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]

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