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]


  1. Re: Bill Dixon in Italy
    Dixon's intent for the instrumentation was larger than what was realized. We were supposed to be joined by Jimmy Lyons and Art Davis. Circumstances beyond our control got in the way of this. Read more at my blog:

    1. Grazie to Stephen Haynes for sharing such close details about his and Bill Dixon artistic experience.