Bill Dixon Tapestries for Small Orchestra Review

Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Those prepared to meet Dixon's music halfway will reap significant rewards.

Bill Tilland 2009

Trumpeter, composer (and visual artist) Bill Dixon is a legendary figure in avant-garde jazz circles, although he’s virtually unknown to the larger community. Now 84-years-old, Dixon founded the Jazz Composers Guild in 1964 and was part of the vibrant New York free jazz community, playing in small groups with major innovators such as Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp. In 1973, Dixon established the Black Music Division at Bennington College in Vermont and taught there for 23 years until his retirement in 1993. 

Dixon was already an accomplished painter before he took up the trumpet and began playing and composing music. His strong background in the visual arts is directly tied to his composing, as evidenced by the title of this latest work. Both his compositions and his own playing tend to be very painterly, with extensive use of space and silence, tonal colours, instrumental juxtapositions and aural gestures: smears, burrs, squeaks, rasps and vocalisations. Dixon almost always composes for unusual combinations of instruments, the better to translate his specific visions into sound. Tapestries in no exception, utilising five brass musicians playing trumpets, cornets and flugelhorns, a contrabass or bass clarinetist, a percussionist (who plays marimba, vibraphone, drums, gongs and tympani), a violoncello and a double bass, plus judicious electronic treatments. 

The six extended compositions in the program are on two discs, with an additional DVD documentary added. The pieces function as sound paintings, with instruments deployed in various combinations and occasionally en masse. Each piece has a distinct texture, shape and sense of movement. There is no groove, no steady pulse beyond the briefest exceptions, and although jazz is certainly part of Dixon’s larger musical vocabulary, very little which could be associated with conventional jazz. The music defies classification and is sometimes ‘difficult’, but Dixon’s academic sensibilities are clearly energised by a soulful, passionate aesthetic.  

Phrygian II is the busiest and most percussive piece; Adagio writhes with an understated, ominous charge and is perhaps the most minimal and otherworldly of the entire group. The deep bass ostinatos in Allusions sometimes hover on the edge of funk. The title piece balances the sonorous blending of brass instruments against the croaking of the bass clarinet and the sometimes agitated bowing of the violoncello and double bass. 

Tapestries is not for the timid or intellectually complacent listener, but anyone prepared to meet Dixon's music halfway will reap some significant rewards.

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