Artist: The Bill Dixon Orchestra
Album: Intents and Purposes
Review date: Jun. 21, 2011
The Bill Dixon Orchestra - "Metamorphoses 1962-1966" (Intents & Purposes)
One of the jazz world's most eagerly awaited reissues in years, it's a shame Bill Dixon's early masterpiece Intents and Purposes comes after the trumpeter/composer's passing. Composed in the mid-1960s directly following the shot across the bow that was Dixon's famed concert series "October Revolution in Jazz," the four tracks on this compact recording are fascinating even now and no mere period pieces.
And what music! The early minutes of "Metamorphosis 1962-66" are stunning, with huge cloud chords both anxious and serene, containing not just emotional but musical opposites in a way that gives the lie to genre pigeon-holing and so forth. Indeed, the piece's lively contrapuntalism sounds closer to Toru Takemitsu or Harrison Birtwistle to my ears than to Gil Evans, or other large ensemble arrangers to whom Dixon might have been compared at the time. Dixon amassed a fascinating instrumentation to realize these two lengthy pieces (and two fragments which find him in duet with flautist George Marge): bass trombone, alto saxes, English horn, cello and more.
The sonorities and timbres are lush, mysterious and gripping from the start, but for all the detail of the ensemble work, there are riveting improvisational passages. Dixon sounds phenomenal (of course), so bright and fulsome and slashing as he pirouettes in relation to the gorgeous chords moving in and out of the foreground. The expert use of space here is so advanced for the mid-1960s, no mere shouting and blowing but a total musical context that gives great power to reedists Byard Lancaster's or Robin Kenyatta's solos. There were moments where some of the more unpredictable chord changes and brief flashes of genre seem not so much Ivesian (though I'm sure that influence was well known to Dixon at this point) as a pre-echo of Henry Threadgill's sextet (and speaking of pre-echoes, drummer Robert Frank Pozar's rattling, blocky style seemed to foreshadow Dixon's later association with Tony Oxley). And toward the rumbling conclusion of "Metamorphosis," those incredible breathy, brassy chirrups and skyborne shapes knock me out -- even though Dixon didn't really begin to refine this language until his 1970s solo work, it sounds startling here in the context of these gorgeous arrangements.
"Voices" is altogether darker in mood and texture, even with a slightly smaller ensemble. Dixon groups the basses and cello for an ominous effect that occasionally sounds like low brass as much as quavering anxious strings (Lancaster's bass clarinet is key here, too). This piece is quite different than "Metamorphosis," taking shape through lines suspended over massed sections. Crucial here is Catherine Norris's cello, whose stately calm centers the antics of the surrounding bass clarinet, trumpet and cymbals.
The reprinted original liners refer to Dixon, somewhat perplexedly, as "a multi-talented man," as if it was some kind of surprise to find an African-American improviser composing such rich new music. Alas, while too little seems to have changed in terms of what Anthony Braxton would call the "reception dynamics" attending such music (a.k.a. "Where is dee jazz?"), at least Intents and Purposes itself has received a proper reissue. It's hard to imagine a more essential reissue appearing this year.
By Jason Bivins