The evocative, untitled pen-and-ink abstract which graces the cover of Bill Dixon's latest release, Berlin Abbozzi
(FMP), hints at the impressive aesthetic focus of the sounds contained within. The cover art is Dixon's own; it is a beautifully balanced piece, mostly shades of a single hue, with a certain aura of forboding mystery. The music only grows more interesting with each listening. Dixon's breathy, austere opening statement on the aptly titled "Currents", replete with Harmon mute and a touch of reverb, initially reminded me of L'Ascenseur pour l'echafaud-era Miles Davis (this should come as no surprise, since Dixon was actually born a year before Miles
). There are indeed times when Dixon calls up the kind of shadowy, melancholy lyricism that Davis was so well known for. Of course, after hearing this disc there is little point in making petty comparisons with past figures. Dixon's complete control of his instrument is immediately apparent, and his first-hand knowledge of the trumpet's historical lineage in American music allows him to look to the future, to chart new trajectories. Everything about his approach is distinctive; the use of delay and reverb, the delicate timbral and registral shading of single intervals (sometimes single pitches), the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elasticity, the sense of intuition, the sense of architecture-and it is all documented here.
It makes sense that Dixon is today such a confident musical visionary; he has been active in creative improvisational contexts for over forty years now. He is perhaps still most reknown for his work as the organizer of the October Revolution in Jazz (1964), and as trumpeter on Cecil Taylor's Conquistador (Blue Note, 1966). This is unfortunate, for his entire aesthetic conception has since advanced tremendously. In a sense, both Dixon and Taylor have had similarly remarkable careers; they have maintained a high degree of integrity through the years, and have continued innovating and shaping the music into their seventies. But while Taylor's discography has swelled to almost massive proportions over the last two decades, Dixon's recorded output has been somewhat slight after a full decade of silence in the seventies. Fortunately he has been increasingly prolific in the Nineties, releasing two volumes of Vade Mecum (with Barry Guy, William Parker, and Tony Oxley, 1993) and two volumes of Papyrus (with Tony Oxley, 1999), all for the Italian Soul Note label.
In an age where stylistic pastiche and clever craftsmanship are often confused with a genuine synthesis of elements, it is refreshing to hear music so idiomatically unfettered. Certainly, the three pieces unfold with a great sense of purpose; what is even more remarkable is their profound grace, their transparency. Some may ask-"Is it jazz?"-and, as did Coltrane and Dolphy before him (actually, along with him), Dixon makes mincemeat of such a question. This music doesn't even sound much like what Dixon was doing in the sixties, despite some correlations. He has, for instance, utilized a two-bass lineup often throughout his recording career, first in February '64 (with a lineup including David Izenzon, on Savoy), and most recently on Vade Mecum. On Berlin Abbozzi, Klaus Koch and Matthias Bauer form an ideal bass partnership, perhaps even better suited to Dixon's conception than Guy and Parker were on the '93 discs. The current pairing, perhaps due to their somewhat less legendary status, has little (if any) problem fusing their individual voices; in fact, they do so with an extraordinary selflessness. They are somewhat less inclined to push this music along divergent paths (an occasional problem with the Guy/Parker partnership), preferring to interact with Dixon and Oxley as a singular, massive bass entity. Their particular approach not only serves to create dramatic harmonic tension and constant shifts of timbre, but also helps root the music with a formidable low-end foundation, thus placing Dixon and Oxley's intense dialogue in the foreground.
A special mention must be made of Tony Oxley's contribution, for he is undisputably one of the premier percussionists currently active in improvisational music. Once the house drummer at Ronnie Scott's club in London, he has since gone on to work with the finest in European (and, more recently, American) free improvisation: Derek Bailey, Barry Guy, Tomasz Stanko, Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton, etc. His relatively recent association with Cecil Taylor has been particularly fruitful; their encounters on discs like Celebrated Blazons and Nailed (both on FMP) display fully the new areas of expression Oxley and Taylor have explored. He has had the same liberating effect on the less percussive, more subtly lyrical Bley ( Chaos, on Soul Note). His large drum set is a kalidescope of different colors and timbres, with particular attention paid to extremes of register, density, and duration. Oxley works with both great intensity and restraint, juxtaposing dense, rumbling rhythmic waves with tiny pointillistic phrases peppered with a razor sharp, staccato attack. His highly individual approach never fails to elicit very unique responses from those with whom he is playing, and Berlin Abbozzi is no exception.
The fundamental importance of Berlin Abbozzi lies in it's contextual relation to the present-tense, it's timely relevance. It is music which practically invents itself moment-by-moment, with remarkable clarity. The distinctive voices of this group truly unite for a common cause; traditions which have been so throughly assimilated sublimate during the act of creation. It is inspiring just to know that this music was recorded a little over a year ago-Bill Dixon, I anxiously await your next release!