Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dixon v. Dixon

Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra

17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur

One of the really great things about being a "music writer" is getting copies of CD's before everyone else. You really feel like a someone--a real part of--when you are in a position to generate meme about artists you dig before the great unwashed horde of consumers chime in with meme of their own.

Such was the case with the Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra. In fact, somehow I got two copies of that in the mail--seemingly seconds after it was recorded.

Such was not the case with the 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur recording. Until such time when I am a fully vested member in that hallowed fraternity of music writers, I will buy mail order like any other decent unwashed God fearing consumer horde member.

The wait, as well as the disparity in promotional styles, though an entirely extra musical concern, didn't go unnoticed. No judgement inherent in that, I'm just noticing. Besides, the world of music capitalism has always been cryptic one. The time it took (for them) to release and (for me) to get a copy of the Darfur recording versus two copies of Exploding Star makes that world all the more cryptic.

Yet everything happens for the best of all possible reasons at all times, or so the saying goes. The time between receipt of Darfur and hearing it live at the Vision festival has been a really super help in cultivating dispassion: the live event was so staggering, to have written about it then, to put it on the rack and get all critical about it so soon after the performance is the kind of buzz kill I try and avoid. Even if I had gotten the CD immediately after the performance chances are I still would have waited until now to write about it.

My excuse for not writing about the Exploding Star release is that it and Darfur are conceptually pegged to one another in my mind due to their chronological proximity. Has anyone else written a comparison of the two recordings? Could it be despite my epic tardiness I'm still first in line?

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Naturally I immediately listened to Exploding Star as soon as it arrived in the mail. When it arrived in the mail a second time, I immediately listened to it again. At that juncture, the memory of the Vision festival was still fairly fresh. I could still feel J.D. Parran's bass saxophone.

When (invariably and uncontrollably) compared to my memories of the Vision Festival, the gestalt of Exploding Star recording (which chronologically came *after* Darfur, despite the release order) was that of exhalation, of expansion after contraction.

Though the inclination is there, I am rue to use the term "lite" when describing Exploding Star. That said Darfur (as the name implies) comes off as being the "heavy" one. So I guess in that sense, Exploding Star recording is the "lite" one.

Why am I rue to use the term "lite?" Is "lite" necessarily a pejorative? Is all music equal? Is there not a place for and unique function to "lite" music? Is "lite" always a distillation and softening of a "heavy" (or "dark") predecessor/antecedent? Can "lite" be of its own conception, entirely unbeholden to a heavy, dark predecessor/antecedent? (These are questions, not taunts.)

My Faux Synesthesia: Exploding Star--bright, bold primary colors. Ample use of pastel, yellow greens and pinks. Darfur--darker colors with emphasis on black and red brown and purple. More inky and oily. Exploding Star is a slightly off dry Reisling. Darfur is veal gravy. Exploding Star and Darfur are the difference between Mondrian and Rothko. Not better, not worse, just separate realizations of different (though quite similar) energetic signatures. Both love them some squares, neither can be mistaken for one another.

I have to admit it was a real surprise--startling even--to hear a guitar and Bill Dixon on the same recording, let alone a "jazz guitar tone" like the one employed by Jeff Parker. Not that my surprise and startled reaction should be the universal one, but when was the last time you heard Bill Dixon and a guitar on the same recording? That in it self sets Exploding Star apart from the rest of Dixon's recorded output.

Exploding Star features two compositions by Bill Dixon with a Rob Mazurek composition in the middle. The Mazurek composition is larded with tertial harmony, cadences and, yes grooves. Real live extended periods of cleanly demarcated metric time. Is it for this reason that Exploding Star has been so well received? Is Exploding Star the "best" answer to "I'm new to Bill Dixon's music what should I get first?"

In one sense, it might be. I can plainly recall as if yesterday being a freshman at that 75 year old dried up bag of a college, trying to get my mind around the music and musical methodology of Bill Dixon pronto. Oh how I longed to hear Dixon play atop a little bit of that ol' chang changa chang--something familiar, something ubiquitous to help me place Dixon among the music and musicians I had heard up to that point. Exploding Star does just that. Dixon glides as effortlessly and intricately over carefully considered chord changes and metric pulse and does so with the same Dixon-esque tone and phrasing. Dixon is still Dixon, no need to worry about that.

Then again, Exploding Star might be the worst answer to said question, as it finds Dixon in a musical setting so starkly different than those he creates for himself on Darfur and all that he, Dixon, has generated for himself for (conservatively) the last 30 years. Not that I know anything, but if pressed I would characterize Dixon's music as one without tonal, metric, stylized or mechanized realizations of a musical/social cantus firmus. While that characterization is probably entirely incorrect and shallow, the fact remains that if you're looking for other recordings in Dixon's catalog that sound more and not less like Rob Mazurek's composition on Exploding Star, brace yourself for feelings of disappointment and confusion.

Either way, juxtaposed against the overwhelming majority (if not absolute totality) of Dixon's output, Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra wins 1st prize for strident individuation, even if that individuation is the result of a small amount of occasional compositional and ensemble retrenchment on track number 2.

As for tracks 1 and 3, it is a pure and familiar Dixon. Dark, unpredictable, asymetric, demanding, thorough. Listen to the endings of both tracks if you don't believe me--pure Dixonia.

Ultimately as with all Dixon ensembles and recordings, my hope is that the same group will continue to rehearse and will record again. In that hopeful instance, what would a second recording by this group sound like? Where would it go? Would it go free-er, further retrenched or would it stay exactly the same?

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Dixon plays more trumpet on Exploding Star recording than he does on Darfur. In fact, Dixon really does not spend all that much time on the trumpet on Darfur at all. The time he does spend is quite stunning, if for no other reason than its aesthetic/antecedent relation to solos played by Stephen Haynes, Taylor Ho-Bynum and Graham Haynes.

Exploding Star is, at times, connected to Jazz in an obvious and audible way. The same is not true for Darfur. In fact I think I can go so far as to say I did not hear any clearly obvious connections to Jazz at any juncture on Darfur. Perhaps the argument can be made that functionally Darfur is linked to Jazz and it is absurd to put Darfur in the "jazz" section of the record store (or web page, as the case may be.)

Much more so than Exploding Star, Darfur encourages us (me anyway) to ask those familiar questions that have surrounded Dixon's work from the start: what if Dixon was white? What if Darfur was recorded by an all white ensemble (wearing tuxedos with white ties) somewhere in Luxemberg as part of a special edition Deutche Grammaphon release? Would it be considered Jazz? If no one knew any different, would it automatically be considered improvised music? Who else would be writing about it? What venues would be made available? Would there be more or less grant money available?

After seeing Darfur at the vision festival I had a vision of peace--one where Dixon would, as a treasured and respected American composer, have access to real live Beethoven and Bruckner playing orchestras. All the strings, all the horns, all the percussion--over 100 people at his disposal. Dixon's way of organizing and directing ensembles combined with the uber chops of your average salaried symphony orchestra. Gigantic symphonic improvisations combined with symphonies of Mahler, Schnittke and Bruckner. (As an aside, this vision of peace was vivified at the 2008 VCMI in a talk by Barry Guy's wherein he described working with the Hillard ensemble.)

This begets the question if Dixon did have 100 extra symphonic musicians, would Darfur sound more exciting because, at last, Dixon has access to the full palette of western instrumental sound or would the music sound less exciting because the players weren't the hand picked ensemble (many of whom have long relations and close connections with Dixon's music) as heard on Darfur?

Is there any way to make the whole greater than the sum of it's parts? Is that even interesting to anyone anymore?

Happily, there has been follow-up to 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur--The Bill Dixon Recording Residency. You can read more about it here. In light of these recordings, perhaps I should have waited until they were released so as to compare all three.

Hopefully those recordings will become available sooner than later. In the mean time, get thee a copy of both Exploding Star and Darfur and compare them for yourself (if you haven't done so already.)