Blastitude Number Seven
issue 8  june/july 3001
page 8



BILL DIXON: Consequences LP (BYG); Papyrus Volume II CD (w/Tony Oxley) (SOUL NOTE)
Pictured: Dixon; Shepp cropped by scannerIf my copy hadn't apparently gotten so friendly with a previous owner's cat, this would probably be a rather collectable item: an original BYG pressing from 1968 of a split LP by Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon. They don't play together, but rather each contributes a side recorded with their own respective bands. (This record was originally released in the USA, to a similarly limited audience, by Savoy.) Shepp, even in his more overt bluesman-thespian-francophile modes, is always worth checking in with, especially when his band includes John Tchicai, Ted Curson, Don Cherry, Ronnie Boykins, and Sunny Murray, as it does here; together they do a more 'covert' post-bop kinda free thing. It's very good. However, it is the Bill Dixon side that I've been playing over and over again. Dixon, though active from then (1963) right up until now, has only put out 10-15 records to everyone else's 30-40, so there seems to be something important, elusive, and arcane about his music.
        There seems to be, and in fact, there is. This early example contains two pieces, "The 12th December" and "Winter Song, 1964." Cool Monk-ish ensemble themes, with a playful swing bounce that immediately references the old tradition of jazz. (In fact, the most 'avant-garde' thing about much of the music is simply the murkiness of the recording, although my wife described the band as being "out of tune," and that's pretty avant-garde too.) The drumming by Howard McRae, who I don't believe I've heard from outside of this recording, is a real treat to focus on in the jazz murk, alternating between straight swing patterns and a kind of herky-jerky tribal bossa nova rhythm…you can really hear him taking chances back there. Again, the drums aren't recorded that well, but it's pure charm, having that same on-the-fly 'garage jazz' feel that a lot of old Sun Ra recordings had.
       In fact, early Arkestra is the most pertinent point of comparison, not only for the recording quality, but also for the slightly skewed bouncing space-swing feel of the music, and the presence of Ken McIntyre on oboe and Howard Johnson on baritone sax, both instruments being prominent in Ra ensembles. McIntyre's oboe solo on "The 12th December" really takes the song to another joyful level with its winding leaping Dolphy-esque snake-charmer lines, as does the boisterous shades-of-Pat Patrick solo by Johnson, another name otherwise unknown to me. (Please note: no lame joke about a hotel chain is inserted here.)
       Dixon's trumpet solo, which occurs between the oboe and the baritone sax solos, is odd. He combines a lovely, languid post-Miles 'straight' feel with strange overtonal phrasing…but his overtones aren't strictly 'outside', and he uses them quietly and sparingly, as grace notes on traditional melodic phrasing. I've listened to this track several times in the last 24 hours, and the second time I encountered this solo and really listened carefully to it, I swear for 30-40 seconds it made me wonder if Dixon just couldn't play that well, if he just didn't have that strong of an embouchre, and, like Miles, he knew how to make his limitations part of his aesthetic, by playing idiosyncratic solos, but saving most of his energy for his real talents, composing and band-leading. However, just as I was formulating all of this, Dixon ended his solo with a few lines of the languid, lovely and very correct-sounding style I mentioned above. So go figure. I mean, it's not like this side of this record wasn't alluringly mysterious enough I've got this particular trumpet solo to deal with...better evade that whole issue by asking the real question…which Bill Dixon recording should I get next???
       A question already answered for me in the fourteenth issue of Bananafish magazine, specifically by an essay in the record reviews section called "Attack, Attack, Attack." The title would seem to refer to the polemical approach taken by author Stanley Zappa, who marches right up to several free jazz sacred cows as they lazily chew their cuds, and emphatically tips them right over. For example: "That Ken Vandermark has won the MacArthur genius grant and [Bill] Dixon has not is simply preposterous -- a tragic error in judgment and taste about which the MacArthur Foundation should be wildly embarrassed."
        As evidence to back up his cogent claims, Zappa offers Papyrus Volume I and Volume II, as released by the Italian label Soul Note. These don't seem to be the easiest discs to locate, but I picked up the second one and, judging from the evidence therein, I would say that it indeed lives up to such Zappa pronouncements as "...the consideration and surety of Dixon's playing make it so passionately and epically dramatic...the hugeness of theme and feeling of superhuman accomplishment in Papyrus come with a lifetime of assiduous work." It's all true; this is an incredible CD.
       After a short, haunting introductory solo piano piece, we dive right into Dixon's sound world at the deep end: solo trumpet playing in a very echoey room. If you think the vocabulary of "free jazz" reached its limit some time ago, listen to even just thirty seconds of this track in order to be pleasantly surprised. Dixon goes from forlorn Miles-isms to sharp boxing jabs to spit-gargling rumblings to stunning low notes that sound exactly like a tuba. It's like Leo Smith never happened, as Dixon takes Roscoe Mitchell's aleatoric and fluttering sound-space investigations and floors them at their own game. Literally floors them: the natural reverb in this room is so loud, with every one of Dixon's surprising trumpet stabs, you can practically hear the entire floor of the room echoing back at him.
       Where's Oxley? He hasn't played for five minutes at least. Throughout the album he comes and goes rarely but emphatically, the same way trains periodically rumble through an isolated stretch of track somewhere in a desert or, if you wanna go urban, through some late-night desolate subway station. For his first appearance, some three minutes into the twelve-minute second track, he in fact sounds so much like a train that you might find yourself checking the CD credits, scratching your head at the fact that he is credited merely with "drums and percussion." Then, you start to think he actually sounds more like a spring rainstorm. Ah, forget it, he sounds like a great percussionist.
       Track five, "Epigraphy," could be described as being slightly more 'traditional'. Which is just to say that Dixon is playing some calm, relatively inside, post-blues/Feldman/Noh/Davis (you know, post-everything) calm trumpet investigation, while Oxley hovers in the background with random whistles, pings, and kerplunks that are also totally in the Noh (I mean "the Now", while also being post-everything).
      Did I mention Miles Davis? This Dixon CD, while still being totally 'out' and 'obscure,' still makes me think of the all-time great jazz star Miles Davis, one of the few music stars
this poor country has ever been able to claim that actually makes great (as opposed to simply entertaining) music. Take Davis's supremely chill, enticingly haunting 1957 recording L'Ascenseur pour l'echafaud, the soundtrack to a film by Louis Malle. (American title: Lift to the Scaffold.) If you listen to it in the room where the stereo is, you can hear the soft parts played by the drums and bass, but if you go into another room, not only is the rhythm section literally inaudible, but not even all of the trumpet lines will be noticed, save some of the louder crying outbursts. During the soft sax solos, by one Barney Wilen, it practically sounds like no CD is on at all.
      The unaccompanied Dixon solos on Papyrus
work in the same way. Despite Oxley's formidable presence, Dixon seems to indeed play unaccompanied for most of the disc. If you're not totally crankin' the stereo, you can't hear everything he does from another room, because much of it is so quiet, so intentionally poised just above the threshold of audibility. A melodic trumpet stab, or a burst of percussion, will occasionally be suddenly audible and always much louder than expected.
       The disc ends as it begins, with another relatively short solo piano track. These pieces sound like Morton Feldman playing the blues, and the only reason I use such an x-meets-y description is because Dixon makes it sound like such a thing of beauty.
       All I can really say in summation is "Oh man, you have gotta hear Papyrus Volume 2."




next page: well, forget it, I was gonna have
another page here, but this issue is so damn late already, it's gotta end. People, I really am sorry for the delay, but my excuses are good. Next issue will be out on August 1st at the earliest or September 1st at
the latest.