Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bill Dixon... Albert Ayler... Cecil Taylor on video...

So: another quick go round for Albert Ayler and Bill Dixon , I think.

In reverse temporal order of creation – the Dixon is 'Vade Mecum' from the album of the same name that I extracted a track from last week.

The title of this double cd from 1993 – 'Vade Mecum' is interesting. A straight dictionary definition of the latin phrase would give something like: a book for easy reference, or more formally, some kind of manual or handbook – a text of authority. The secondary definition is: something useful that one keeps close at all times – which is an extension of the first definition. Literally, it means: go with me. So – is this album laying down a claim for authority and also asking the listener, literally, to follow the music? Well, it is arguably one of the great releases of the 90's...

To unravel the fascinating musical strands that make up this group in a rather clumsy delineation: Guy and the drummer Tony Oxley are stalwarts of the European free improvising scene – which represents probably the most coherent broad church of jazz-influenced music to creat its own idioms rather than just be regarded as a second rate copy of American/Afro-American jazz. Dixon and Parker are leaders of the Afro-American jazz/improv scene – Dixon the elder statesman but still regarded as a maverick and unadopted into the more mainstream aspects of 'jazz.' Parker, a formidable bass player and also a well-respected wheel on that scene from a slightly younger generation. The two bass combo resembles a dark, boiling sea of sound, flecked by Oxley's interventions – on this track he drops out sporadically. Arco and pizzicato in places demonstrate the more 'jazzy' take of Parker compared to Guy's bowing. (Although Parker is also a formidable arco player). Compare Oxley's drumming here to Sunny Murray's on the Ayler selection below for a good demonstration of the differences and overlaps between the continents.

It's not all improvised – Dixon starts from composed material and certain parameters that he lays out for his musicians – but the general feel is loose - and exploratory, as all his music is. Not a man who desires easy answers. There is a purity to Dixon's music – and his trumpet/flugelhorn playing – that is poetic, mysterious and profound and coloured also by the spatial elements he investigates. Not surprisingly – Dixon is also a visual artist and something about his musical conception reflects this and also reminds me of a neglected British musician who early on in the Sixties came up with his own take on free improvisation that referenced 'painting in sound' – Joe Harriott. A magisterial authority - 'Come with me' - Dixon has been around, faced neglect defiantly by refusal to compromise or sell out. There is a plangency to his playing, a wistful quality. Almost an echo of Miles both sonically at times and in his 'less-is more' approach. And more strident elements, which he keeps in reserve - and are the more effective for suddenly being unleashed. Listen to his raw sonorities towards the end of the piece I have selected – and the surprisingly low notes he can extort from his instrument. This is where the avant-garde meets the blues, where 'noise' meets vocal timbre in the interface of brass and breath and lip. Also, in this context, it is where a more 'European' avant-garde sensibility is simultaneously engaging with that vocalised Afro-American tradition – almost as if Dixon is bridging the two spheres represented here in a unifying gesture.

If the avant garde use of 'noise' is to wrench unexpectedly new meanings from more orthodox textures, listen to the joyful noise that Ayler and company rip out of 'Vibrations,' a live recording from the famous Cafe Montmarte in Copenhagen, 1964. Ayler used folk materials, hymns and marches that reference back to New Orleans, Dixon is more apparently 'intellectual.' Yet their articulate positioning inside their own broader musical culture (and that culture's interactions with the Western musical tradition) allows Ayler to move up and down the years at will without pastiche – or moldy figge revivalism. And Dixon to reference the broad trumpet vocabulary available to him – from Buddy Bolden to the present, say... This is where 'folk' art overlaps with the avant-garde... I remember the late John Peel once describing an old recording of John Lee Hooker's as 'the Jesus and Mary Chain of 1947.' A lot of so-called 'primitive' musical techniques, when re-contextualised into the dodgy defined area of 'art' – or 'ART' – suddenly become redefined as 'extended technique' -as if the older sources were unaware of what they were doing. A debatable point – and one unable to be proved, really, one way or the other. But it is fascinating to speculate on these cross-currents... Ayler, of course, brings spiritual values into the equation which Dixon does not explicitly do (obviously, anyway – I would not like to hazard guesses at his internal value systems) – crossing the blues fires that the tenor can channel so dramatically with the gospel calls that are the other rock of African-American music. Add the vocalised textures that jazz brought to instrumental technique in general – here, the Ayler howls and squeals and hollers and honks (that back reference R and B) added to his instrumental facility produce a music that is joyfully breaking across the listener's aural perceptions as dramatically today as it did in 1964. The sea metaphor is apt: this music rises and falls as Peacock alternates between arco and pizzicato bass and Murray ebbs and flows – sparse cymbal followed by crashing rolls then subsiding. A strangely rocking to and fro rhythm throughout... A clarion opening, theme, a little collective blowing then Ayler solos, flowing out of the sparse theme's melody. Cherry joins him briefly until the sax falls out and he takes a brief pass – as happily unfettered as ever. Then Peacock steps up, fleet plucked runs alternated with thrummed stops as Murray hangs back apart from punctuating cymbals and the odd parade ground snare crashing through. Four players on the cusp of new sound worlds...

To end with – a new departure for this blog: a video of Cecil Taylor playing solo from a tv show in 1980 – starting slowly, melodically with a very 'jazz' feel in some of the phrasing. Lifting his hands to let the sonorities ring... Slowly building into a denser line – yet I find this clip remarkably accessible – you can hear jazz piano being referenced – almost like a bizarre marriage of Monk and Art Tatum(which probably isn't so bizarre: Monk almost plays a pared-down, abstracted minimal take on Tatum and earlier stride pianist and is also concerned with timbre and sonority.). The thunder comes soon enough – those crashing chords and percussive runs that encompass the whole keyboard, rising and falling. Then easing back into silence... 6 minutes of gritty bliss...

Cecil Taylor



Bill Dixon

(Bill Dixon: trumpet; Barry Guy, William Parker: basses; Tony Oxley: drums).

Vade Mecum

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Albert Ayler

(Albert Ayler: tenor saxophone; Don Cherry: cornet; Gary Peacock: bass; Sonny Murray: drums).

Vibrations

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11 comments:

St Anthony said...

The Dixon and Ayler tunes make fascinating companion pieces - very different in some ways, but also some interesting points of contact. Dixon reminds me of Eric Dolphy, a contemplative and cerebral player who never neglects feeling. I like his use of space, and really enjoyed this piece.
As for Ayler - all critical faculty tends to fly out the window; I just love everything about his music - the sound, the timbre, the way he attacks the tunes, the unashamed spirituality, the way he seems to contain the history of the music.
Add to that Don Cherry and my favourite Ayler rhythm unit, Murray and Peacock. Bloody marvellous.

St Anthony said...

The Cecil Taylor video is fascinating stuff - never thought I'd see him on TV. Where did it come from?
Yes, the echoes of Monk and so on in his music - all these references fed into the Taylor sensorium. Rose, being a pianist, was duly impressed by his technique.Remarkably approachable for old Cecil, good stuff.

Rod... said...

My daughter sent me a video link to an old Smokie Robinson song - and being the inquisitive type I had a look at what was available... watch this space for more! Not sure where it's from - as the info is in spanish - I think it just says it was recorded for tv in the 80's - wonder who the guy in the hat is/was? It gives a nice flavour of his playing...

Rod... said...

I agree with your comments about Ayler - first heard him in 1970 on the original esp discs while staying with a friend whose brother had a load of wild stuff brought back from New York - I love everything he did - even the later stuff - cosmic r and b. Love him...

Molly Bloom said...

Oooh yes, that piano playing was marvellous. What interests me, is that if you played this straight to someone...on a CD, I'm sure people would say that there is no form, no structure. However, if you watch the video, you can see that there is wonderful structure there and absolutely brilliant, brilliant control. It is so hard to scan the whole keyboard like that and so quickly. With such control. You can also see the classical training coming through.

And I think, as well, when you watch it, you get the real and true sense of someone being totally 'lost' in music. Some people (it's obvious when they do it) do that movement stuff that annoys me...just for effect. I never thought I would do it myself, but sometimes...you do get lost in the music. I like the look of concentration and passion that is there. I was saying that I found this much more thrilling to watch and listen to rather than just listening. You can see the mechanics of it, the physicality of it. Thrilling!

Molly Bloom said...

I put a little homage to it in my poem this morning. Ooh, helloxxx

Rod... said...

It was a long -held ambition to see Taylor - and when I went to the London Jeazz Festival concert a year last November it was brilliant - the sheer physicality of hearing him on a good piano for a start... and I've written about Bill Dixon - not everyone liked his stuff but I found it fascinating... very interesting guy

Molly Bloom said...

Didn't he get into aesthetic trouble for using classical techniques in the 'jazz' scene?

Molly Bloom said...

Yes, even though it is obviously a good piano he is playing on here. There is a faint 'twang' to it. I wonder if it was an old grand.

Molly Bloom said...

I just put a little link into the poem for Cecil and you!

Sharon Vogel said...

I find your review of Bill Dixon's Vade Mecum very intuitive. Your own musical sensibilities come to the fore in your assessments of this work. I would like to point out one assumption on your part. When you state that Dixon's compositions in Vade Mecum are..."not all improvised", you are in error. The entire work is beautifully improvised from beginning to end. I was present at this magical recording session; the sages were also there in all of their glory! It was Dixon's first meeting with Tony Oxley and Barry Guy, and with the addition of William Parker, a truly remarkable quartet was created, sounding like they had always played together. Let me also add that not one note was edited or cut from this session. Each and every note is there in Vade Mecum I & II.