December 8, 2008
With Exploding Star Orchestra
Thrill Jockey Thrill 192
17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur
AUM Fidelity AUM 046
More than an elderly lion in winter, 83-year-old trumpeter Bill Dixon seems to have reasserted his place in the jazz firmament during the dozen years since he retired from academe after nearly three decades of teaching at Vermont’s Bennington College.
Both of these big band CDs resulted from a purple patch of creativity in the summer of 2007, when Dixon was able to lead different orchestras in New York and Chicago through some of his extended compositions. Both the 56½-minute “Darfur” suite in New York and the two 18-minute versions of “Entrances” in the mid-West are shaped around a combination of composed work and spontaneously cued solos. The tonal colors emphasized on both are orchestral rather than standard big band arrangements, with woodwinds, strings and miscellaneous percussion prominent.
Recorded live at the Vision Festival, the 16-piece New York ensemble – Dixon is the 17th “searcher” – is sprinkled with younger players, although the majority of the band members are experimental music veterans. A studio date, recorded just after a different 13-piece group performed the material at the Chicago Jazz Festival, the Windy City crew leans towards young veterans and tyros. Despite – or perhaps because – of this, each program is individually satisfying and each band equally praiseworthy. The Exploding Star Orchestra also handles cornetist Rob Mazurek’s more-than-24-minute “Constellations For Innerlight Projections (For Bill Dixon)”.
In New York, the 13-part Dafur is performed mostly adagio, suffused with an undercurrent of sorrow for the beleaguered people of the African nation – but, as usual for Dixon’s work, the emotion is acutely understated rather than overt. Overall the composition builds up to and retreats from “Sinopia”, its nearly 24-minute centerpiece. Defined as a reddish brown pigment used in frescos, the suggestion is that Dixon, who is also a visual artist, appropriated the word to define this section’s Klangfarbenmelodie. Following “Contour Three”, a mellow, moderato trumpet intermezzo, the performance canvas is widened and the pitches pushed higher than those intermediate tincture dabs including brass grace notes and reed growls which characterized and colored the preceding theme variations.
Here guttural reed snorts operate as pedal-point contrast to fortissimo brass spirals which seems to sub-divide into alpine echoes from one cornetist (perhaps Stephen Hayes) and irregularly vibrated blasts from another (perhaps Taylor Ho Bynum). As the brass continues with angled and mercurial capillary trills plus tongue stops, swelling reeds adumbrate further variations on the theme. Rondo-like, the direction of the composition then changes as melded, split-tone reed obbligatos and muted trumpet triplets give way to bass saxophonist JD Parran’s rhythmically varied tone colors and multiple pitches distributed among different instruments, most prominently Karen Borca’s slithering bassoon lines, sul ponticello strings, plus friction and thumping concussion from percussionists Warren Smith and Jackson Krall. Balancing delicacy and strength, the low-pitched brass slurs and high-pitched bugle-like brays swell outwards as all players work to a climatic multi-tones crescendo.
Postlude variations include four “Pentimento” tracks, which use elongated lines and contrapuntal matches to alleviate the remaining guttural and altissimo timbres and bring the suite to a polyphonic finale. The earlier exposition and variations work through long undulations encompassing vibrating brass, hissing cymbal tones and reed growls stretched over broken-octave jumps. Most notably “Scattering of the Following” makes its point through pointillism and pitch-sliding, as subterranean slurps from the bassoonist and tubaist Joseph Daley roll out concurrent notes, while above them a series of brass soloists slice apart the main theme with patterns ranging from single-note, off-centre bites to chromatic spit-resonations.
Appropriate brass expression is also on show in Chicago, although New York’s seven-person trumpet-trombone-tuba section shrinks to Jeb Bishop’s trombone, Dixon’s trumpet and the cornets of Mazurek and Josh Berman. However the rhythmic and chordal exposition is intensified with three percussionists, Jeff Parker’s guitar, Jim Baker’s piano, Matthew Lux’s bass guitar and Jason Ajemian’s bass.
In fact both versions of “Entrances” depend more than any part of the Dafur suite on repetitive bass guitar thumps and heavy beats from Mike Reed’s tympani and John Herndon’s drums. Mazurek, who has experimented with electronics in the past isn’t listed as adding wave form distortions anywhere here, but an oscillating sheen can be sensed if not definitely heard. Hocketing and cumulative harmonics accelerate on the climatic “Entrances/One”, with definite roles for soloists Mazurek and Dixon. With contrasting guitar licks ricocheting behind, one brass man produces quicksilver smears and note flurries, while the other speedily tongues grace note and internal resonations. Following a dramatic pause, the theme downshifts to diminuendo in a penultimate variation, before reappearing for the finale.
Dixon’s presence is more obvious on “Entrances/Two” with his solo characteristically hushed and uniquely angled with chromatic lines. More concentric in execution than the first version of “Entrances”, which showcased Parker and Jason Adasiewicz’s vibraphone contrapuntally trading off choruses with pulses from trilling saxophone coloration and tuba snorts; this version differs in other ways as well. Here the protracted silence in the composition precedes a condensed piano nocturne and before the cacophonic finale, layers of walloping tympani and snorting brass are heard.
Adasiewicz’s tubular bells get a work out on Mazurek’s “Constellations For Innerlight Projections”, as do Nicole Mitchell’s chromatic flute buzzes and staccato clarinet trills from Matt Bauer. However the composition, initially envisioned to be performed with video screens, seems musically to be more of a throwback. The arrangements list towards standard big-band-era riffing and the recitation from Damon Locke involves beatnik-like intonation and Sci-Fi imagery. More memorable instrumentally, with distant brass glowering and tongue-splattering, plus engorged Bronx cheer-like textures from the horns in general and pinpoint fills from Parker, the resolution seems to be caught between the ecclesiastical and minimalism.
While Dixon may have been surprised at the form his homage took, minus the recitation “Constellations For Innerlight Projections,” while a lesser work, is certainly palatable. Overall though, both “Entrances” and “Dafur” are superior large-canvas expressions of Dixon’s sometimes constricted tonal language.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Darfur: 1. Prelude 2. Intrados 3. In Search of a Sound 4. Contour One 5. Contour Two 6. Scattering of the Following 7. Darfur 8. Contour Three 9. Sinopia 10. Pentimento I 11. Pentimento II 12. Pentimento III 13. Pentimento IV
Personnel: Darfur: Bill Dixon (trumpet); Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes and Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet and flugelhorn); Dick Griffin and Steve Swell (tenor trombone); Joseph Daley (tuba); Will Connell Jr. (bass clarinet); Michel Côté (Bb contrabass clarinet); Karen Borca (bassoon); Andrew Raffo Dewar (soprano saxophone); John Hagen (tenor and baritone saxophones); JD Parran (bass saxophone and bamboo flute); Glynis Loman (cello); Andrew Lafkas (bass); Jackson Krall (drums and percussion) and Warren Smith (vibraphone, tympani and drums)
Track Listing: Exploding: 1. Entrances/One 2. Constellations For Innerlight Projections (For Bill Dixon) 3. Entrances/Two
Personnel: Exploding: Bill Dixon (trumpet); Rob Mazurek and Josh Berman (cornet); Jeb Bishop (trombone); Matt Bauer (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Nicole Mitchell (flute and voice); Jim Baker (piano); Jeff Parker (guitar); Matthew Lux (bass guitar); Jason Ajemian (bass); John Herndon (drums); Mike Reed (drums and tympani); Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone and tubular bells) and Damon Locke (voice)