Warren Smith is still enjoyable in the very present.

Back cover of Bill Dixon in Italy vol. 1
L-R: Stephen Horenstein, Stephen Haynes, Bill Dixon,
Freddie Waits, Alan Silva, Arthur Brooks
Arthur Brooks, former student at Antioch College in the Sixties, is another undervalued hero of the Taylor-Dixon-October Revolution connection. Also a Bennington teacher until 1997, his music is inspired by both painting and Sufi mystics – the sound as an element coming from the soul, a direct reflection of the natural environment as a stream of energy.

Freddie Waits, father of drummer Nasheet Waits, is well known for having played with Max Roach and his M’Boom Collective, pianist Andrew Hill, and a theory of post-bop, modernistic Blue Note-based acolytes as Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan. Stephen Horenstein, composer and multi-reed player, born in Boston but at the time of those recordings migrating in Israel to study at the Music and Dance department of Tel-Aviv University, and Dixon’s student at Bennington, was active in many festivals both in Italy and New York, and recorded with German drummer Gunther ‘Baby’ Soemmer between many others.

If the music on this couple of record can be described as ‘pastoral’, in a way that reflects another similarity between personalities as different as Bill Dixon and Miles Davis, the following November 1981 (Soul Note, 1981), featuring a quartet composed by Dixon, Silva, double bassist Mario Pavone and drummer Laurence Cook, push the music into a more nervous, nocturne flow. One of Dixon’s grooviest outputs, and possibly the nearest to what we can expect from a NY-rooted musician, is in some way extended by his follower Thoughts (Soul Note, 1985), with the double basses of Peter Kowald, William Parker and again Mario Pavone, while the reed section is completed by Marco Eneidi on alto and John Buckigham on tuba.

Bill Dixon, Thoughts, Soul Note, 1985
It features a photo shot by Dixon himself of a trumpet near a window, with its reflections on the standing wall, while on the back cover one of Dixon painting is exposed on a semi-opened bathroom door, with the column of what can maybe be taken as a fireplace at the other side of the image, in a sort of triptych emanating directly from the division of the space. The music on this record is kind of a sum of Dixon’s small ensembles previous experiences, with the sinuous pulsing of Thoughts, the meditating layers of piano and horns of Windows, the contemporary dialogue of silence and sound in For Nelson and Winnie (a Suite in Four Parts), with Eneidi as the proper inheritor of Robin Kenyatta and Byrd Lancaster and a wider use of spacey extensions of sound as always in Dixon’s music.

Son of Sysiphus (Soul Note, 1988) is possibly the most ‘classical’ Dixon of the 1980s. Again a quartet, composed by Dixon with John Buckingham on tuba, Mario Pavone on double bass, and Laurence Cook on drums, while the paintings on the cover mark a shift from the isolated, naked figures on the front to the ‘target’ painting on the back. Among the compostions, Mandala for Mandela, with Dixon typical short statements/brushes strenghtened by tuba’s lumpy support, and Sumi-e, dedicated to Dixon’s mother, featuring a piano that, as quite as usual, use its projections through space in a way similar to Mal Waldron, even if enjoying shorter, direct statements.

But none of Dixon’s records or compositions are ‘classic’ in any way. The two volumes under the title of Vade Mecum (both Soul Note, 1993), introducing drummer Tony Oxley as one of the last, long-time trumpeter partners – it will be featured again on the following volumes released by the Italian Label, and on a trio performance with Cecil Taylor, certificating a continuity between American and European improvised music. I suggest the reader to give an eye to the important Derek Bailey book “Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music”, firstly published in 1980, revisited and expanded in 1993, where the UK guitarist provided the reader with an enlightening interview with Oxley himself and its evolution as a musician.

Drummer Tony Oxley
Vade Mecum sees also the double basses of William Parker and Barry Guy, reaffirming a practice of music in which, as in Anamorphosis, the trumpet, surrounded by the two bass pulses and the particular Oxley’s drumkit, his playing acquires an extended use of both lighter and lower tones, while the two following volumes of Papyrus (Soul Note, 1998) see Dixon’s piano, as on Silver Point: Jeanne Phillips, as both melodic and rhythmic instrument, even if the texture of the compositions is always far from both dramatic, Eurocentric constructions, and African American percussive references; while since Papyrus # 2, the trumpet gains a more pre-eminent role through space as never before on a record. And if Oxley percussions are more environmental than ever, with a consistency that reminds of the contemporary evolution of electronic music, what both the musicians give life here is something not that far from Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening project for music and arts.

Gillo Dorfles, one of the most important and interesting art critics in Italy, wrote in 2006 about the ‘lost interval’ in contemporary art, meaning "the gradual disappearance of the traditional elements of separation, interruption and pause that have been present in literary and artistic creation since time immemorial...". This couple of Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley releases can be seen as an indirect, but important attempt, to put the listener in a space in which he can finally gain his ability to restore his proper, personal perspective on what he’s listening.

As part of Cage/postmodern heredity, as a link between discovery, spontaneity and memory, Oxley self built set of percussions and Dixon half-valves, and sometimes electrified and manipulated extensions of sound through space, are one of the most important and conscious attempts coming from improvised music to put together an idea of expression related to the notion of individuality and self-discovery. Their album released in 2002 through label Victo featuring Cecil Taylor on piano, is one of the most delicate, intimate recordings featuring the pianist, in some way also destabilizing and uncanny, as reported in Kurt Gottshalk review of the record on AAJ website linked here above.

Related discography:
Bill Dixon in Italy - Vol. 1 (Black Saint, 1980)
Bill Dixon in Italy - Vol. 2 (Black Saint, 1980)
November 1981 (Black Saint, 1981)
Bill Dixon 1982 (Ferrari Gallery, 1982)
Thoughts (Black Saint, 1985)
Son of Sisyphus (Black Saint, 1988)
Vade Mecum (Black Saint, 1993)
Vade Mecum II (Black Saint, 1993)
Odyssey (self issued, 6 cd Box, 1996)
Papyrus - Vol. 1 (Black Saint, 1998)
Papyrus - Vol. 2 (Black Saint, 1998)
Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley (Victo, 2002)

[Part one, two and three. Fifth part coming soon]

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Being a part of the whole (when I play it, I mean it): Bill Dixon [pt. 3]

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Bill Dixon started from 1968 to teach regularly music at Vermont’s Bennington College, where in 1973 he founded the Black Music Division, being active in there until his retirement in 1996. Founded in 1932 as a women’s college, and becoming later co-educational, Bennington was conceived a new liberal arts institute following John Dewey’s educational philosophy.

Involved in teaching since his New York years, Dixon scholars on his own instrument featured Eddie Gale Jr and Don Ayler, Albert’s younger brother, Rashied Ali, and even Ornette Coleman, while lessons on a different instruments were given to bassist Alan Silva, saxophonists Ed Curran, Marzette Watts and Byard Lancaster, drummer Clever Pozar. Following through the years, Marco Eneidi, Sam Rivers, Arthur Doyle, Steven Horenstein, Stephen Haynes and Arthur Brooks were joining the Division as visiting artists or adjuncts.

Bill Dixon portraited himself to Clifford Allen as a teacher. His greater merit was to give everyone the opportunity to align only with themselves and with the very present so to further develop: “You start from where you are. To write a novel, you don't have to study Charles Dickens—you'll do that in time. You'll exhaust your limitations first—don't forget, tradition is all around you. You're sinking in it, breathing it, and you can't escape it or resist it. To force it as a prerequisite—the most you can get out of it is that it presents you with such a phenomenal bunch of facts about how things are done that you're intimidated from ever doing anything. Art goes on forever, and my experience is that you start from where it excites you and if you're intelligent, you look from where the hell did this thing come? So you took a beginning person in the room and you stayed in the room till the thing was done. The one thing I tried to impress upon people was that if you are in the room, you are as important as anybody else. It's not about this overt virtuosity—it's about everyone being a part of the whole.”

While teaching and trying to preserve his incomes, Dixon developed further his liaison between aural and visual expression, being with his foot on both grounds. While working with his own classes or orchestras, even in recent years, he pushed his students and cohorts to think about music in terms of color, temperature of the color and collectiveness of the twos. Quite often, musicians are collected so to form a circle, while the old habit to arrange the notes more than the group’s personnel ran into a deepening of the abstraction already present since his major masterpiece Intents and Purposes.

Front cover of volume two of Considerations Lp, a series
of Vermont recordings issued from 1972 to 1975 by label Fore
Above all the material of this period available was collected partly by Fore and Cadence, then finally in almost its completion on the self-released limited 6 cd box Odyssey, provided with a 32 page booklet with Dixon painting, an interview, and essays by Ben Young and Graham Lock. Covering a period from 1970 and 1990, with tracks taken in New York, Jerusalem and Wilmington, the box was in 1996 the right tool to give a new life to Dixon artistry as trumpeter, pianist and painter. Mostly unaccompanied on those recordings, or accompanied only by few musicians – David Moss and Lawrence Cook on percussions and Lesslie Winston on keyboards, the output was coupled with 1998’s Ben Young’s Dixonia: a Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon, a definitive 418 pages attempt to put in order all Dixon recorded material – mostly unissued even today – the musician featured in more than 40 years of career.

While those relics kept the flame high almost at the same time a new generation of listeners was newly and heavily connecting with Dixon’s artistry through Rob Mazurek – a devoted and pairly creative alumnus, one of the few to deserve individual lessons – dedications and partnerships, it is time to get a little back in time. Dixon’s ‘90s and ‘00s were mostly documented through Aum Fidelity, Thrill Jockey and Victo labels, showing a musician able to involve both old avant garde jazz hard-ons and new post-rock amateurs . Only Anthony Braxton tried a similar connection of styles and public in recent times, calling the mutant noisers Wolf Eyes at the Victoriaville Festival in 2005 to play together, but to have such an enduring liaison we have think about John Zorn trashcorejazz experimentalism, only that Dixon, with his unique approach to sound, architectural and choreographic at the same time, was far away from the postmodernism of both the musicians/composers.

Giancarlo Barigozzi was a saxophonist, flutist, clarinetist
recording his music since 1953 for Columbia  
And if a new generation of half-valves trumpet players, of whom Mazurek is the prime mover along with Taylor Ho Bynum and the less directly connected horns of Axel Dorner, Nate Wooley and Peter Evans, are taking Dixon’s legacy to a possible further step in the future, if it wasn’t for Italian label Black Saint, there wouldn’t possibly be no testimony of Dixon’s developments and ties with the American and European improvised music world in the previous decades.

Being Italian myself I must admit that it is a pleasure and a honour to introduce on this writing such enlightened figures as Giovanni Bonandrini and Giacomo Pellicciotti. At the decay of American labels such as Arista/Freedom, Passing Thru and India Navigation, Black Saint (and later on its consociated Soul Note) gave to musicians like Muhal Richard Abrahms, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, David Murray, Andrew Cyrille, George Russell and later Steve Lacy, Bill Dixon and William Parker the opportunity to keep on developing their own heritage.

Think about Werner X. Uehligner’s HatHut, pairly established in 1975 and working on a similar base of passion and research, but focused also on the Italian shore of jazz and contemporary music through works dedicated to composer Giorgio Gaslini or pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, and you’ll get the picture.

The records for the label were recorded mosty at Giancarlo Barigozzi’s Studio in Milano, founded in 1974, initially raised for pop and advertising music, and during the following 20 years the reference point for the most important international jazz musicians – few names: Sun Ra, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Scott, Art Blakey, Paul Bley, Lee Konitz, Franco Cerri, Renato Sellani, Franco D’Andrea – while its historic catalogue is now under reissue by London based Cam Jazz, through small monographic boxes with CDs provided with reproductions of the original artwork.

All of Dixon’s records were given new life last year, and with the most recent issues they’re the widely available – and of the most enjoyable, since the quality of the music. To understand the value of those recordings, think only about the fact that possibly, if it wasn’t for Bonandrini’s label, we wouldn’t hold now any direct account of how Bill Dixon evolved since 1980 through 1998. 

Related discography:
Considerations, Vol. 1 (Fore, 1972)
Considerations, Vol. 2 (fore, 1973)
Considerations, Vol. 3 (Fore, 1975)
Bill Dixon in Italy - Vol. 1 (Black Saint, 1980)
Bill Dixon in Italy - Vol. 2 (Black Saint, 1980)
November 1981 (Black Saint, 1981)
Thoughts (Black Saint, 1985)
Son of Sisyphus (Black Saint, 1988)
Vade Mecum (Black Saint, 1993)
Vade Mecum II (Black Saint, 1993)
Odyssey (self issued, 6 cd Box, 1996)
Papyrus - Vol. 1 (Black Saint, 1998)
Papyrus - Vol. 2 (Black Saint, 1998)
Collection (Cadence, double CD, 1999)

[Go to fourth part]

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Being a part of the whole (when I play it, I mean it): Bill Dixon [pt. 2]

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Intents and Purposes was issued in 1967 on Rca Victor, headed to 'The Bill Dixon Orchestra' and  featuring Dixon on trumpet and fuegelhorn, Jimmy Cheatham on bass trombone, Robin Kenyatta on alto and Byard Lancaster on alto and bass clarinet, George Marge on English horn, Catherine Norris on cello, Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman on bass, Robert Frank Pozar on drums, Marc Levin on percussions and George Marge on flute. A true masterpiece of the era, it was critically acclaimed but soon out of print, with the exception of a couple of new appearances in Japan in 1972, and in France in 1976. Described by its creator as ‘my first crack at a fuller artistic expression’, while explaining that ‘the four compositions are philosophically and intrinsically linked’, I can only imagine a listener of that time grasping around in search for some references, if dealing only with the music closely related to the jazz environment. 

Taken as the 'missing link' between the New York and the Chicago avant garde, this record can be also considered as a precursor of the developments of the European free improvisation. Marc Levin percussions arent' that much different here from Tony Oxley's - in more recent times heavily involved in the music of Bill Dixon and Cecil Talyor, but between 1963 and 1966 part of the seminal English Joseph Holbrooke Trio with bassist and composer Gavin Bryars and Derek Bailey on guitar, in which influences from contemporary composers and innovations coming out of the jazz continuum were taken a step further. 

Robin Kenyatta
For last year CD reissue on Dynagroove, Francis Davis wrote on the Village Voice (July 12, 2011): “The mercurial, essentially romantic temperament revealed throughout Intents and Purposes begs comparison with Charles Mingus: Robin Kenyatta's deliriously sour dance-band-alto lead earlier on "Metamorphosis" calls to mind Mingus instructing Charlie Mariano to "play tears" on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, […] But unlike Mingus's romantic sensibility, '67 Dixon's expressed itself in abstraction; the emotional payoff is as great, but it requires a greater investment, because even as the dynamics swell and the tempo quickens, the underlying passions never quite bubble to the surface. 

[…] Dixon's approach to orchestration and thematic development bears closer resemblance to those of 20th century European avant-gardists like Webern and Gian Carlos Menotti, the composer of Amahl and the Night Visitors, forgotten now but a pervasive influence then). […] A more answerable question raised by Intents and Purposes regards Dixon's place not just in the jazz continuum but in the overall evolution of contemporary music.” 
The richness of the brass sound newly explored by ‘third stream’ colleagues in a period in which Cecil Taylor was splitting up an lp with composer Gil Evans, compositional tools borrowed by music for films as US Informations Agency Wealth of a Nation! and Gene Friedman’s Index 1966, composed by Dixon himself on request, almost complete the palette, while the music is the result of the team up with Judith Dunn, regular Merce Cunningham dancer at the Bennington College, that later on worked intensively also with avant garde singer Meredith Monk, at the time responsible for a class she and Dixon taught jointly at the Bennington College, after their artistic partnership at the Judson Dance Theatre in 1965.

Robert Morris and Judith Dunn, 1967
Since the previous decade, New York was nurturing bebop, free jazz and free improvisation, indeterminacy, the contemporary New York School, the Beat poets of the Greenwich Village, Expressionists as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Larry Rivers – the latter introducing saxophone improvisation as part of his work. Nonetheless in this period recollections, as in performance historian Sally Banes’ Greenwich Village 1963: Avant Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (Duke University Press, 1993), jazz musicians in New York never appear as directly involved in aesthetic or political discussions.

As there was no exchange within white and black artists during the Bebop era, even if digging bebop was a sign of leftist radicalism, when Asian performers as Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik and Toshi Ichiyanagi lead a central role in the environment, works by European composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sylvano Bussotti, Giuseppe Chiari were regularly performed along with American artists' as John Cage, La Monte Young, Morton Feldman, Max Neuhaus, and Robert Ashley, but African Americans kept on remaining at the border of the establishment, even if Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor were influencing artists all around the world.

At the beginning of the 1960s, this asymmetry between white and black artists and intellectuals led to a rift. Leroi Jones – one of the few African Americans accepted by the white intellighentsia – found himself relatively isolated after his trip to Cuba in 1959 to meet artists from the African Diaspora. Even if NY white avant garde of the 1960s never avoided completely any relationship with black issues, with artists involved in the civil right movements, its attitude was mostly individualistic, politically disinterested and even disempowered, while at the same time influenced by Theodor W. Adorno’s notion of the heroic function of new music as oppositional to mass culture, resulting as bipolar in its practice.

Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach in NY, circa 1965
As Sally Banes wrote, “white artists adopted, perhaps not always consciously, elements of African American art and performance. These included improvisation and the fusion of the arts usually considered separate in the Euro-American tradition”. And “the African American tradition of musical improvisation was translated into theater, dance, and other artistic practices of the white avant garde”.

On the African American side, what George E. Lewis explores in the second chapter of his A Power Stronger Than Itself: the AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago University Press, 2008), there were the “wide-ranging challenges to the conventions of improvisation that appeared at the onset of the 1960s […] rather than a single notion of ‘freedom’, various freedoms were being asserted across a wide spectrum of musical possibilities”. Following the list of musicians quoted by Lewis to set out his notion of ‘various freedoms’, Charles Mingus and his regular Candid partners, Miles Davis and his second quintet, Coltrane’s disciples and Taylor and Ayler band members, and finally Archie Shepp and John Tchicai New York Art Quartet, giving life to a dialogue with LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka on his poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” are listed as part of the whole scene.

Bill Dixon personal notion of freedom involved painting, music and dance. Choreographer Elaine Shipman recollections are particularly interesting since one can at first sight notice a deep connection with the work of Dixon's fellow Cecil Taylor – a passionate follower of dance too. As she refers: “he [Bill Dixon] didn’t seem that unconnected, or that minimal. That was not his philosophy: with his music I always felt that the dance did have some interpretational relationship with the music. […] I definitely expected all of his musical realities; they had the shape of the dance. He collaborated in a rhythmic way with the movement; that is, the music is toned to what the human body can do”. (in Ben Young Dixonia: a bio-discography of Bill Dixon, Greenwood Press, 1998).

Jazz Composers Guild. 1964. NYC
back, from left to right: Bill Dixon, Paul Bley, Michael Mantler, Archie Shepp
center, from left to right: Jon Winter, Sun Ra, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor
front, from left to right: Burton Greene, Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai
Dixon and Taylor response to their environmental situation was way beyond the mere ‘Black, Angry and Hard to Understand’ attitude depicted by Nat Hentoff on a 1966  New York Time feature. In 1964 the two musicians founded the Jazz Composers Guild, after the October Revolution in Jazz four day marathon at the Manhattan’s Cellar Café. Since the previous spring, Dixon was actively involving the Cellar as the headquarter for his own concerts and activities. 

Giuseppi Logan, a student of Bill Dixon rehearsing just few blocks away from the Café, was borrowing his alto lines to some of Dixon’s compositions and dance suites, but the musicians involved were Albert Ayler, trombonist Roswell Rudd, altoist Jimmy Lyons, pianists Carla and Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, trumpeters Don Cherry and Mike Mantler, drummer Billy Higgins, and Sun Ra – at that time well established in the city - leading horns Pat Patrick and Marshall Allen.

After the October concerts, the pianist and the trumpet player gave life to the Jazz Composers Guild. A multiracial coalition featuring the most committed musicians of the New York area, whose purposes, in Dixon’s own words, were “to establish the music to its rightful place in the society; to awake the musical conscience of the masses of people to that music which is essential to their lives; to protect the musicians and composers from the existing forces of exploitation; to provide an opportunity for the audience to hear the music; to provide facilities for the proper creation, rehearsals, performance, and dissemination of the music” (Robert Levin, The Jazz Composers Guild: An Assertion of Dignity, Down Beat, May 6, 1965).

Alan Silva, Muhammad Ali, Frank Wright,
Bobby Few. Photo:Jacques Bisceglia
Previous attempts were Charles Mingus and Max Roach Jazz Artists Guild and their mini Newport Rebel festival in 1960, and Los Angeles Underground Musicians’ Association – UMGA, later ‘Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension’ - as outgrowth of pianist Horace Tapscott’s Pan African People’s Arkestra, formed in 1964 right after the Watts rebellions. While even John Coltrane tried to organize his own independent performance space and booking agency with Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji and reedist Yousef Lateef in 1967 in Harlem, a second event was planned by the Jazz Composers Guild in 1964 at the New York Judson Hall in December.

In Alan Silva’s recollections to Dan Warburton: "I got to play with different bands, and I was impressed to see how many jazz musicians were out there playing this new music. I saw the contrast between the Afro-American tradition and a new tradition that I considered Bill to be part of, and I saw improvisation as the key. We wanted to purify music in America. That's always been my goal, and I saw this as a great opportunity. [...] For better or worse, when he set up the Guild, Bill Dixon integrated. [...] I had a major problem with the name though: I didn't like the word "jazz" - I always felt it was a bad word, like "ghetto" - and I didn't like the word "composers" either. [...] Anyway, they ended up accepting the name "Jazz Composers Guild", and I became very actively involved. 

It was a tight group, with tight byelaws created by Bill himself, simply because he believed that way we could act together. We had decided to deal as a group. All your gigs had to come through the Guild. Some people wanted it to be a non-profit organisation, but I wanted to run it as a regular company. We went down to City Hall to register as a business, with a bank account and the right to run it commercially and make records. Bill wanted to sell the entire Guild to a record label for a certain amount of money, but my idea was different: I was into making our own records. My perspective was the same as Sun Ra's with Saturn. We should make our own: why should we go to Riverside, or Prestige?"

The Sun Ra Arkestra
While holding weeky concerts in a loft on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, two floors above the Village Vanguard, the Guild lasted little more than one year, suffering the clash of the personalities involved within such a competitive atmosphere as New York’s, and the racial climate in the United States, finally dissolving when Archie Shepp signed for Impulse!, the label that was issuing John Coltrane records. As Cecil Taylor, quoted in Ekkehard Jost’s Sozialgeschichte des Jazz in den USA (Fischer, 1989): 

“the Guild did not survive because people who were dealing with it did not raise enough social consciousness; they neglected everything that has to do with what a person who lives in New York today, who not only wants to earn his living but also to honestly express himself, experiences in everyday life”. But, as John Coltrane himself said to Frank Kofsky (Black Nationalism and Revolution in Music, Pathfinder Press, 1970), “It was just something that couldn’t be born at that time, but I still think it’s a good idea”

Go to third part.

Related discography:
The Bill Dixon Orchestra, Intents and Purposes, Rca Victor 1967

Related bibliography:
Frank Kofsky, Black Nationalism and Revolution in Music, Pathfinder Press, 1970
Ekkehard Jost’s Sozialgeschichte des Jazz in den USA, Fischer, 1989
Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, Duke University Press, 1993
Ben Young, Dixonia. A bio-discography of Bill Dixon, Greenwood Press, 1998
George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: the AACM and American Experimental Music, Chicago University Press, 2008

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Being a part of the whole (when I play it, I mean it): Bill Dixon [pt. 1]

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Bill Dixon in 1881. Photo: Stephen Haynes
That Bill Dixon is a remarkable musician, a peerless one, is something you can get to directly listening to Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador! (Blue Note, 1966). With (Exit), side B of the lp, is heavily marked by trumpet's brushes of notes from lower to upper registers, with Taylor answering to these increasingly long and raucous tides leaving his usual stumming for more varied figures. Dixon introduces here a kind of warm call, mostly half valves as typical of his style, that Miles Davis, using a more bright and muezzin-like tone, reran few years after in many of his electric records and live performances – I also think that a comparison between some of the two trumpeters musical statements would be interesting, also to put in perspective some of Davis’ allegations on the couple of ‘contenders’ via Leonard Feathers’ Blindfold Tests on Downbeat issues of the era.

“There is no music without order - if it comes from a man’s innards” said Cecil Taylor to Nat Hentoff, while in more recent times, for a beautiful overall gaze on Dixon’s works provided by Clifford Allen on, Dixon himself stated “I told people years ago, the funny thing about Cecil is that if you're playing with him and you bring something into the music that catches his attention, he'll pay attention.” As a passionate fan of Cecil Taylor music, I can confirm Allen statements: no one else had this kind of alchemic approach to the music of the now 83 years old maestro, maybe with the exception of violinist Mat Maneri, who recorded a date with the pianist for the Library of Congress in 2004.

Born on October 5, 1959 in Nantucket, Massachussets, and died on June 16, 2010, Bill Dixon was not only an accomplished trumpeter, pianist and composer, but even before that, an accomplished painter. Relocated in New York with his family when 7 years old, as a teenager he attempted to study visual arts, and became a musician only when discharged from the Navy. As Graham Lock underlines in an interview for Point of Departure, Dixon’s art can be seen ‘as a personal extension of the experiments with abstraction that were taking place in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s’, like Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and De Kooning.

Bill Dixon, 'Changes', pen ink and acrylic on paper
To complete the cadre, George Grosz, Otto Dix, architecture and design coming out of Impressionism can be taken as part of his panel of direct references. Former student with Earnest Critchlow, an African American artist that had a role in the Harlem Renaissance, and later, in 1969, founder of the Cinque Gallery and teacher at the NY University and the Art Students League, Bill Dixon left representation in 1960, almost at the same time he abandoned reading novels and started composing his own music, arranging notes more than group personnel.

“I would say it’s about as far as abstraction can go. In fact, it goes beyond abstraction. There is nothing to guide the viewer as to why those lithographs have anything to do with any of those people. Absolutely nothing. I was thinking about them consciously the entire time and, metaphysically, trying to place that ‘thought’ in the painting, if that was possibile.” Almost the same is the process when dedicating a piece to someone, as with Sumi E, a beautiful composition featured on 1988 record Son of Sisyphus and dedicated to Bill’s mother.

Dixon himself provided Clifford Allen with an aptly description for the music and the similarities with visual arts, due to the influence of both the artistic personalities of the musician: "I don't think vertically, but horizontally. If I follow a line I'm playing, I would have to turn around and look at the horizon—and what about the depth of the thing? It depends—shooting out a line and using delay or reverb almost has a cloud effect. You can put forth a phrase, the ensemble can come in, and they hover around each other.

I think of this as a cube-like thing, that if it were possible I could walk into the sound and play in it like that. It goes someplace and is a collection of something—why wouldn't it have a width, height, while also having all the instruments on the same level? Let your ear select where it wants to go, toward points where there's something up top, something behind, and you hear trumpets like they're inside the other thing. It holds another kind of responsibility on the ear; we draw out the soloist when we hear something. You walk into a party and if you want to hear what someone is saying, you focus on them."

Dixon’s first recorded compositions, Trio and Quartet, are featured on a record headed to the Archie Shepp – Bill Dixon Quartet and released in 1962 by Savoy in the US and by BYG in Europe under the title Peace. At that time, Bill Dixon was having embouchure problems, but his compositions are an evidence of the period, while Trio was subsequently reworked on the New York Contemporary Five albums. Way before, Dixon was heavily involved in the NY Art scene - the one described by Daniel Belgrad as 'aesthetic of spontaneity' - see his The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America, University of Chicago Press 1998 - playing and composing, after attending the Hartnett Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. In 1951 he met Cecil Taylor for the first time, while working for the UN and founding in 1953 the UN’s Jazz Society.

Between his first compositions, there is a suite for jazz horns influenced by JJ Johnson’s Poem For Brass (featured in Gunther Schuller’s The Birth of The Third Stream, Columbia 1956) and Teo Macero, showing how far Dixon was departing from the classic post-bop combos, while at the same time refining his attitude towards the music business, liking better Greenwich Village’s coffeehouses than usual clubs as The Five Spots. Other declared influences on Dixon compositional palette were movie and radio soundtracks, as well as his experience of composing and playing for dance performances.

This way, Bill Dixon started to be accustomed to such places as Le Figaro since 1961, gravitating toward figures as tenorist Archie Shepp and altoist John Tchicai, that since 1963, coming in NY from Denmark, started collaborating with native musicians leading to the Ney York Contemporary Five. Bill Dixon became their arranger while the choice of the trumpet player fell on Ornette Coleman scholar Don Cherry. While Dixon influence on the band compositions decreased through their tour in Europe in 1964, since 1962 Dixon was teaching music to Marzette Watts, moving on the same building on 27 Cooper Square, above the Five Spot, in which the older altoist was living with Shepp and LeRoi Jones at the beginning of 1963.

East Village, the Five Spot
The Savoy sessions collected on the lp Peace, featuring Don Moore on bass and Paul Cohen on drums – but with Reggie Workman and Howard McRae on the Coleman cover Piece, were recorded just few months after the two musicians split up for the first time. Shepp started travelling the Soviet Union, while Dixon moved in Stockholm with Perry Robinson, introduced by the latter to Albert Ayler. Failed to arrange an album of standards for the tenorist since he was panicking, the two played on some dates, sharing also a night with some members of the Count Basie Orchestra. The record finally went out, but without Dixon’s arrangements.

While in Europe, Dixon started writing the pieces later collected when he and Shepp found themselves again together in New York. Responsible also for the cover of the album, from this moment on Dixon started playing only his own compositions, while reluctant before that experience. Meeting John Tchichai and writing for the wide intervals typical of his style meant also for the composer following his inspiration in writing for large ensembles, leading him to Metamorphosis, the piece ended in 1966 and opener for his first masterpiece Intents and Purposes (Rca Victor, 1966).

Through different stages, Dixon started in this period to develop his own idea of music, preferring a wider use of space, more than the classic NY jammin’ free jazz polyphonic practice of the period. While moving with Shepp on a Lower East Side Manhattan loft together with Billy Higgins, Henry Grimes and Don Cherry, they were playing for leftists and local church related organizations as such players as J.R. Monterose, Jackie McLean, Steve Lacy, Don Ellis, Randy Weston, and Booker Ervin.

LeRoi Jones and Diane Di Prima
Black conscience were turmoiling over the surface at the beginning of the new decade, and Shepp and Le Roi Jones were actively involved with the political Organization of the Young Men, leading then to 1965 philosophical oppositions between the Jazz Composers Guild and Jones’ Black Arts repertory theatre. It was time for Dixon, that in 1963 wrote only arrangements, without directly performing with this or any other band, for the New York Contemporary Five debut album Consequences (Fontana, 1963), as their previous Rufus, with the band still a quartet featuring only JC Moses on bass and Don Moore on drums, and hosted musicians for interviews on a local radio, to further evolve, while his old fellow/rival was publishing his fundamental Blues People the same year and presenting his play The Dutchman in 1964.

The New York Contemporary Five were hosting again Dixon arrangements in the Sonet live recordings captured in Copenhagen, and in the Bill Dixon 7-tette/New York Contemporary 5 Savoy 1964 release. Issued to honour a contractual obligation with the label, the lp featured for the first time a group of musicians that will evolve further two years after on Dixon’s milestone of the Sixties. The Sep-tette is finally a direct emanation of Dixon’s ideas and practice on composition. His attempt to evolve from the New York free jazz logic, borrowing wider colors from the ‘third stream’, soundtrack music, and postmodern contemporary dance, with an eye on Espressionistic painting, will lead him to become a forerunner of improvised music in Europe. But we’ll get back to this, later on.

Featuring Ken McIntyre on alto and oboe, George Barrow on tenor saxophone, Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone sax, David Izenzon and Hal Dodson on bass and Howard McRae on drums, the record featured only Dixon’s original compositions: Winter Song, divided into five sections, its small – only 31 seconds -  Coda, and The 12th December, that is a completely notated piece. Largely out of print, the record in its entirety is considered one of the seminal records of the experimental music of the era, and it is also Dixon’s first real play after his embouchure problems, though some difficulties here and there were affecting the resulting performances:

“We’d rehearsed a lot, but going into the studio I could not do any second take. There were false starts, but not complete ones. We had a couple of problems getting started and I could feel my strength going. Ultimately I had to call upon everything I knew to get through that. If you’ll notice, my sound wasn’t quite as secure as it might have been”, said Dixon himself to Ben Young for his Dixonia: A Bio-discography of Bill Dixon (Greenwood Press, 1998).

Go to second part 

Related discography as a leader:
Archie Shepp - Bill Dixon Quartet (Savoy, 1962)
Bill Dixon 7-ette/Archie Shepp and The New York Contemporary Five (Savoy, 1964)
Intents and Purposes (Rca Victor, 1967)

Related discography as sideman:
Cecil Taylor, Conquistador! (Blue Note, 1966)

Related discography as arranger/composer: 
The New York Contemporary Five, Consequences (Fontana, 1963)
The New York Contemporary Five, Rufus (Fontana, 1963)
The New York Contemporary Five, Vol. 1 (Sonet, 1963)
The New York Contemporary Five, Vol. 2 (Sonet, 1963)
Bill Dixon 7-ette/Archie Shepp and The New York Contemporary Five (Savoy, 1964)

Related Bibliography: 
Ben Young, Dixonia. A bio-discography of Bill Dixon, Greenwood Press, 1998

Thursday, April 12, 2012

R.I.P. Tony Marsh

Words + Photos: Gian Paolo Galasi

Tony Marsh at the Vortex Jazz Club, Oct. 21, 2011
I heard of Tony Marsh departure a couple of days ago, via social networking. When in London, I saw him play three times, since last September through the end of October. Despite  of being actively involved in the local scene - from Visionlogic, one of his most recent projects with guitarist Tim Crowther and keyboardist Steve Franklin, to his constant presence with the London Improvisers Orchestra - it is hard to find an extended review and analysis of his music through the Internet. 

Tony Marsh started to play in the Seventies with Major Surgery, and since the Eigthies he collaborated with the likes of John Surman, Paul Rutherford, Barry Guy, Elton Dean, Harry Beckett and the Mike Westbrook Orchestra, developing through those experiences both improvisational and compositional tools, and exploring music with acoustic and electronic line ups - see the acclaimed Spring Heel Jack series on Thirsty Ear. 

Tony Marsh, Evan Parker, John Tchicai (hidden: Louis Moholo-Moholo)
I still remember a couple of performances at the Vortex Jazz Club, in duo with altoist John Tchicai and then in a second set featuring saxophonist Evan Parker and drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo (see my review here), then with one of his regular trios with Evan Parker and bassist John Edwards, with a Sonny Rollins feeling - circa East Broadway Run Down, that is to say American tenorist's Impulse! era - emanating directly from the texture of the matter, more than from the amount of notes or the sound itself. Another obliged quote are his regular performances at the club Arch 1, with saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and double bassist Guillaume Viltard. Last October 16th wasn't the first performance with the Danish altoist, while more recently Marsh played with American multi-instrumentalist and composer Roscoe Mitchell, and was developing further collaborations, as with lutist Joseph Van Wissem (it was planned for May 2, 2012 at Cafe Oto).

For a biography and discography see: