One of the inspirations I had in starting this blog was the recent online discussion of great albums recorded in the period between 1973 and 1990, initiated by posts by Dave Douglas and Ethan Iverson, with the many contributions compiled here. For me, this was a great example of the potential of online discourse. Musicians, writers, and fans used the resources of all this new-fangled communication technology to address a period of music grossly and unjustly neglected by the mainstream music media, create an intelligent and informed discussion on that music, and provide a starting point for new listeners to explore some truly innovative and ignored work. And, of course, it provided a forum for slightly obsessive fanatics like myself to voice their opinions on essential recordings from the past thirty-plus years. Having come to the blog world too late to participate in that discussion, I cannot resist using this space to discuss one of my all-time favorites, presently celebrating its 25th anniversary (that was missed in the ’73-90 discussion!), Bill Dixon’s November 1981.
I didn’t check out Dixon until relatively late in my musical education, when I was about 19 or 20. I had certainly heard his name referenced by mentors and teachers of mine, but his relatively few recordings were harder to access than the copious catalogs of Miles Davis, or Lee Morgan, or even Lester Bowie, who was my major “avant-garde” influence at that point. But I had definitely started to explore post-60’s improvisational styles in my own playing, so after people kept saying I must be influenced by Dixon, I realized I was overdue for some research into his music.
So I picked up November 1981. (Probably just because that was the one title Tower Records (rest in peace) had in stock at the moment. And I thought he had an extremely hip hat on the cover photo.) And I took it home, put it on my stereo, and within the one minute and twenty six seconds of the opening solo trumpet track (Webern), I realized that I had to completely rethink the possibilities of the trumpet as an improvising instrument. For me, November 1981 counts in the small handful of recordings that gave me truly revelatory listening experiences. (The short list would include Miles’ In a Silent Way, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and Jimi’s 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) (at fifteen years old, those were the records that made me want to become a musician), and maybe Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with Mingus’ Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Threadgill’s Too Much Sugar for a Dime, Braxton’s Willisau Quartet, Ives’ Holidays Symphony, Ellington’s Far East Suite, Bartok’s String Quartets, and Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times probably rounding out the personal pantheon. This is not necessarily a list of my favorite records, (though they’d all probably count in that category as well), but a list of the records that just got to me at the right time, that changed me, or the way I approach music, in a fundamental way in my teens and early twenties.) And of all these records, November 1981 probably was the most specifically influencial upon me as an instrumentalist. While I certainly hope my own playing, particularly since I switched to cornet, does not explicitly copy Dixon’s approach, I must acknowledge the way his sound (along with Don Cherry, Wadada Leo Smith, etc) expanded the basic palette and vocabulary available to any modern improvising brass musician.
At this point, now that I’ve dug deeply into Dixon’s discography, it would be hard for me to name a single favorite record. The 60’s recordings, both with Archie Shepp and Intents and Purposes, are wonderful documents of Dixon’s unique and individual take on that remarkable historical period in the New York music scene. (This is right around when Dixon founded the Jazz Composer’s Guild and organized the October Revolution of 1964, when Coltrane was taking it out, Sun Ra was taking it outer (space, that is), the New York Contemporary Five and the New York Art Quartet were formed, etc etc. A heavy time in the City! And Dixon’s playing on Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador, so good.) Then Odyssey, his self-released 6-CD box set of solo recordings, mostly from the ‘70’s, shows the development of his music in the relative isolation of Bennington, Vermont. Dixon’s stated goal was to play with the full timbral, dynamic, and register range of an orchestra on a solo trumpet, and impossibly, he succeeds. For me, these recordings set the standard for the trumpet as a solo instrument, and provide one of the most radical reimaginings of the instrument in the past fifty years. (Not released until 2001, this set also filled in the historical question of what Dixon was up to in the ’70’s, and illustrated the practice of instrumental investigation that the extraordinary techniques evident on November 1981 came out of.) Then in 1980, Dixon reemerged on the scene with a series of great ensemble recordings on the Soul Note label, starting with the two volume In Italy records (with the three trumpet frontline, with my man Stephen Haynes) and continuing through the ‘90’s. They’re all good, but In Italy, November 1981, the two volume Vade Mecum, and the two volume Papyrus (duos with Tony Oxley, I’m a sucker for the drum/trumpet duo) are my favorites. And the more recent recordings are powerful, Berlin Abbozzi on FMP and the trio with Cecil Taylor and Oxley on Victo. (This last record has caused some critical controversy, but I love it. Dixon gets Cecil to enter his musical world, and Cecil responds with some of his most spacious and lyrical playing on record.)
But with all that, I still think November 1981 serves as the perfect starting point. This is partly for sentimental reasons, since it was my first Dixon record, but it is an essential mid-career statement, the first recording where Dixon applies all of the new techniques and ideas of his individual musical practice of the ’70’s as the sole horn in an ensemble setting. It’s a great band, with Mario Pavone and Alan Silva on bass, and the under-heralded Laurence Cook on drums (a legendary figure on the Boston scene when I was living there, a real character, and one of the lightest dancing cymbal touches I’ve ever heard, along with a totally wild improvisational energy.) The album effortlessly moves from intense, sound-oriented timbral improvisation to gorgeous, breathtaking lyricism, from bubbling, rhythmic two-bass energy to magical moments of droning, suspended time. It perfectly balances many of the contrasts that Dixon has been dealing with throughout his career. It sounds completely improvised, yet wholly composed; it has moments of shock and beauty, time and no-time, harmony and freedom.
My friend, scholar and soprano saxophonist Andrew Raffo Dewar, wrote an outstanding master’s thesis on Dixon’s work, including an in-depth analysis of Dixon’s composition Webern, the solo trumpet piece that opens November 1981 and first blew my mind. (Hopefully some or all of it will be published soon; in the meantime, the academically connected might be able to get a copy from Wesleyan University through inter-library loan.) And with Mr. Dixon’s gracious permission, tonight (Nov. 28) in a gig at the Stone, my trio (with Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara) will be performing our interpretation of some of the material from this album, in honor of its 25th anniversary, along with some original compositions of mine. And whenever you get a chance, you should try and catch one of Bill Dixon’s too-rare live performances. I saw a marvelous duo with George Lewis at this year’s Vision Festival. As Bill has gotten older, his playing has gotten more refined, as he’s moved from some of the pyrotechnics of his playing in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s to a deep exploration of sound and silence in the mid and lower register. His sense of pacing and musical drama is subtle and profound, and the combination with Lewis’ electronic manipulations and trombone virtuosity was absolutely beautiful.
Comment from Stephen Haynes (December 11th, 2006):
Bill gave me a copy of November 1981, hot off the press, in a cab in 1982 as I ferried him back from the airport, accompanied by the usual “and what have YOU been doing?” commentary/query.
Having spent the previous six years in North Bennington with Bill; having the sound of countless hours of Bill’s singular sound and sensibility etched into my cellular structure, I could not wait to get home and see how much of the “real” sound of the master made it to vinyl.
November 1981 was the first LP recorded for Black Saint/Soul Note that truly captured the sonic magic that is/was Bill Dixon during that time period. An important document.
I will be brief, but need to say what I have not seen in anyone’s writing yet: Bill is the next step of technical trumpet innovation after John Birks Gillespie. His essential no-pressure technique, his use of multiphonics and mastery of microtonal lyricism. To really get to the influence of Dizzy on Bill, go back and listen to the Aztec Suite and the wonderful quintet music with Kenny Barron and James Moody. Listen closely to Dizzy’s attack, his use of air and his phrasing. Bill is more commonly associated with aspects of Mile’s work (and that is in there too); but the link to Dizzy is of primary importantance to the understanding of Bill’s place as a trumpet player in the lineage and to the historical assessment of Bill’s work.
And Bill did spend important time “in the room” watching Dizzy rehearse the big band.
Thanks, Taylor, for the appreciation of my mentor and artistic heartbeat. The music scene/business is too often necrophiliac in it’s appreciation of our masters. Celebrate what we have while the source is still living and able to receive the love!
Now, let’s put our heads together and find a way for Bill to get some of that amazing orchestral music rehearsed, performed and recorded.