Bill Dixon's Dance Notation

Intents and Purposes gets a proper reissue

Dixon's approach to orchestration and thematic development bears closer resemblance to those of 20th century European avant-gardists like Webern and Gian Carlos Menotti, the composer of Amahl and the Night Visitors, forgotten now but a pervasive influence then). Except for Dixon's trumpet (maybe), "Voices" sounds pre-notated right down to Bob Pozar's percussion figures, and even Kenyatta and Lancaster's "Metamorphosis" solos, though almost certainly improvised, unfold as if choreographed in advance—which one could hear see as evidence of a reciprocal influence between Dixon and Dunn. In I Want to Be Ready, Goldman quotes Dixon asking Dunn why she bothered using a barre to practice if she wasn't going to be performing with it. Before learning to risk creating in the moment in response to Dixon, the former Cunningham troupe member's notion of improvising was tossing the I Ching. But did he gain just as much from their partnership? Did crossing disciplines to accommodate a collaborator used to working from a score (or at least the Book of Changes) feed a growing dissatisfaction with unmediated free blowing at a time when jazz seemed heedlessly racing in that direction?

A more answerable question raised by Intents and Purposes regards Dixon's place not just in the jazz continuum but in the overall evolution of contemporary music. The tracks that most anticipate his ensuing music are two "Nightfall Pieces," suspenseful, two-to-four-minute vignettes featuring his overdubbed trumpet and flugelhorn relieved only by George Marge's alto flute. Although to credit him as the single innovator would be a leap and unfair to such near-contemporaries of his as Lester Bowie and Wadada Leo Smith, the cracked, anti-virtuosic, renunciatory brass style Dixon unveiled here—one that drew attention from chops to concept, from lips and fingers to saliva and the silence surrounding each isolated phrase—is now commonplace in modern classical music, a cross-pollination reminiscent of Louis Armstrong hipping symphonic cats to vibrato.

That technique has also found adherents in jazz, four of whom—Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, Rob Mazurek, and Steven Haynes—serve as Dixon surrogates without sacrificing their own individuality on Envoi (Victo), recorded at a Canadian festival just three weeks before Dixon's death. He was too frail to play and limited himself to conducting and contributing a brief, pre-recorded trumpet solo as a bridge between halves of the title work, which otherwise takes up the entire disc. Sporadically clamorous but more often flat-out lovely, and chamber-like rather than orchestral despite its five horns (including Michel Côté's woody contrabass clarinet), Envoi is a fitting valedictory statement—reminiscent of Ives as well as Miles Davis and Gil Evans here and there, but best heard, I think, as a final expansion of those two "Nightfall Pieces." Intents and Purposes calls for a re-evaluation, as a reissue ideally should. But the story didn't end there, and neither should our reassessment.

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