|The Odyssey To Dixonia
Most musicians hunger for public recognition of their work. It's commonly
an integral part of the passion to create—the need to be seen,
heard and appreciated. Very few can operate independently of these
desires, but in the field of creative improvised music it can be a
necessity. Audiences are historically specialized and small. Critical
recognition outside the music's at times insular circle is difficult
to come by and is frequently based on extra-musical assumptions. Bill
Dixon is an artist who, by a combination of his own volition and the
circumstances that have characterized his career, has contended with
these potentially debilitating forces of anonymity and ambivalence.
His discography of compositions and performances numbers well into
the triple digits, but only a comparative handful of his recordings
are available to potential listeners and even these are often hard
to come by.
the persistent paucity of available material, Dixon took matters
into his own hands in the mid-1990s. His ambitious plans found fruition
in two documents—one musical, the other literary—that
seek to be both a summation of work to date and a beacon to future
endeavors. Odyssey encompasses six compact discs of sound and
two carefully crafted booklets. Of the printed material, the first
contains several essays by a small collection of writers close to
Dixon's cause and an interview segment conducted by Graham Lock. Comprehensive
discographical information is contained in the first text as well.
The second offers a collection of full-color lithographs celebrating
another side of Dixon's creative process, painting. These detailed
reproductions in turn correspond to several of the compositions contained
in the musical portion of the set, and offer up a visual vista into
Dixon's internal sound world.
second document finds form in Ben Young's Dixonia: A Biodiscography,
written in close collaboration with Dixon. The 418-page tome traces
Dixon's career in music from his earliest sideman appearances through
a myriad of musical incarnations. It differs markedly from certain
other discographies in that every recallable performance is included,
whether the results were recorded or not. Personal anecdotes and/or
reminiscences by Dixon accompany each discographical entry and here
is where the real meat of the book resides. The exhaustive (and often
tantalizing) session details are impressive, but it's Dixon's own
opinions on his career and musical relationships that really stay
in one's mental craw. Young conveniently organizes the book into thirteen
distinct chapters. Ten chronicle Dixon's own performances, while the
remaining three chart his efforts as producer, educator and source
of music for peers. Important collaborative relationships with Archie
Shepp, dancer Judith Dunn and many others form the crux of later chapters.
Young even goes as far as to provide exhaustive rosters of Dixon's
students and the years in which they studied with him.
The book also raises the regrettable reality that most of the recordings
documented reside on storage shelves, waiting for the resources
that could vault them into widespread circulation. Many of the lineups
are so impressive as to conjure awe and expectant conjecture. For
instance, the string of duet dates Dixon did with Wilbur Ware at
NYC's Speakeasy Café in the summer and fall of 1961, or the
1962 concert in Stockholm where Dixon teamed up with Perry Robinson,
Albert Ayler, Don Moore and Howard McRae. Then there's the Cecil
Taylor and guests evening at the Take 3 Coffee House in NYC where
the pianist held court with Dixon, Roswell Rudd, Jimmy Lyons, Albert
Ayler, Carla & Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray. And
this is just in the first 70 or so pages. Why weren't the tapes
running on any of these nights?
What does exist on tape is quite impressive and leads directly
into the importance and frustration inherent to Odyssey.
Dixon had originally intended for the box to document his group
work, but constricted finances coupled with a resolute insistence
that all of the musicians on the group recordings be compensated
for their work necessitated that he focus almost solely on the solo
facet of his oeuvre. Dixon voices his frustrations in the text of
the accompanying booklet but, listening to the music, it's difficult
not to simply give thanks that he found the patience, resources
and courage to put this thing out.
An obvious and easy complaint can be levied at the set's size and
density. Five discs of largely solo trumpet appended by another
of monologue voice musings is a daunting prospect, even for the
dedicated listener. Digesting the set in a single sitting leaves
much room for folly. Its monolithic stature can quickly tax the
staunchest auditory senses and it is far better approached in increments.
Dixon seems to recognize the challenge he's placing on his audience
and as such the set is broken down into programmatic fragments by
disc. The review that follows favors an analogous tack by tracing
the musical developments of each disc separately.
Dixon makes savvy use of space on "When Winter Comes" and
"Webern Work Study", creating Doppler frequencies that smear
and smudge across the sound floor in rapid-fire bursts. "The
Long Walk" perambulates to precisely placed tones that float
and echo in the air, forming a spectral structure, tinged with a delicate
cerulean patina. At one point he pinches a line into a sustained renal
whistle narrowing the pitch to a pinpoint just short of the inaudible
range. A ghostly rasp inculcates his lines, like the aural equivalent
of the finest grain of sandpaper scraped against a coarse metallic
surface. Overtones lurk at the edges, adding weird harmonic undercurrents
to his central undulating trajectories. Dixon possesses a flavor and
approach to his instrument that can truly be considered wholly unique
in the recognized canon of brass improvisers.
There are shades of Sketches of Spain-era Miles in his tone
at times, but even these instances are not implicitly referential
and instead appear independently arrived at. "Momenti"
is punctuated by Dixon's moist breath sounds, which creep to the
fore in the pauses and further color the cast of his creations.
Rifling through a litany of high velocity notes at the piece's close,
Dixon generates the illusion of a single battery of sound. "Stanza"
contrasts beautifully, a series of languorous legato streams, rounded
off by the porous rasp that Dixon channels so expertly through his
The "I See Your Fancy Foot Work" series juxtaposes whistling
voice with whistling trumpet, the latter seeming to be the victor
in terms of breadth of tonal variation and volume. Curt, obliquely
rendered blasts contrast with a trailing counterpoint of squiggling
flurries. Dixon's adolescent son interjects various exclamations
into the action, which seem to fuel his father into even more extreme
exhortations on his horn. An unusual duet develops with Dixon, Jr.
returning with questions and random vocal noises that are laced
within his father's improvisations. There's a space where the whole
effect skirts the edges of white noise static in density and intensity.
On headphones and even at modest volumes the salvos approach the
edges of uncomfortable listening. The set's notes make no mention
of electronic manipulation even though the cavernous echo Dixon
achieves seems to suggest otherwise. Huge humming drones vie with
gauze-like ribbons of more recognizable trumpet. The series nears
completion with a telling exchange from father and son. "Dad,
can I go get my trumpet and play the things I know?" "No,
cause you've played too much today, you have to save your chops,
In Dixon's grasp the trumpet becomes a vehicle for seemingly any
and all brass and breath born sounds. Those typically associated
with the instrument enter the vernacular along with droves of others
that seem the province of everything from piccolo trumpet to bass
tuba. "Mosaic" and "Albert Ayler" are but fragments,
the former sounding like the industrial grinding of gears and the
latter seeming an odd reference to its dedicatee. "Summerdance-
Part I" features the percussion of David Moss and Laurence
Cook in a convergence that rises gradually out of silence and into
a broad, dynamically-charged colloquy of sputtering brass and malleted
skins and metal. "Tracings" offers a stellar encapsulation
of the litany of tonal and pitch properties at Dixon's disposal
as he traces variations on a thematic center through a series of
discrete voicings. Conversely "The Long Line" adheres
to essentially the same tonal voice, a warm, plushly rendered intonation
fused with an underlying fuzzy rasp.
"Requiem for Booker Little" proves a fitting homage to the
hardbop trumpet icon, heartfelt and highly lyrical and linear in conception.
"Masques I"'s frequent use of space and silence coupled
with vocalizations into mouthpiece creates an environment of shifting
textures and ominous overtones. Later comes a rush of roller coaster
lines that juxtapose with the somber, but sadly interrupted journey
undertaken on "Odyssey/Interruptus". "Murmurs"
picks up the path where its predecessor left off, following a similar
circuit of solemn phrases to fruition. The softness in Dixon's palpable
tone is also laced with an astringent underside, which keeps an edge
sharply honed and wistfulness willfully at bay. Saxophonist Stephen
Horenstein, a student of Dixon's, suggests in his accompanying essay
that the closing section of "Flame" is "like looking
down the throat of Death". Dixon favors a brittle, wafer-thin
tone with mute, dusted with another strain of his signature rasp and
ghostly legato lines. Silence plays heavily into the presentation
and adds portentous weight to what are otherwise airy locutions. The
contemporaneous "Meta-Pedal" continues the train of thought,
but adds biting bursts and foghorn mutters that open the dynamics
up even further. Keyboardist Leslie Winston joins Dixon for a luminous
duet on "Elegantissimo", matching her amplified DX-7 ivories
in tandem with his bilious cloudbank of lines. The result is one of
the most resolutely lyrical excursions on the entire set and an intriguing
detour from Dixon's usual solitary musings. "Changes" sounds
almost as if birthed from a bugle with Dixon's tone taking on a constricted
cast as if channeled through battered tin. His breath strokes sound
more labored in this setting, but he sacrifices nothing in the way
of speed or articulation.
"Jerusalem", recorded in concert in the eponymous city,
finds Dixon dispensing a brief introduction before loosing a flood
of eructative sounds from the bell of his instrument. Call and response
patterns develop out of the natural and intentional echo of his instrument.
Later sections of the long-form piece plumb a deep reservoir of rich
ideas built on wide tonal variants and an exquisite use of sound space.
His phrases trace the full spectrum of audibility from near quiet
to boisterous volume, but it's a gradual progression requiring patience
and trust on the part of the listener. The second half explores another
facet of his signature style—that of lofty lyricism, as legato
tones spool into the air only to disperse like luminous vapor trails.
Later, mouthpiece pops and a returning stream of moist, muffling breath
sounds dismantles the reverie. But through it all, Dixon's ability
to completely hypnotize his audience through unrelenting virtuosity
manifests in the absolute silence, which greets his creations from
beginning to the curious fade that robs from a feeling of resolution.
Slight tape hiss is audible through most of the performance, but even
in the spaces of near silence Dixon's presence commands convincing
Given the girth and diversity of the concert piece the other entries
on this disc can't help but appear anticlimactic. "Umbra e Luce",
performed in homage to a deceased colleague, is more linear in scope
as Dixon moves through a maze of ferrous phrases, rarely pausing long
enough for the sounds to completely dissolve from his valves until
the final streaking exit. "The Somnambulist" initially affects
a sluggish pace, much in the way its titular subject might before
gaining velocity through a spray of fast-clipped phrases stained with
coarse-grain rasps. A distant ghostly echo is discernable just around
the edges, but its source remains a mystery. "Conncordde"
is at once lyrical and questing as Dixon purses a high pitched, but
polished tone from his brass that effectively cleaves through auditory
cobwebs and spotlights how emotively direct he can be when the mood
strikes him. Delay and sustain reappear on the lengthier, but spatially
diffuse "Fortunata". "Graffiti Sui Soffiti" caps
the disc off with another terse slice of his trenchant side.
A crowd of short pieces, all culled from 1973, a fruitful year for
Dixon, comprise the program on disc four. Though miniature in individual
duration, the compositions trace a varied path through Dixon's approaches
and preoccupations. Many barely breach the two-minute mark and while
they stand alone as discrete entities and intriguing snapshots, their
overarching focus is necessarily sound production over extended thematic
development. They offer proof that Dixon can find ample creative purchase
whether it's long-form or extreme economy in which he's working. "Postcards"
consists of rapid-fire clusters of notes, parsed by quick chasms of
silence. "For Wallace Thurman", yet another dedicatory piece,
makes use of a phantom second voice that sheathes the central thrust
of Dixon's primary lines. ""Chalk Circle—Blue"
experiments with flanging segments across the static stereo floor,
as Dixon's flutter-tongued tones move from left channel to right in
slippery smears. "Shadowland" is calming by comparison,
a contemplative string of conjoined phrases that uncoils at a relaxed
clip before veering off into a sputtering burst of speed. A string
of snippet-sized sketches follows, each one demonstrating a specific
sound property of his horn. "Spaces", for example, matches
guttural breath gusts with moist salivary mouth noises. They work
more as showpieces rather than fully fleshed statements, but combine
together as telling testament to Dixon's virtuosity. "Sketch
for Ernie Chritchlow", works as a miniature tone poem of legato
shapes that swirl about the sound space. Ghostly drones of what sounds
like microphone feedback enter the fray on "Manuscripts for Fathers
& Sons", retreating to whence it came in the crystal clarity
of Dixon's delicate constructions. "Chalk Circle—Red"
employs a technique akin to its earlier sibling, swinging between
stereo channels and parsing into simultaneous twining lines. Dixon's
sequencing of the disc, and the larger set in general, diversify moods
in a manner that keeps the spoiling specter of tedium from materializing.
Working in a reverse chronological order, the set's fifth disc documents
Dixon's art circa 1970, another exciting year from this standpoint.
The interlocking work that takes up the bulk of the program builds
and recedes in a fashion that is both beautiful and challenging.
For some unknown reason, "Dance #2" is plucked out of
natural sequence and deposited at the series' close. On the opening
section, tandem trumpets, laced together through the magic of multi-tracking,
float through a forest of verdant melodicism. It's a striking contrast
from the largely single-voiced excursions that characterize the
rest of the set, with Dixon deploying a dialogue of tightly spun
lines in close confluence that move from mellifluous reveries to
more strident streams of notes. Later sections showcase Dixon's
piano in duet with his brass. His touch on the ivories is sensitive,
but often oblique. The pairing of instruments creates a welcome
and involving respite from the solitary nature of most of the set's
Comprised completely of commentary, the sixth disc serves as the
Rosetta stone of the set, a lens through which Dixon explains his
designs in his own terms and at his own pace. His rich baritone
voice speaks clearly into the single microphone, opening up an intellectual
journey that is both logical and freely associative. Dixon's monologue
is both exhaustive and intensely informative. Some might interpret
his eloquent musings as overly pedantic or introspective, but the
wealth of information into his creative process and experience speaks
The trip begins with Dixon addressing a set of questions posed
by the Parisian Jazz Magazine in a survey sent to various
improvising musicians. Dixon recites his answers to each one with
a measured sureness. Piano chords rumble and tinkle away softly
in the background as he touches up on his transformation from 'jazz
musician' to 'black musician' to simply 'musician' and the changes
that were initiated by each transition. Dixon discusses how his
music is principally for himself and acknowledges the overt absence
of outside influence on it. His process of improvisation, his feelings
toward performance and his responsibilities toward his audience
all come into fascinating play. He also addresses constructed genre
distinctions in music and how they specifically affect approaches
toward a given instrument and the designation of mastery/virtuosity
on an instrument.
Moving on to other matters, Dixon discusses future projects including
large orchestral works, preferably performed in European locales.
Tied into these plans are an underlying perception of hostility
to his work in the U.S. and, more specifically, in New York City.
The exploration of these slings and arrows serves as a springboard
into an elaboration of Odyssey and into other associative
areas including his teaching methods and experiences. The halls
of academia became a refuge for Dixon's creative spirit and he used
those resources to full advantage. His student ensembles became
Petrie dishes for new compositions and ideas. It was also in this
environment that Dixon was able to hone his personal philosophy
toward music, wrestling with such variables as personal (solo) music
versus public (ensemble) music, composition versus improvisation,
and teaching as a means of escaping the necessity of creating with
commercial constraints in mind. Constraints come in many guises
and Dixon also touches upon his inherent limitations of both his
instrument (i.e. a propensity for sticking valves) and his own physiology
(finite breath) and the ways in which these strictures have shaped
his quest to realize the sounds and structures in his head.
Dixon's adversarial relationship with the critical press is something
that dogs him to this day. It's no surprise then that he uses this
forum to launch a few barbs including memorable quotes such as "So
many writers end up critics because they can't do this writing."
But far from the reactionary and vitriolic reputation that some have
boxed him into, he comes across as highly articulate and logical in
his arguments. In other words, his many complaints carry an air of
genuine legitimacy. He is a man who has been wronged in various ways
and his ability to shrug off these slights and center himself on the
validity of his own actions is worthy of admiration. Dixon repeatedly
substantiates his positioning as an artist who has never had to "wonder
whether people are going to like it or not or buy the record".
An expected audience is necessarily specialized and small and, once
one comes to grips with this reality, the result can be emancipatory.
Two halves of a monumental whole, the tandem package of Odyssey
and Dixonia present Bill Dixon's art as it has never been presented
before. Both documents demand careful diligence and scrutiny to map.
Nearly thirty years of work compressed into a span of five plus hours
should not be easily consumed, and it isn't. Both symbolically and
realistically, this set realizes the promise and precedence of its
title—one man's search for himself and the meaning of that to
which he's chosen to devote his life within a larger historical context
that continues to unfold.