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...
(Bill Dixon: trumpet; Barry Guy, William Parker: basses; Tony Oxley: drums).
(Albert Ayler: tenor saxophone; Don Cherry: cornet; Gary Peacock: bass; Sonny Murray: drums).