Free-jazz trumpeter Bill Dixon (1925) was more influential as an organizer (he conceived the first free-jazz festival, "October Revolution in Jazz", in 1964) than as a musician, but was actually one of the greatest musicians of free jazz,
albeit a voluntary exile from the music industry.
His first association was with the young saxophonist Archie Shepp.
They formed a quartet that recorded the Coleman-inspired
Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet (october 1962), half of which was
taken up by free improvisations titled Trio and Quartet and
credited to Dixon (then already 37 years old).
The album by Archie Shepp's New York Contemporary Five, known as
Consequences (november 1963), was actually a split with Dixon's septet
(february 1964) that performed two Dixon compositions, The 12th December and
Winter Song 1964, of a rather different kind, mellow and restrained.
His next association was with Cecil Taylor, playing on his
Conquistador (october 1966).
Dixon's first album, Intents And Purposes (1967), released when he was already 42, included two lengthy workouts, the five-movement Metamorphoses 1962-1966 (october 1966) for a tentet (trumpet, trombone, alto, clarinet, English horn, cello, two basses, drums and percussion) and Voices (january 1967) for a quintet (trumpet, clarinet, cello, bass and drums).
Both works displayed Dixon's pensive, lyrical style that sounded like pure poetry among all the viscerality of free jazz. Instead of using the music as a weapon, Dixon (who was also a painter) used it to create vast canvasses of organized sounds, using space and silence in a way that predated Chicago's "creative" school, and often caressing the atmosphere with haunting bass lines.
A truly underground musician, most of his recordings of the 1970s appeared only in the 1980s. For example, Considerations (1980)
included four extended compositions:
Orchestra Piece (january 1972), Sequences (january 1972) for a quintet (trumpet, trombone, saxophone, bass and drums), Pages (june 1975) for a trumpet-saxophone-drums trio
(part of a longer work titled Pages As in Pages in a Book),
Places And Things (september 1976) for a trio of trumpet, saxophone and bass
(part of a much longer work titled Autumn Sequences from a Paris Diary).
Regarding the unreleased Pages As in Pages in a Book and
Autumn Sequences from a Paris Diary,
Bill Dixon explained to me:
Yes, there is a complete recording of Pages as in Pages in a Book. As I said previously, the work itself was a performance driven work, realized in front of a live audience. Some of what it represented was more suitable for the visualness of the work [there is a section where I read portions of writings by Frank Lloyd Wright; George Jackson and LeCorbusier, etc.], I felt at the time. The theatricality of this is, as you would know, more suited to the performance arena and is less effective for the recording medium, etc. There were also numereous solos in the piece. Jimmy Lyons, who I had as a visiting artist in my department at that time, isalso is a performer in that work, largely as a soloist. For the recorded version issued on Fore Records], I selected those areas that I felt were suitable for the medium of recording. Since I always document my works by recording them myself there is a recording of the totality of this performance in my archive.
Autumn Sequences from a Paris Diary was also recorded in performance by French Radio [the version that appears on the Fore Recording. It may be that French Radio also recorded the totality of the four day realization of that work. In any event I have five ten inch reels that represent the entire recording of my participation in the Autumn Festival of 1976. Over the years a few record companies have made rather tepid forays concerning wanting to release portions of the work. None of them, thus far, have sufficiently impressed me that indeed they were serious. At some point I may attempt to release that work to the public via recording.
Collection (1985) was a double LP of mostly solo performances dating from 1972-76, notably the three-part I See Your Fancy Foot Work (january 1973).
1982 contained two sets of solo pieces (from 1970 and 1973).
Opium (august 1976) contained the side-long For Franz performed
by a quintet with two trumpets, tenor saxophone, bass and percussion.
In Italy (june 1980) presented four of his more austere pieces
performed by a sextet with three trumpets and tenor saxophone:
For Cecil Taylor,
A quartet with two trumpets recorded another set of intense jams for
November 1981 (november 1981):
Thoughts (may 1985) for septet, with Thoughts and the four-part
suite For Nelson and Winnie, and
Son Of Sysiphus (june 1988) for quartet were transitional works, but
the double-CD Vade Mecum (august 1993) was again a mesmerizing collection,
a quartet with bassists Barry Guy, William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley
crafting majestic existential moods through lengthy meditations such as
Viale Nino Bixio 20,
Twice Upon A Time,
Dixon planned the narrative plot of each piece and set the constraints
that the players had to obey. His own trumpet was a magical device, that
attained great emotional intensity with a trickle of notes. Melodies were
hinted at, rhythms disappeared in rhythmic vacuums, harmonies disintegrated
as they were created. The low-key sounds made everything sound oneiric
Another two-CD set, Vade Mecum II (august 1993), delivered the rest of those sessions,
Both were monumental works, worthy of Cecil Taylor's and Charles Mingus'
most highbrow experiments.
The live The Enchanted Messenger (november 1994) featured the Tony Oxley Celebration Orchestra and Dixon in an extended improvisation of nineteen "sections".
The two volumes of Papyrus (june 1998) contained duets with Oxley, with
many among his most poignant motifs:
Indirizzo Via Cimarose Sei,
The trumpet was more subliminal than a voice, and sometimes felt like a
supernatural force sending cryptic and ambiguous, but celestial, messages
to the human mind.
Dixon also played piano, notably in Cinnamon, and overdubbed a second
trumpet, notably in Four-VI-1998.
Dixon and Oxley were joined by two double bassists on
Berlin Abbozzi (november 1999), that contained three colossal
jams: the 21-minute Currents, the 40-minute Open Quiet / The Orange Bell, and Acrolithes. Far from being merely an exercise in verbose
improvisation, each piece was a manic, painstaking and highly emotional
operation of soundsculpting. The music was dark, ghostly and ominous, like
a whisper from a creature trapped in another dimension.
His large orchestral piece Index was performed in 2000.
No other free-jazz musician managed to remain so current as Bill Dixon in his 70s.
Odyssey (2001) is a six-CD set that collects mostly
trumpet solos spanning the period 1970 through 1992,
including all of Collection and adding notably
the live improvisation Jerusalem (march 1990) and
Elegantissimo (december 1992), a duet with keyboardist Leslie Winston.
A trio of Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley (may 2002) was documented live on a 42-minute improvisation, B+T+C.
17 Musicians in Search of a Sound - Darfur
(june 2007) documents a live performance.
Weight/Counterweight (april 2008) featured the rhythm section of Aaron Siegel (bass) and Ben Hall (drums, percussion).
Envoi: Live At Victo 2010 (may 2010) documents the last live performance
by Bill Dixon, leading an ensemble with
Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet, flugelhorn, bass
& piccolo trumpets), Graham Haynes ( cornet, flugelhorn &
electronics), Stephen Haynes ( trumpet, cornet & flugelhorn),
Rob Mazurek (cornet & electronics), Glynis Lomon (cello),
Michel Cote (contrabass clarinet & bass clarinet), Ken Filiano
(double bass & electronics) and Warren Smith (vibes, marimba,
gongs & drums).
Dixon has recorded some of the most adventurous music of the free-jazz era,
but few people ever heard it.
DIxon died in june 2010.
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