Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Being a part of the whole (when I play it, I mean it): Bill Dixon [pt. 5]

Words: Gian Paolo Galasi

Sound and Vision Orchestra, 2007
Photo: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society 
“The music of Bill Dixon maintains such a powerful flavor, it is one of those things where you inevitably remember the first time you taste it. For me, it was his mid-career landmark recording November 1981. Within the one minute and twenty six seconds of Webern, the opening track, I realized I had to completely rethink the possibilities of the trumpet as an improvising instrument. By the end of the album, I realized I had to examine my assumptions about the nature of creative music in general.”

Cornetist Taylor Ho-Bynum included this statement at the beginning of an essay inserted in Tapestries For Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12, 2009), a double Cd plus Dvd documenting Bill Dixon’s residency at the 2007 NY Vision Festival. The line up features four of Dixon closest collaborators and disciples, Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes, Rob Mazurek and Ho Bynum, along with double bassist and contrabass clarinetist Michel Côté, cellist Glynis Loman, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer and vibrafonist Warren Smith.

Aged 84 at the time of those live performances, Dixon’s work in the last decade is marked by a musical activity that spreads its wings well beyond the world of NY contemporary jazz. Or, better said, that enjoys the widening of the stream of what the avant jazz environment, and audience, is nowadays. Not by chance one of his last students, one of the few granted with private, individual lessons, was trumpeter, composer and visual artist Rob Mazurek.

Rob Mazurek - Photo by Jim Newberry
Born in 1965 in Jersey City, Mazurek started playing in a quartet in the early 1990s in Chicago, where after three albums he also founded the collective Chicago Underground with guitarist Jeff Parker, drummer Chad Taylor, bassist Noel Kupersmith and trombonist Sarah Smith. While recording for Delmark and other labels as a Duo, Quartet, or Orchestra, Mazurek often collaborated with combos coming from experimental rock such as Tortoise, Gastr del Sol, Stereolab and Sam Prekop.

This was one of the first generations of musicians newly aware, after the grunge/indie limelights, of the possible connections ‘outside of their mainstream’, to gain curiosity and then consideration into the avant jazz/contemporary milieu, as happened abut twenty years before with DNA’s drummer Ikue Mori and guitarist Arto Lindsay, or in Europe with guitarist Terry Ex, just to name a few.

Close at hand with the new millennium, Dixon’s releases featured a quartet album for the German label FMP titled Berlin Abbozzi. With a line-up similar to some of his Soul Note records – two basses, Matthias Bauer and Hans Koch, his trumpet and Tony Oxley on drums – it features a 60 minutes long composition, structured in three parts. At the change, Dixon will be on duty to carry his musical legacy with his younger acolytes.

Taylor Ho Bynum, Wadada Leo Smith, Stanton Davis, Stehpen Haynes
at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem - Photo by Richard Conde
As Tapestries,  its, posthumous, follow up Envoi (Victo, 2011) enjoy the same line up, the same instrumental colors, and the same extended form. Clearly at that point in time, after his long teaching status, and the previous decade outputs, Bill Dixon is finally ready to affirm himself as one of thw most important contemporary composer. As Clifford Allen aptly wrote, Dixon’s music at that point in time can be compared to such contemporary composers as Toru Takemitsu, Lucas Ligeti and Morton Feldman.

Responsible of sharing Dixon’s heritage in the present, revisiting Envoi at a memorial in New York’s St. Mark’s Place in 2010 with Joe Morris added as a second double bassist to the original band, or with the same year exhibiton at the Antwerp-based Follow The Sound festival with Dixon collaborators Franz Coglmann, Jacques Coursil and Barry Guy, or again in New York’s Rubin Museum of Art collective concert with Wadada Leo Smith, Taylor Ho Bynum, Stanton Davis, William Parker and Warren Smith, trumpeter Stephen Haynes, since 1973 former Dixon student at Bennington College and one of his closest collaborators, points at:

“His limning of the unexplored areas of the trumpet through consistent, controlled usage of multiphonics and extended range alone earns Bill the mantle of trumpet innovator. […] his mapping and harnessing of the lower, ‘off the horn,’ pedal register […]; his use of electronics, delay and reverberation, as well as his employment of extreme modality of attack and articulation […]. Dixon’s currently decreased employment of upper register multiphonics reflects organic change and the artist’s use of what is available to create new work.”

Taylor Ho Bynum at the Vortex Jazz Club
London, Oct. 2011 - Photo: Gian Paolo Galasi
And while 2008 AUM Fidelity 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur, issued not that much after being hosted into Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra ensemble (Thrill Jockey, 2007), is dedicated to the military-drive genocide in the African country, its ten movements – mostly short, with the central Sinopia as the only composition to oversize 20 minutes - features four trumpets, two trombones and one tuba, bassoon, three saxophones and one bass clarinet, double bass, cello and percussion.

The most extended of Dixon’s large ensembles to date, it follows the results achieved with Bill Dixon 7-tette and above all Intents and Purposes, while finally grounding in the same area of musicians involved in the music of composers such as Anthony Braxton in the same years another great composer and multi-reedist, Henry Threadgill, is finally being acknowledged as a true master of contemporary music.

Related discography:
Berlin Abbozzi (FMP, 1999)
17 Musicians in Search of a Sound (Aum Fidelity, 2007)
Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey, 2008)
Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12, 2009)
Bill Dixon/Aaron Siegel/Ben Hall: Weight/Counterweight (Brokenresearch, 2009)
Envoy (Victo, 2011)

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