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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Bill Dixon & Cecil Taylor ‎– Duets 1992 (Triple Point Records, 2019) ****(*)

By Colin Green

Trumpet player Bill Dixon and pianist Cecil Taylor had been close friends since they hung out at the same clubs in the early 1950s. “I have known him for a hell of a long time,” said Dixon in 2009, “and I am probably the only person who doesn’t ask him for anything, doesn’t bullshit him, and if he does something I don’t like, I let him know immediately.” Few others dared.

Surprisingly, over the years they made very little music together. One of those rare occasions was when the pair were invited to play at the 1992 Verona Jazz Festival in Italy with a further date arranged for the Vienne Festival in France the following week. Appreciating the importance the meetings might have, Dixon booked the duo studio time in advance for the two days immediately after their second concert, a short distance away at La Masterbox, L’École Nationale de Musique in Villeurbanne, just outside Lyon. These would be their first joint public performances since the Jazz Composer’s Guild evening in February 1964 at the Take 3 Coffee House in Greenwich Village which featured Taylor, Dixon, Roswell Rudd, Jimmy Lyons, Albert Ayler, Carla and Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray (one of those historic dates lost for posterity) and their first recording session since Dixon’s appearance on Taylor’s Conquistador! (Blue Note, 1966), an album whose stature seems to increase with age due in no small part to Dixon’s contribution.

Back in the U.S. and with much enthusiasm, Dixon compiled and sequenced material from the two days of studio recordings for a proposed deluxe CD edition, to include a folio of Taylor’s poetry and his own art. He wrote of the music, “some of it is exquisitely beautiful; ALL of it is POWERFUL”. Taylor suggested the title “Forty”, commemorating their earlier meeting, to which Dixon added the Italian “Quaranta”. The project faltered, however and languished in rumour for a quarter of a century until taken up by Triple Point Records at the initiative of the Bill Dixon Trust, and with approval from Taylor in his final years. Now, the eleven piece collection has finally been released, spread over two LPs in a handsome gatefold sleeve of heavy card which reproduces Dixon’s sketches and directions for his imagined box set, and with an essay by jazz critic Ben Young, author of Dixonia: a Bio-discography of Bill Dixon (Greenwood, 1998). Dixon was an accomplished artist and the album cover features his lithograph For Cecil Taylor (1994) fittingly, also produced in Villeurbanne while he was working in the medium for the first time at the invitation of URDLA - Le Centre International de l’Estampe et du Livre.

For whatever reason, there was little sense of musical empathy at the Vienne concert the day before the recording session began. It sounds as if Dixon is hovering in the wings during one of Taylor’s piano recitals looking for space in which to work. Perhaps Dixon spoke frankly, maybe it was the less pressured and more intimate studio environment, but the dynamics of the session are very different. It’s probably no coincidence that the tracks selected came from the whole of the second day of recording along with the best from the first. Although there was no discussion about what to play and the music is improvised throughout, it can take time for even seasoned players to become reacquainted and achieve a symbiosis, particularly two musicians whose vocabulary and temperaments at this stage of their lives might appear to be at opposite poles: Taylor’s ceaseless, mercurial invention versus Dixon’s tiered layers and somnambulant, tapering lines broken by long silences. Dixon later said of the session that Taylor was allowed to reflect and make music and as noted by Young, on the evidence of the final selection, “he came to play duets with Bill Dixon, rather than – as often seems to be the case – to annex a collaboration into his own dense gravitational field.”
There is indeed a sense of both musicians floating free in a spacious musical topography. Taylor is recognisably himself but plays more quietly with a deliciously light touch, exploring refined shadings rather than billowing chroma, matching the vibrational sensitivity of Dixon’s pastel sprays and gritty groans. Unlike the live performance, there’s little of what Dixon referred to as “Taylorisms”, such as his titanic locked hands figurations or the ubiquitous rippling motif that acted as a springboard for multiple elaboration. Instead, there’s an attention to fine calibrations with a focus on closely spaced intervals set within measured periods, complementing not masking Dixon’s way of giving intervallic ideas a linear construction.

Taylor frequently employs rapidly repeated notes, circulating lines and blurred phrasing leaving chords suspended in the air, mirroring at a different level the resonant sphere surrounding Dixon’s trumpet created using analogue reverberation and delay effects. Dixon said these techniques took the dryness out of the trumpet’s tone, revealing the higher harmonics, allowing him to make what is almost inaudible to the ear, audible, and able to respond to the emotional weight of timbres as they form in real time. “There is a feeling tone that has propulsion and the ambience of an enclosure that permits being inside the enclosure or riding the crest of it,” he said, “One has to listen and try to get inside of the sound.”

The duo’s respective thoughts have a definite beginning and end yet notwithstanding occasional points of contact, they rarely occur in the same place. We hear a series of relationships in interdependent time frames, revolving and evolving like the motions of a suspended mobile, shapes and textures whose fluid configurations are changing at varying rates – the piano’s staccato stabs set against Dixon’s ghostly haze; undulating modulations on trumpet floating across Taylor’s characteristic, though more restrained, spasms of compression and release.

The pieces last from slightly over 2 minutes to just under 21, covering the epigrammatic to the elusively poetic. Dixon’s technical mastery allows his cloudy smears to spread out, ascending into microtones, sometimes extending down to trombone registers. In the third and longest piece, possibly the most remarkable on the album, Taylor executes jewel-like clusters, diaphanous arpeggios and liquid glissandi with the control and precision one hears in the piano music of Ravel while Dixon unfolds his fragile lines at a stately pace, in a tone by turns evanescent and vulnerable. On the sixth, the integration of his trumpet and effects produces an expanding envelope that dissolves into vapour, confirming his observation that one moment can be an entire universe in sound.

The excellent recording brings out the full weight and colour of the instruments in a persuasive acoustic, though as mentioned in the liner notes there are occasions when Taylor made contact with microphones while plucking, scraping and muting the piano strings, something he’d otherwise abandoned after the 1960s, and there are places where Dixon deliberately exploits the overload margins of his equipment to generate a crunchy distortion. He was not keen on engineers fooling with his sound when it went into the red.

This is an absorbing encounter which would be continued in the same spirit at Victoriaville ten years later with the addition of Tony Oxley’s percussion: Cecil Taylor/Bill Dixon/Tony Oxley (Les Disques Victo, 2002). The trio also toured Europe in 2004 and there are off-air recordings of the first and last dates from Donaueschingen (partial) and London.

By any reckoning, at $94.00 plus shipping (and import duty outside the U.S.) this is an expensive album. I understand the price is attributable to Triple Point having paid what it considered to be a proper fee for the tapes, the expense of production – including vinyl plate mastering at Sterling Sound – and the need to recoup the costs with a limited production run of 665 numbered copies. Certainly, the 180g LPs pressed at the Quality Record Pressing plant in Kansas are whisper quiet with a dynamic range and textural fidelity that does justice to the fascinating creations of these two free jazz legends.

Brief excerpts from the album can be found on Triple Point’s website.


MJG said...

Thank you for a tremendous review of such an important and intensely intriguing release. I especially look forward to your reviews, Colin and this is another of informative and analytical depth that gets to the heart of the music and the musicians.

As noted the price is not cheap but the music is of such exquisite subtlety that it repays that cost in full after just a few listens. For me it's that vey lack of "Taylorisms" that helps make the release so special (as was that referenced London gig. Although that view wasn't universally shared, I recall)
Triple Point have once again proved a label of integrity and quality.

Colin Green said...

Re the Royal Festival Hall performance, there were similar reservations expressed about the Victoriaville concert, but if you came expecting fireworks you were going to be disappointed. Interestingly, Oxley was very familiar with both Taylor and Dixon. He’d been Taylor’s primary duo partner for many years, and part of the great Feel Trio, and Dixon had played with Oxley – at Taylor’s virtual insistence – recording the two pairs of “Vade Mecum” and “Papyrus” albums with him on Soul Note and FMP’s “Berlin Abbozzi”.

After “Conquistador!”, Dixon was invited by Taylor to join his quartet for some dates in New York followed by a visit to Europe at the end of 1966, from which two excellent recordings exist. For reasons that no longer matter, he declined. A tantalising possibility.

MJG said...

FMP’s “Berlin Abbozzi”, now there's a marvellous album.
It was the very lack of fireworks that made the RFH concert so intriguing. That and the solo/duo/trio format.

Martin Schray said...

As usual, an outstanding and insightful review, Colin. I've waited for this release for six or seven years since I bought Dixon's 6-CD box Odyssey from Sharon Vogel's son (Vogel was Dixon's longtime partner). In one of his e-mails to me he said that he's been working on this release and what a gift it was to work with Ben Young. I'm really glad that they finally managed to release the album. I can't wait to get my copy.

MJG said...

How is 'Odyssey', Martin?
I have been tempted but wonder whether in all honesty it will be too much of a good thing even for a Dixon fan. I can see how fellow musicians might want to study at that depth but as a listener I'm unsure. Is there much variation across the set?

Martin Schray said...

That’s a difficult question, MJG. I guess you have researched on the box set and know what it is about. However, just in case: the 6 CDs include an extensive booklet with essays by Ben Young, Jason Zappa and Stephen Horenstein and a long interview with Graham Lock. An additional booklet shows Dixon’s work on paper. Both in an A4 format. All in all the quality of the box itself (cardboard-reinforced - I hope that’s the right word for it) is a bit cheap, but the booklets are nice and insightful. As to the music: It certainly is something for die hard fans. As a non-musician, I wouldn't say there's too much variation across the set (trumpeters might shake their head over my estimation, but that's lust what I think). I listen to it every now and then, often to just one of the CDs which I pick randomly (all in all it’s about six hours of music, CD number 6 is an interview CD). "Odyssey" is an overview of Dixon's solo works in the 1970s, with one exception (Jerusalem, a 26-minute track from 1990 - actually one of my favourites). I like the music on this box set a lot, so I would recommend it. Also, it’s the cheapest way to get Dixon's solo works ("Editioni Ferrari" is horribly expensive, "Collection" as well). Triple Point sells it for $ 83. I hope I could have helped.

MJG said...

Martin, thank you for those insights which are very helpful and for taking the time to answer.

Let's face it only an ardent fan looking for more Dixon or someone studying his work is likely to purchase this - it's not something for the casual listener! I count myself as the former and will very probably take the plunge. I imagine myself listening to it in much the same way as you do. Somewhat as Stef says in the PS. to today's review investing in this box will be for the long view.

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