Tapestries For Small Orchestra (Firehouse12)

Bill Dixon

Released November 17, 2009

DownBeat Five-Star Review






The Influence of Bill Dixon

I first met Bill Dixon during the fall of 1973.  I was eighteen, studying at Rhode Island School of Design, and walked into his studio at Bennington College during a short visit to the campus. I spent the better part of an afternoon listening to him talk, work and teach. Bill was developing a series of solo trumpet language/pieces, many of which are now documented on the Odyssey box set. He had a Revox reel-to-reel tape deck and two microphones set up by the studio window. From time to time, Bill would approach the recorder, wind back what he had been working on, listen to a bit of it and then continue the ongoing narrative. I had never seen anything like this before, not to mention the singular sensation of Bill’s sound and the charismatic, enveloping quality of his persona.

Three years later, after multiple visits to Vermont, I moved north and began an intense and formative period of deep study with Bill that lasted six years. In fact, though our relationship is far more layered now than it was thirty years ago, the mentorship continues. This spring, I asked him to give me lessons in composition, inspired by witnessing his own voracious appetite for new knowledge (he recently spent a weekend in New York attending a seminar in scoring music for film).

Those of us who pay attention to Bill’s work, and to what is said about it, have seen frequent commentary during the past decade citing Bill’s primary influence upon a new generation of trumpet players. He is arguably the next evolutionary step in the growth and technical development of the instrument, following Dizzy Gillespie’s ground-breaking work in the 1940s and ‘50s. Go back and listen to Bill’s articulation and technique, evident as early as the mid-sixties on recordings, and then listen to Dixon in full flower during the seventies and eighties. Dig the sonic singularity expressed in Odyssey, an almost Olympic meditation (or method book?) on the potential inherent in the solo trumpet; or the visceral linear liquidity captured in November 1981.  His limning of the unexplored areas of the trumpet through consistent, controlled usage of multiphonics and extended range alone earns Bill the mantle of trumpet innovator.

This continued spirit of sonic exploration is evidenced by Dixon’s current thrust on the trumpet: his mapping and harnessing of the lower, ‘off the horn,’ pedal register (who else exhibits such controlled articulation there?); his use of electronics, delay and reverberation, as well as his employment of extreme modality of attack and articulation – sounds that carry the quality of spiritual possession in their delivery, evocative of speaking in tongues. It is worth noting that all of this new work is framed within/arises from the context/effect of age/longevity on physicality coupled with stored experience, sustained study and daily experimentation. Just as one hears a timbral shift in the late work of singers (the past ten years of Abby Lincoln’s work) or wind players (compare/contrast Ben Webster as ‘rabbit’ with twenties Ellington to his ballad work with Art Tatum at the Patio Lounge in 1956: air as tone/note) that simultaneously evidences un-invited/welcome limitation while opening a doorway to new musical pathways, Dixon’s currently decreased employment of upper register multiphonics reflects organic change and the artist’s use of what is available to create new work. 

Dixon’s work as an instrumentalist and composer is informed and infused by an extended view of narrative – both the sense of the long line (extensions of playing ‘across the bar lines’) and in the broader arena of orchestration and arrangement. Listen closely to the work in this new recording and you will hear melodies that move by so slowly that they begin to transmute from the horizontal into the vertical. Again, it is worth referencing the seasoning effect of age, as if comparing a ballad delivered by a twenty year old to a version spun by a veteran artist. We are not simply talking about a minimalist approach, but one that profoundly embraces and inhabits the notion that less is indeed more: a single note as a symphony. Few practitioners (even amongst the ‘influenced generation’) have understood and/or evidenced this core aspect of Dixon’s music: his singular sense of time (as an individual voice and in the ensemble context) and his way of organizing the music (composition).

The landmark mid-sixties recording Intents and Purposes was primarily a through-composed/scored piece of music. “At the time,” Dixon remarks, “this was the only way to be sure to get what I wanted.”  Just recently, Bill told me that if he knew then what he knows now he would have written a lot less. During the summer of 2007, in preparation for the work that became 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur, Dixon produced over one hundred pages of material for the orchestra. As the dates of the rehearsal approached, he was faced with striking a delicate balance between the amount of calligraphic notation he had created and the modest amount of rehearsal time available. Bill did what he has done with increasing frequency in similar situations: he reduced the quantity of written material and concentrated, during rehearsal, on direct composition/communication of intent. Not for nothing, Dixon’s choice of musicians for the project flowed directly from the Ellingtonian modality of orchestration: all players he knew and trusted, with some relationships stretching back over thirty years. He taught the ensemble specific language and indicated possible ways of moving through material, ultimately crafting a piece that is as revolutionary a statement for its day as Intents and Purposes was forty years earlier.

Coming full circle to the development of the music at Firehouse 12 last summer, Dixon brought these principles to a more intimate setting, carefully creating an intentional environment that drew this smaller orchestra into his very particular sensibility. This is not a soloist’s music: there is no emphasis on the individual as being separate or distinct from the sonic whole. Indeed a Tapestry, the listener will discover a weaving of the individual as orchestra into a suite for multiple improvising orchestras. It is a layered creative world made up of nine carefully chosen musicians, offering a new window into the wonderful vision of one uniquely American artist: Bill Dixon.

Stephen Haynes

Bill Dixon: The Essence of a Sound and the Infinity of a Moment

The music of Bill Dixon maintains such a powerful flavor, it is one of those things where you inevitably remember the first time you taste it. For me, it was his mid-career landmark recording November 1981. Within the one minute and twenty six seconds of Webern, the opening track, I realized I had to completely rethink the possibilities of the trumpet as an improvising instrument. By the end of the album, I realized I had to examine my assumptions about the nature of creative music in general. For Dixon’s music does not adhere to the common practice of any established musical genre, be it “jazz”, “contemporary classical”, “avant-garde”, or what-have-you. While drawing upon all of these rich traditions and more, he has established his own set of rules and principles, creating a wholly individualistic canon over the course of his extraordinary career.

Bill Dixon came to music relatively late in life, in his early twenties, after training as a visual artist. From the beginning, Dixon had an advanced sense of what he wanted to accomplish in the medium, doggedly pursuing his own interests rather than following the paths others might prescribe for a more traditional student. In the ensuing 60 years, these instincts have naturally evolved and been consciously refined into an inimitable sound world. At an age where some artists might coast on a lifetime of accomplishments, Dixon’s work continues unabated and with unceasing vibrancy; the last few years have seen the exceptional orchestral recordings of Exploding Star Orchestra and 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur.  This activity culminates in Tapestries for Small Orchestra, with two hours of music and a documentary film culled from a multi-day residency with a handpicked mid-sized ensemble at the Firehouse 12 Studios in New Haven CT.

One of the exciting aspects of Tapestries is the insight it allows into Dixon’s process and the way it illuminates core structures of Dixon’s musical DNA. Ever since that first, sharp bite of November 1981 years ago, I have endeavored to gain some understanding of his music. After years of focused listening, a treasured handful of performance opportunities, and occasional conversations with the maestro, participation in this project clarified some of my rough impressions to the extent that I feel comfortable articulating them. Of course this just scratches the surface; I would recommend the interested listener search out the more detailed and scholarly research of Andrew Raffo Dewar, Ben Young, and Stanley Zappa[i], among many others, in addition to reading Dixon’s own writings[ii].

There is a revealing moment in the documentary where Dixon discusses his frustration with composition teachers insisting one must never double the third. He was dissatisfied with traditional pedagogy presenting rules without taking the time to explain why. Dixon took the time to learn the “rules” of traditional music-making (in fact, he spent five years in conservatory study). However, he also learned to reject dogma that impeded the trajectory of his personal creative journey. He went on to discover doubling the third produces “one of the most beautiful sounds in music,” but it is so strong it changes the nature of the chord. For his own music, Dixon was not interested in the functionality of the harmony; he cared about what kind of sound that assemblage of notes created, not what it was supposed to lead to.

The most celebrated musical breakthroughs of the 20th century, from Schoenberg to Parker, tended to involve harmonic innovations. (Not coincidentally, also the easiest concepts for institutions to promulgate through the kind of simplistic definitions Dixon rebelled against.) Even amongst Dixon’s peers in the early 1960s like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler, the effort to explore, subvert, or explode harmonic conventions remained a primary motivation. However, for Dixon, pushing against the constraints of harmony never seemed to be a motivating factor; instead, his consistent mission seemed to be asserting the primacy of sound itself.

In much of Dixon’s music, vertical harmony is not about moving towards (or away from) any tonal resolution, but about a distinct sonic experience existing in its own space and time. So much music is about “getting somewhere;” from the basic principles of the sonata form to impassioned free jazz improvisations leading to inevitable climaxes. But Dixon was unusual among his ‘60s contemporaries for avoiding this need for forward momentum; rather, he stops the clock, and turns his gaze inwards, towards the infinite potential of the existing moment, rather than the moment to come. His music acts like a microscope of time, peering in at the atoms of a suspended cell and the universe of activity contained therein. This sense of timelessness has always been one of his hallmarks, and allows him to explore the extremes of duration like few other artists. Dixon’s compositions might be thirty seconds or thirty minutes, but the seconds last an infinity, and the half-hour passes in a single breath.

Listen to the album’s title track, Tapestries, as an example. While the low-end instruments (cello, contrabass clarinet, acoustic bass) bubble with ceaseless motion, the brass remains wholly unperturbed, resounding slowly evolving harmonic clusters. (It is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question, another revolutionary American master who managed to capture the feeling of eternity.) Again, where free jazz cliché would draw the horns into the temptations of the rhythmic excitement, Dixon holds them back, creating an exquisite tension that lasts throughout the composition.

In the past, some of Dixon’s large-ensemble works have involved extensive, traditionally styled, written notation (his talents as an arranger and orchestrator, as demonstrated on the 1966 classic Intents and Purposes, are too rarely acknowledged). However, Dixon considers all forms of information exchange as a kind of notation, understanding that new musical ideas may need similarly new means of expression. So in recent years, Dixon has gone in a different direction; he will bring in a minimal amount of materials, but painstakingly craft how those materials are played and interpreted. The process becomes the notation. In rehearsal, it is not unusual to spend an hour on how a single line is phrased, or how a solitary chord resonates. By applying this level of care to the smallest details, Dixon forces the performers to become deeply aware of and engaged in every sound they create, and how the choices they make as individuals effect the ensemble as a whole. There also are a few pieces on Tapestries that had no written materials or instruction, but they are far from “free improvisations;” by existing in the sonic environment he cultivated and adhering to the clear principles he provided, the results are unmistakably the music of Bill Dixon.

Just as it is impossible to distinguish between the moments of composition and improvisation, it is a false dichotomy to distinguish between Dixon’s identity as composer and instrumentalist. In Dixon’s music, these are simply terms for the various practices of a consistent artistic vision. But this vision is clearly delineated in his innovations as a trumpeter. For all the extended techniques he has pioneered and the virtuosity he has displayed over the years, Dixon’s most striking tools have always been the diversity of his timbral palette, the character of his tone, and the drama of his rhythmic phrasing and use of space. From his earliest recorded improvisations with Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor to the material in this package, it has always been less about the notes he plays than the sounds he chooses and where he places them. Where some trumpet players sorely miss the pyrotechnics of youth as they get older, Dixon’s playing maintains its intensity. While the physical palette he draws from has changed with age, the mastery with which he wields the brush continues to flourish. Take the openings of Tapestries’ two trio pieces, Slivers: Sand Dance for Sophia and Allusions I. What other trumpeter could shatter the silence with that kind of authority? 

Dixon’s influence on the subsequent generations of brass improvisers is profound. The trumpet and cornet players on this album (Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes, Rob Mazurek, and myself) are but a few examples of his many musical progeny, and even amongst the four of us, the diversity of ways this influence manifests itself is striking. None of us sound alike, nor do we sound like Dixon, but all of us clearly draw upon Dixon’s legacy in how we approach our horns. (It is also interesting to note that three of us are almost exclusively cornet players, and the fourth a very frequent practitioner. While perhaps less accurate and aggressive than the trumpet, the cornet has greater timbral flexibility; it is an instrument for those who improvise with sound as much as with notes. Not a coincidence that we are all so attracted to Dixon’s music.)

This influence is by no means restricted to brass players. Dixon’s subterranean explorations in the depths of the trumpet register clearly offer a template for Michel Coté’s contrabass clarinet work. Glynnis Lomon’s cello recontextualizes the rough-edged beauty of Dixon’s sound, where resonant pedal tones alternate with thrilling harmonics. Bassist Ken Filiano met Dixon for the first time at this recording, while the masterful percussionist Warren Smith has known him for over forty years, but both demonstrate an intrinsic understanding of his concepts. They allow the music enough space to breath freely without sacrificing rhythmic intensity.

For those who are already familiar with Dixon’s music, this recording offers a bracingly fresh document from an artist who, like Ellington or Picasso, refuses to sit still even after a fifty-year career. It is one moment in a journey of uncompromised expression investigating the very principles of sound. For those approaching Dixon’s music for the first time, I envy you. Hopefully, Tapestries for Small Orchestra will be the first addictive taste, offering a sonic feast to those open to experiencing sound and time in a new way.

Taylor Ho Bynum

Track Listing:

Disc 1

1. Motorcycle ’66: Reflections & Ruminations (Bill Dixon) 13:34

2. Slivers: Sand Dance For Sophia (Bill Dixon) 9:24

3. Phrygian Ii (Bill Dixon) 16:05

4. Adagio: Slow Mauve Scribblings (Bill Dixon) 17:30

Disc 2

1. Allusions I (Bill Dixon) 9:13

2. Tapestries (Bill Dixon) 12:34

3. Durations of Permanence (Bill Dixon) 14:19

4. Innocenenza (Bill Dixon) 16:03


Bill Dixon: trumpet and electronics
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, bass trumpet, and piccolo trumpet
Graham Haynes: cornet, flugelhorn, and electronics
Stephen Haynes: trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn
Rob Mazurek: cornet and electronics
Glynis Lomon: violincello
Michel Cote: contrabass clarinet and bass clarinet
Ken Filiano: double bass and electronics
Warren Smith: vibraphone, marimba, drums, tympani, and gongs

Recorded July 8 – 10, 2008 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, CT

Produced by Bill Dixon.

Co-Produced by Taylor Ho Bynum, Stephen Haynes, and Nick Lloyd

Engineered, mixed and mastered by Nick Lloyd.

Graphic design by Megan Craig.

Photos by Nick Ruechel.

Artwork by Bill Dixon


Tapestries For Small Orchestra is the most persuasive, comprehensive case for Bill Dixon’s iconic status since November 1981 Bynum, Graham Haynes, Steven Haynes and Rob Mazurek mostly wield cornets throughout the proceedings, their connection to Dixon is palpable, and their fidelity to the parameters of a given composition and Dixon’s timbredriven lexicon yields an ensemble sound that is anything but brass heavy in a traditional sense. Additionally, Mazurek and Graham Haynes’ electronics (Soul Note) and perhaps even his 1966 landmark orchestra album, Intents And Purposes (RCA). The case in chief is presented by Dixon himself, who gives an incisive précis of his esthetic during the course of the 30-minute DVD documentary that accompanies the collection’s two CDs. The most illuminating, koan-like clip from the footage shot at the three-day recording session is his insistence that musicians must fully know what they are abstracting to successfully realize the music. Though they tend to last longer than 10 minutes, the eight performances are based on small amounts of composed material honed over hours of rehearsal, a process in which Dixon blends the roles of teacher, conductor and composer. The ensembles in the master takes exude specificity of color, texture and dynamics, which propel the pieces as much as explicit use of harmony and rhythm. Dixon’s empathetic, dedicated nonet then builds improvised spaces to his exacting standards; though it occasionally spikes in intensity, the music generally remains compelling through sustained nuanced interplay and delicately negotiated tensions. This collection is also the best document to date of the impact Dixon has had on subsequent generations of trumpeters. Though Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, Steven Haynes and Rob Mazurek mostly wield cornets throughout the proceedings, their connection to Dixon is palpable, and their fidelity to the parameters of a given composition and Dixon’s timbredriven lexicon yields an ensemble sound that is anything but brass heavy in a traditional sense. Additionally, Mazurek and Graham Haynes’ electronics comingle with Dixon’s to create additional layers to the music without saturating the subtle shades established by the acoustic instruments. The riveting color palettes are equally dependent on the engaging contributions of cellist Glynis Lomon, bass and contrabass clarinetist Michel Côte, bassist Ken Filiano and percussionist Warren Smith. Filiano and Smith also fuel the collection’s more robust passages almost inconspicuously; they focus on moving the ensemble rather than red-lining the intensity. With Intents And Purposes decades out of print and Dixon’s substantial Soul Note catalog hitting a nadir, availability-wise, Tapestries For Small Orchestra may well become the definitive Bill Dixon recording for a new wave of listeners.

Bill Shoemaker (DownBeat)