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Artist Profiles

Bill Dixon: The Morality of Improvisation

By Published: August 20, 2005
Apart from the artist, those who engage the work must not only accept the conviction of that artist, but themselves exhibit that very same conviction. Can one limit one's interest in an artist to a certain period, or a couple of recordings? "When anyone is doing anything, to say 'well this or that is not interesting,' it may very well not be interesting to you, but unless that person is doing things deliberately uninteresting to himself, it is patently unfair and uniformed to use that as a blanket statement. ...I think that when you become caught up with a person's work, you want every single thing they've done. You want the rejects if you can get them. Just as when Pollock's and Clyfford Still's work make the most sense when exhibited among a large number of their other works, so the art of an improviser must be appreciated and understood not only among that of his or her peers, but the breadth of one's working output - whether constituting 6 recordings or 600. As a leader or co-leader, Dixon has 21 albums, though the book Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon authored by Ben Young (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998) documents every musical situation Dixon has involved himself with from the moment he began playing trumpet in 1946 until the book's completion in 1997 - this includes unissued tapes (which Dixon has a copious amount of), practices, rehearsals, concerts and in-class performances. For sure, few artists are given context at such a level. To accompany this book in the form of a collection of audio and visual examples, Dixon produced and self-released Odyssey in 1998, a six-disc set of solo trumpet pieces and spoken word spanning almost thirty years, filled out with color reproductions of paintings and drawings as well as essays by his colleagues.

Dixon's stature as an instrumentalist, composer and contributor to the improvised music community rests not only on the empirical value of his own work, but his tremendous influence as well. It is only fitting that Dixon is opening this year's Festival Of the New Trumpet (curated by Dave Douglas and Roy Campbell Jr.) on August 2, as his approach to the instrument - utilizing growls, slurs, bent notes and, through uncommon breathing practices - has expanded the tonal palette of brass much as his student Alan Silva has done with high-harmonic string glissandi. Joe McPhee, in the liner notes to Everything Happens for a Reason (Roaratorio, 2005), discusses Dixon in the album-opener "Mythos, what the trumpeter/reedman calls "an attempt to evoke a sonic portrait of the master, a brittle and alternately weighty and playful mélange of microtonal brass daubs. Bassist John Voigt, who worked in tandem with Mario Pavone for several years in the early 1980s as a member of Dixon's quartet, remarked in conversation about "the unbending force of Dixon's music and its "purity, and that despite the fact that the compositions themselves often appeared sketchy at first, there was a remarkable amount of control along with all the freedom that one was allowed. Voigt found Dixon to be "the most articulate in dealing with his own music of all the people [Voigt has] worked with, something that anyone who speaks with the man at length will find to be very true. Yet in expanding the structural language of an instrument and the educational foundations on which an art form is built, Dixon's influence can nevertheless be felt as much as it can be pinpointed. It is a body of work affirming a central tenet of improvisation - an art that is both taught and lived.

Recommended Listening:

· Bill Dixon - Intents and Purposes: The Jazz Artistry of Bill Dixon (RCA-Victor, 1966-'67)

· Bill Dixon - Solo Works: Odyssey (Archive Edition, 1970-'90)

· Bill Dixon - In Italy, Vol.1&2 (Soul Note, 1980)

· Bill Dixon - Vade Mecum I & II (Soul Note, 1993)

· Bill Dixon - Papyrus Vol.1&2 (Soul Note, 1998)

· Bill Dixon - Berlin Abbozzi (with Matthias Bauer, Klaus Koch and Tony Oxley) (FMP, 1999)

Photo Credit
Performing by Frank Rubolino
Portrait by Mephisto

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