Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings

Bill Dixon
Victo cd 120

Bill Dixon Orchestra
Intents and Purposes
International Phonograph, Inc.

By a happy coincidence, the reissue of trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon’s first complete LP as a leader, 1967’s Intents and Purposes, and his last recorded performance, Envoi, from the 2010 Victoriaville Festival, were recently released at about the same time. They seem like the beginning and ends points of a straight line. Dixon was nothing if not consistent and he remained true throughout his life to one of the most uncompromising visions in American music. A master of long form composition for improvisers, his austere pieces are models of stark clarity and refined melody enlivened by a deep feel for the expressive qualities of texture and color. Their often-bleak beauty never – ever – conceded any false comfort or easy sentiment. It was Dixon’s great achievement as an artist that he never stopped challenging himself and his listeners to face the absolute truth.

The lovingly exact reproduction of Intents and Purposes, right down to the Dynagroove logo on the cover and spine, restores Dixon’s first major statement as a composer and improviser to print. Producer Jonathan Horwich did not include any additional material because Dixon explained to him before he died that the album was conceived of as a unified whole and is complete as it was originally issued.

Dixon had recorded his large ensemble music only once before, on a Savoy LP, one side of which was devoted to a Dixon septet, the other side to the New York Contemporary Five. Savoy had also issued an album by a quartet Dixon co-led with Archie Shepp. But this full Lp featuring an 11-piece ensemble not only offers a more complete picture of what Dixon was up to as a composer and instrumentalist, it also features the first instance of his use of multitracking, a technique he pioneered and excelled at using throughout his career.

What’s apparent from the opening moments of “Metamorphosis,” the album’s first track, is how well Dixon grasps the dichotomies and contradictions in the music of the time and how completely he controls them. Right away Dixon’s improvising establishes its vocabulary of extended techniques and the writing knowingly balances ecstatic beauty and feral anger, the two opposing forces within the music of the time that gave it its creative tension. Dixon undergirds – and sometimes undercuts – the lovely soaring opening theme with dark, troubling motifs in the low register instruments. The percussionists are entirely liberated from their time keeping roles and are used as orchestral elements. The use of percussion is reminiscent of Varese at times, but the context is entirely African American, and it’s impossible to avoid hearing nods to the Miles Davis-Gil Evans partnership in Dixon’s orchestrations and touches of Miles and Don Cherry ensconced in his soloing.

On “Metamorphosis,” Dixon the composer expertly transitions from one theme or passage to another; his ability to shape compositions into self-contained wholes would remain a hallmark of his art. He deploys soloists to bridge sections, introduces new themes behind them as they play, and further develops the written material after the improvisations end. In this way, individuals unify the entire composition while contributing their own unique personality to it.

The full orchestral opening grabs you by the collar and shakes you, with Dixon’s trumpet roiling over the ensemble like the air about lava, hot and breathy, as if the air itself is angry and accusatory. The music quickly subsides into a more muted section for the strings and Dixon, who now caresses and sighs, although there’s still an uneasy, expectant atmosphere, a storm on the way. Dixon introduces a new melody for English horn, bass clarinet, and alto saxophone. Drums and percussion enter into a heated dialogue with the rest of the orchestra as Robin Kenyatta delivers an unforgiving, anxious solo. A reprise of the English horn theme introduces yet another motif, a declamatory line in the low reeds and brass. Dixon finally releases all the pent up emotions with a cathartic section for percussion that ultimately ushers Dixon back in a doom-saying prophet mode. The scored material over which he delivers his jeremiad is perfectly controlled, the line developing, guiding, and shadowing the improvisation. The contrast between that control of written materials and the barely contained solo is a defining characteristic of Dixon’s music as well. Byard Lancaster delivers a final bitter solo over storming percussion and an aching theme that builds to an enigmatic, unresolved ending. Perhaps the most admirable thing about Dixon’s music is its rejection of any pat, comforting conclusion; he never gave listeners or himself a break.

The other orchestral composition, “Voices,” opens with Cleve Pozar’s drums and uses them as a unifying element for the entire piece. This is one of Dixon’s most melancholy compositions, in which bassist Jimmy Garrison’s unshakable lyricism provides a foundation for the solemn development of Dixon’s themes. Pozar’s insistent cymbal work provides a naggingly obsessive motif, eventually migrating to his drums to drive the work toward its climax. The mood is dark, but alluring, it’s hard to stop listening to it unfold, and as always with Dixon there is the consolation, if not the comfort, of grasping hard, unsentimental truths.

The short multitracked compositions “Nightfall I and II,” foreshadow the solo albums he would release in the coming years, as well as the brass-heavy ensemble heard on Envoi. Dixon never tired of exploring the trumpet’s potential for new timbre and texture, and the unique way restraint can hint at deep wells of feeling with a minimum of notes. He uses the studio to layer contrasting and complementary timbres, develop contrapuntal lines, and build harmonies.

The instrumental palette used on Intents and Purposes, closely resembles the one on Envoi, with its use of contrabass clarinet, cello, bass, percussion, and brass. There are other similarities as well. The tempi remain mostly at a slow processional pace, focusing interest on the play of color, texture, dynamics, and the accumulating tensions generated by the deliberate unfolding of the melodies. A Dixon composition frequently provided a still surface that teemed with events – swirling colors, patches of contrasting textures, and unforeseen lyrical vistas. There is something sublime in the majestic vertical heights to which he could stack the trumpets, and something darkly fascinating in the dizzying deep of the strings and contrabass clarinet.

Envoi covers familiar territory for Dixon, but still includes surprises and refinements throughout; he continued to explore the nuances of orchestration, timbre, and melody even in this final piece. For instance, there’s a passage early on for cellist Glynis Loman, bassist Ken Filiano, contrabass clarinetist Michel Coté, and the trumpets. The pizzicato bass provides a percussive element, while the arco cello and contrabass clarinet provide melody, and the trumpets expand and contract envelops of sound through crescendos and decrescendos. The sound world is one that Dixon created again and again, but the events still sound fresh and full of wonder for the infinite possibilities of music. Dixon makes great use of sonic extremes, pitting very high trumpets against very low bass and contrabass clarinet with nothing occupying the space between them. It is music of immense clarity and power. Perhaps even more than on Intents and Purposes, there is a sense of Dixon as an orchestral composer of large architectures that establish distinct boundaries for improvisation, but allow freedom of movement with its walls.

The second section opens with tense close-harmony chords through which course whale song drones from tympani and bass. The colors of the trumpets slowly shift from one hue to another; small movements between notes create motion and a sense of volume and space. As the music grows more quiet and expectant, it falls into lower registers, yielding a low thrum out of which rises trumpet soloists, hovering and kiting over the ensemble. Warren Smith’s vibraphone adds sparkle and speed. A melody, or a scrap of one, appears for the first time, struggles to assert itself, then disappears, lost in the slow, spreading fog of bass, cello, and contrabass clarinet. Eventually the trumpets creep back in out of this darkness, stacked vertically to an austere height, a mountaintop revealed in the dawn. None of the extremely talented ensemble of trumpeters – Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes and Rob Mazurek – can fix the existential void with as unwavering stare as Dixon himself. However, each is a lyrically powerful player, attuned to Dixon’s need for both revealing understatement and startling extremes, and they never soften the music’s emotional blow to the gut.

Dixon himself was reportedly too frail to solo during the concert, which took place less than a month before he died. His solos were prerecorded and played back during the performance, unintentionally underscoring the continuity with the earlier album and its use of multitracking. To the end, Dixon was a master of drama, unwilling to be anything other than unsentimental and absolutely honest, and unwavering in his vision.
–Ed Hazell

ECM Records

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