Monday, November 28, 2011

Reviewed: Bill Dixon's "Envoi"

The artist at work in Victoriaville

Note: this review has been repurposed from a project that was ultimately shelved for the time being. Here it is in its entirety. Thanks to Stephen Haynes and Jeff Golick for their thoughts.

(Victo CD 120)

There is certainly a lot of significance that can be attached to an artist’s final recording before passing on – one thinks of the delicate, free beauty of Coltrane’s late work as exemplified on Stellar Regions (Impulse, 1967/1997) or the promise of new directions on Lee Morgan’s eponymous final Blue Note date, recorded in 1971. These were, however, artists cut down unexpectedly in their youth. It’s a little different when death is an expected eventuality in the autumn of an artist’s career, and we’re able to listen to their music with the understanding that age has brought them both experience and physical changes that require an instrument to be played differently. Composer, improviser and trumpeter Bill Dixon (1925-2010) seemed to experience a great deal of interest in his work in the last years of his life – opportunities to lead orchestras at festivals in Chicago and New York, highly-regarded recordings on labels like Thrill Jockey, Aum Fidelity, and Firehouse 12 – yet there wasn’t any more work being done than over the previous fifty-odd years. A significantly influential figure on the way the trumpet is played and thought of among creative musicians, recent years saw him able to convene a core group that reflected broader structural concerns as well as the individual instrumental languages that his work has helped shape.

The Small Orchestra has proved to be one of the most interesting of Dixon’s ensembles on the whole; convened first to record in 2008 for Firehouse 12 the excellent two-disc and one DVD set Tapestries for Small Orchestra, the group harks back to the brass-heavy units he led in the late 1970s, also mirrored by unrecorded units in late ‘60s New York. The group joined Dixon with brass multi-instrumentalists Stephen Haynes, Graham Haynes (no relation), Rob Mazurek and Taylor Ho Bynum, low reeds player Michel Côté, cellist Glynis Lomon, bassist Ken Filiano and percussionist Warren Smith. This is the ensemble that recorded Envoi in May 2010 at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, weeks before Dixon’s passing. The combination of low reeds, brass, strings and percussion might be seen as hallmarks within Dixon’s music from 1967’s “Voices” to the present, not because he has a “style,” but because these instrumental combinations have allowed him to get an absolutely huge range of colors from a relatively small ensemble. Dixon found ways to expand what eight people can sound like, through physical placement and textural instructions that encourage depicted sounds to overstep their literal dimensions (cf. the optical qualities of painters like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella). In other words, the music often sounds positively huge, but in a way that spreads out instead of singularly overpowering.

The word “Envoi” is defined literally as a look back over what has come before – in poetry, the reflective and often short final stanza that comments on the whole. It would be easy to think of Dixon’s Envoi as a similar summing up of a fifty-odd year recording and performing career, because we know it’s the last thing he did (and that it took a hell of a lot of work in his final months to assemble the piece). We want to say “this is it,” but as significant as any one of his recordings might be, attaching anything extra is the onus of the listener rather than the composer. Dixon has famously quipped that he just “likes the ring” of certain words, and that he likes his pieces to have a nice-sounding name attached. In that sense, “Envoi” is just a word used to title this work, which just happens to be the final piece he recorded. The only thing different about Envoi from other pieces, insofar as one might use the “jazz” perspective, is that he does not perform in the traditional sense. His music increasingly surpassed the notion that he had to “play” to make the work live – composition, conducting, instructing and assembling the group clarified the artist’s signature. One could easily say that his instrument became the ensemble as well as the trumpet, singularly masterful at both. Bisecting the two movements is a pre-recorded trumpet solo, 1972’s “Shrike,” which is a brief and extremely hot slice of sound turning the instrument and the experiencer’s body “inside out” (to quote Stephen Haynes), in this setting both hinting at musique concréte and a shocking declaration of physicality.

In this music, composition and conducting are two very fraught terms. We know that a musician uses resources accumulated over time to assemble something meaningful on the spot, but under the direction of a singular vision, being unfettered comes with a responsibility to do what’s right. Dixon has said that his music – especially the later work – is less didactic in its scoring, because trusting the musicians to do what they do is necessary to give the compositions life. That said the responsibility bred through suggestion results in an ensemble subsuming itself to the broad whole, and while extremely intense, it is some of the most patient music one is liable to hear. One is brought into a state of concentrated calm, sounds emerging in lengthy passages where nothing appears to be hurried and there is no ego. Rather, players emerge when it’s necessary, when another musician has cycled through the process of whatever line or area needed to be completed. 

The music of Envoi is, in effect, democratic and responsible. It’s a state as natural as breathing, the ears of performers and listeners able to latch onto accents but never forced into a position. Sure, there are anchoring themes, brass coagulants that call to mind the testy chords of Takemitsu and Ligeti, but with the pacing of Feldman – none of these figures are “improvisers,” but Dixon’s music at this stage has transcended such boundaries. When Dixon was alive and could give the music an extra nudge, the kaleidoscope of emotions was shored up with implicit (and perhaps explicit) pronouncements of “don’t hurry” or “just wait.” That gradual rightness makes the realization of this work extraordinary. When we think of the tone or phrasing of musicians like Ben Webster or Dexter Gordon late in their lives, we think of similar softness and burnished delicacy, arrived at through lived experience. Though Envoi is an ensemble composition, it can be said that Dixon’s late music has a similar quality to the fragile but lived-in sound of those musicians, even as it can be just as strikingly aggressive.

Envoi was revisited after his death (though his trumpet was on a stool in the conductor’s place) at the 2010 memorial at St. Mark’s Church in New York. The ensemble worked through the piece with the addition of Joe Morris on second contrabass, and that was my first hearing of it. While an excellent performance in its own right, it was more hurried, more agitated in its execution compared to what transpired at Victoriaville. It begged the question whether Dixon’s music is possible to perform without his presence, and if so, how to manage it. The idea of a repertory group, as much as Dixon’s works – both heard and unheard – are loved, is hard to conceive. Yet his legacy can and should live on, beyond what’s been recorded. In the face of that, there is no finality to the music of Envoi – it’s too open-ended, too declarative in its necessity to bother with such a concept. The set closes with Dixon’s voice, reflecting and instructing on the fact that, whether an audience (including critics, listeners, and other musicians) grasps the magnitude or not, giving it one’s all is the only valid response. With that in mind, the implicit understanding from this moment forward is that the body of Dixon’s work is only a hint at what’s possible. 

Photo copyright 2010 by Stephen Haynes

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