Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Dixon Society: When did you first hear the music of Bill Dixon? What were the circumstances? What did you hear?

Andrew Raffo Dewar: The first recording of Bill Dixon's work I heard was the LP Live in Italy, Vol. 2 - I bought it at a Minneapolis record store (the wonderfully named, and now defunct, Oarfolkjokeopus) in the fall of 1993. I bought it because I was familiar with Soul Note as a label, and I thought the cover painting was beautiful. When I bought and heard the album, though, I wasn't ready for it. I'm embarrassed to say so now, but it didn't make a huge impact on me at the time, even though I was already listening carefully and learning immensely from other "parallel" work by Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Ornette Coleman, etc. (I had already, in high school, been blown away by bebop and the various periods of Coltrane and Miles Davis' work).

This brings up an interesting issue that most of us as music lovers and practitioners have no doubt experienced at some point -- the difference between hearing and listening, and how sometimes we aren't ready to really listen to something -- the time isn't right. I think about how Anthony Braxton talks about how he didn't like Coltrane and Parker's music when he first heard it - his ears weren't ready yet, he had to come to that music at a different time.

So, I was hearing Dixon at that point, but I wasn't listening.

The first Dixon recording I really listened to was a beat up copy of the 1962 Dixon/Shepp quartet on Savoy that I bought at a record store called Bird's Suite in downtown Portland, Oregon, where I lived for a year or so in 1994-95. That recording is beautiful -- the two Dixon compositions really moved me -- especially the intense, driving waltz of "Trio," with the amazingly abstract and rhythmically complex phrasing in the solos. I liked very much the rawness of the performances too -- their willingness to step just beyond what they could "reach" -- that has been an important lesson I am still learning from. I have great respect for and enjoy listening to clean, precise, technical virtuosity, but I am personally more interested in the exploration of the "unknown," the "surprise" -- what happens if I mess with my embouchure here? If I lift this pad just slightly, to allow an overtone or multi-phonic to pop out...things like that. The "happy accidents" (I recently heard legendary film director Sidney Lumet talking about these "happy accidents" as a goal in his filmmaking process -- a goal you can't force -- you can only set up a situation in which they might occur...so these things are, of course, being explored in many media).

The "lightning strike" recording of Bill's for me (and for many others, I'm sure) was Intents and Purposes, which I first heard in 1995, on a cassette dub made by multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine for my friend and colleague, the wonderful percussionist Chad Popple (who is now based in Hamburg). That recording floored me, and really rearranged my ideas of sound and music, and what was possible. The combination of Bill Dixon's sound-mass ideas for large ensemble, and Iannis Xenakis' concepts (which I was also discovering at the same time) has been one part of the road map for the aesthetic path I'm seemingly on now.

My first couple years at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, I had fallen in with a wonderful crew of musicians and listeners (several of whom have gone on to do amazing work, like guitarist/composer John Dieterich of the "out-rock" band Deerhoof, the mind-blowing guitarist/composer Ed Rodriguez, who was in a recent edition of Weasel Walter's Flying Luttenbachers, and percussionist Chad Popple, mentioned above), and we were obsessed with turning each other on to new sounds, improvising and composing together, so that was a deep period of discovery and exploration for me.

TDS: Dixon as visual artist -- Are you as a visual artist moved by Dixon's visual art as you (as a musician) are moved by his music?

ARD: I love Bill's visual art, and in fact studied and wrote somewhat extensively about his work in my 2004 MA thesis at Wesleyan University. Though Bill does not like to conflate the two media (which I understand), I think my studies show that there is some conceptual overlap, particularly in the use of "modules" (Dixon's term) of activity in his work. Regarding Bill Dixon's impact on my own visual work (which has been focused on photography), I can't say there has been any direct influence -- I'm very much conceptually beholden to the work of Aaron Siskind, perhaps even to the point of being called a "copycat." I just frame images I find interesting. I like finding abstract forms in shadows and everyday surroundings, and when I'm exploring new places.

TDS: Have you always played the soprano saxophone? Who or what led you to that instrument in particular?

ARD: It's a long story, considering my relatively youthful age (33 at this writing). I have provided a short answer you can link to below this chunk of words for those that aren't interested in my personal history (given the context of this as a Dixon-centered site).

I started on trombone when I was 11 or 12 years old, playing in the (public) school concert bands. My father was a trombonist when he was young (in fact, when he graduated from high school, everyone -- except him -- thought he was going to be a professional musician) so I guess that's how I ended up on that -- though the band teacher said I had the lips for it...whatever that means. Plus they needed trombonists since everyone else wanted to play either trumpet or saxophone.

I stuck with that for a while, and developed a pretty nice sound and technique (I can, surprisingly, still get a decent sound out of the instrument), but I was resistant to reading music and learning theory, and in fact memorized most of my parts, which worked fine (I was "1st trombone") until we had to start sight-reading (when I was dropped to "last possible trombone"). As a result, my band teacher in junior high school kind of killed my enthusiasm for music by dealing with my difficulties in a negative and unproductive way -- though in hindsight I know she was just trying to get me to learn my fundamentals. Unfortunately my grade schools didn't have jazz band or orchestra, so the boring "concert band" repertoire also killed my interest. I played the trombone on my own for a while, outside of school, but that soon dropped off the map as I got interested in guitar, which I played seriously for about 7 or 8 years, in rock and noise bands. I also sang in the concert choir (where I finally learned to read music at a reasonable level) and performed in theatre productions in high school.

I bought a nice old Buffet grenadilla Bb clarinet when I was 17 or 18 (which I still play), because I had fallen in love with the sound of Johnny Dodds and Benny Goodman, and also would soon be blown away by the late, great Jimmy Giuffre's Western Suite on Atlantic, which I found a copy of around that time. I started playing that on my own, learning from books (particularly the Klosé), friends, and listening and playing along to records. Eventually the clarinet eclipsed my interest in the guitar, which I found increasingly frustrating because (in hindsight) I think it just wasn't my "voice."

I had also started studying Indonesian gamelan around 1995, at the Schubert Club gamelan in St. Paul, Minnesota led by Joko Sutrisno.

I left university and moved to New Orleans around 1996 to learn more about music, which I did, though in somewhat of a cloistered, inward way (very un-New Orleans) partly because I was embarrassed by my self-perceived lack of skills, and partly because I was interested in making different sounds than I was hearing around town. I practiced for hours each day, by myself, and spent the nights going out to hear music. Preservation Hall, though a tourist sight, had (and presumably still has) some deep players. I tried to get down there at least once a week. I was doing construction work in the French Quarter, and working outside, so I also got to hear a lot of music on the street -- especially an amazing bread delivery man that sang his deliveries, who I would run to hear during my lunch breaks on Fridays, and a wonderful blind clarinetist who played some pretty far out jazz, hidden in little alcoves around the Quarters. That, coupled with the fact that the work crew always had a radio tuned to WWOZ, a wonderful station, was my musical education at the time. I also volunteered at the Zeitgeist intermedia center (which was on Magazine St. then), so that exposed me to the alternative art/music/film scene down there. I remember an incredible concert by Edward "Kidd" Jordan and Alexander von Schlippenbach at that venue that blew my mind.

One of my major influences on the horn at this time was also very un-New Orleans -- I got turned onto old historical recordings of the clarinet playing of Turkish master musician Sükrü Tünar and Greek clarinetist Vasilios Saleas through a Syrian that owned an import store on Decatur St. at the time (maybe he still does). I special ordered as much of these old recordings from him as possible, and played along with them as best I could.

Finally, before I left New Orleans for two years of music study and travel throughout SE Asia and Australia (1998-2000) I saved enough money to buy a soprano, the 1927 Conn "New Wonder" I still love and play.

So that's the long story.

The short answer to the question:

There are several recordings I can single out as having led me, early on, to the soprano saxophone (in the chronological order that I first heard them) -- Pharoah Sanders' soprano solo on Alice Coltrane's Journey in Satchidananda, (Impulse) Julius Hemphill's solo on Concere Ntasiah on the Human Arts Ensemble recording P*nk J*zz, (Muse) Sidney Bechet's 1939 take on Summertime (Blue Note) , Lucky Thompson's soprano take on In a Sentimental Mood from Lucky Strikes (Prestige) and Steve Lacy's solo album Remains. (Hat Art) Of course I had also heard Coltrane's soprano work, which is wonderful, but I have never liked his *sound* on the soprano -- will I go to "jazz hell" for saying that? I like a more open, "Lacy-esque" sound, which really I think comes from Lacy's love for Johnny Hodges little-known soprano playing (Hodges had stopped playing the soprano by about 1941), which I discovered later, through Lacy, and which is some of the most beautiful soprano playing on record as far as I'm concerned.

5. Have you heard the new Dixon release with the Exploding Star Orchestra? If so, how would you compare that group and
recording with the Vision Festival Orchestra compared to the Wesleyan large ensemble led by Dixon? Can you hear any similarity--is there a unanimity in Dixon's compositional voice despite the difference in instrumentation and "gestalt" of each group?


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