Bill Dixon's Dance Notation

Intents and Purposes gets a proper reissue

Nineteen sixty-seven started off as the year that the New Jazz might finally break through. Ornette, Cecil, and Don Cherry were on Blue Note; Ayler and Pharoah joined Coltrane and Archie Shepp on Impulse; and John Hammond recorded Burton Greene and Sunny Murray for Columbia. But Coltrane's death and several other twists, including rock's increased relevance and respectability following Monterey Pop and Sgt. Pepper's, had dashed all hope by late autumn, when RCA sneaked into stores both an LP of Ornette's chamber works and an album called Intents and Purposes—aptly subtitled "The Artistry of Bill Dixon."

If ever a jazz LP literally qualified as "legendary," Intents is it: Deleted practically in transit, it was briefly reissued only once (in France, in the 1970s). It's at long last been reissued on CD in a fetish-worthy International Phonograph limited edition with original graphics, liner notes, and period Nipper logo, and I envy anyone first hearing it now, because it's as bold and surprising as anything newly released this year. Despite the album's well-deserved reputation as a missing link between '60s New York and '70s AACM, only Byard Lancaster's Ayler-infected "energy" solo toward the climax of "Metamorphosis 1962–1966" hints at a particular vintage—and the ingenuity with which the trumpeter/composer flares his 10-piece ensemble's other horns keeps even this passage from coming across as back-numbered.

The mercurial, essentially romantic temperament revealed throughout Intents and Purposes begs comparison with Charles Mingus: Robin Kenyatta's deliriously sour dance-band-alto lead earlier on "Metamorphosis" calls to mind Mingus instructing Charlie Mariano to "play tears" on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, and the precipitous climate both here and on "Voices," the album's other extended work (for quintet), recalls Mingus the Third Stream miserablist of "Half Mast Inhibition." But unlike Mingus's romantic sensibility, '67 Dixon's expressed itself in abstraction; the emotional payoff is as great, but it requires a greater investment, because even as the dynamics swell and the tempo quickens, the underlying passions never quite bubble to the surface.

It might help to know that the four pieces here originated as independent dance accompaniments, à la John Cage and Merce Cunningham. "[Our] relationship has provided not only a performance situation of increased dimensions, but also for a laboratory for exchange, experimentation, teaching, and a means to extend into areas inaccessible to [us] as individual artists," Judith Dunn asserted in her unsigned liner note to Intents. "This work situation has eliminated the gap between rehearsal and performance," the dancer and choreographer continued, presumably speaking for Dixon as well. "The performance, while special, is no longer the climax of the total working existence. The quality, concentration, energy, and attention remain equal whether the moment is called rehearsal or performance."

Dunn's impact on Dixon's compositional methods may have been considerable, although jazz parochialism means one must look for evidence of that relationship in recent books like Danielle Goldman's I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom and Melinda Buckwalter's Composing While Dancing: An Improviser's Companion, and not on the music shelf. From their earliest performances together under the aegis of the Judson Dance Theater in 1965 to the class they taught jointly at Bennington College in the early '70s, Dixon's artistic partnership with Dunn endured longer than any of his bands. Still, I'm guessing that bit about rehearsal being a defining experience independent of performance came straight from Dixon, because it smacks of a compensatory logic common among '60s avant-gardists for whom an audience remained a long-range goal. As if to illustrate, it would be more than a decade after Intents and Purposes that Dixon entered a commercial recording studio again; only toward the end of his life last summer at the age of 84, by which point he'd acquired trumpet disciples and something of a cult following, did he get to perform and record regularly with large ensembles.

In 1964, Dixon was the mastermind behind the October Revolution in Jazz, the signal event in free jazz after Ornette Coleman's New York debut five autumns earlier. The four nights of concerts—which gave such soon-to-be leading figures in the avant-garde's second wave as Carla Bley, Pharoah Sanders, and John Tchicai their first meaningful New York exposure—drew overflow crowds to a tiny Upper West Side cellar café, creating hope that there might be an audience for this sort of music after all. Emboldened by the bootstrap festival's success, Dixon convinced a handful of his fellow outcasts, including Bley, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra, to band together in the Jazz Composers Guild, calling on its members to "withdraw" their music from the marketplace until such time as they were in a position to name their own price. But collective improvisation proved easier to achieve than collective bargaining and the organization lasted just a few months, its solidarity torn apart by personal differences, racial and otherwise, as well as entreaties to its individual members by Bernard Stollman's ESP-Disk label and Amiri Baraka's separatist Black Arts Repertory Theater.

In dubious reward for his activism, Dixon was portrayed in the jazz press as Saul Alinsky with a nappy black beard and a trumpet—not unsympathetically, it should be said, but with the tacit understanding that his music was of small consequence. (It didn't help that there was lingering bad blood between him and Baraka, the era's ultimate arbiter of out.) Dixon's major-label debut, following an album-and-a-half for Savoy (for whom he'd also occasionally produced albums by others) might have amended that judgment immediately, if not for bad timing—though given how different Intents and Purposes must have seemed from everything else then being hoisted under the flag of the New Black Music, maybe not.

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