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Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra

by Exploding Star Orchestra

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Back in September of 2006 both Rob Mazurek and Bill Dixon were performing at the Guelph International Jazz Festival in Ontario, Canada, where the two horn players met for the first time there at a workshop the latter was conducting. Later that day Mazurek saw his long-time hero perform for the first time, but it was an impromptu performance after Dixon's sound check that really left a mark on him. A photographer wanted a shot of Dixon playing his trumpet. "He put horn to lips and played the most sublime, powerful sound I have ever heard from any player ever," says Mazurek. "It was as if the church was going to crack open and a million white birds would fly from his chest, leaving traces of gold and silver in the light-blasted sky. What felt like an eternity was, in fact, one minute of sound. He ended the piece with an ascending flurry, and it was as if his sound had penetrated the granite pillars to be embedded in the rock for all of eternity." Clearly, an impression was made.

Although Mazurek had long been inspired by Dixon's life and work, meeting him and hearing him play in the flesh was an altogether revelatory experience. Mazurek was enthralled when his elder responded in return, catching the gig by the Sao Paulo Underground, with whom Mazurek was playing, and then charging backstage once the gig was over. "He walked directly up to me, gave me a big hug, and said that the performance was powerful and intense and fantastic, and the juxtaposition of rhythms, the dense structures, the sound, the sound...," he recalls. "I was stunned."

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Bill Dixon's consistent refusal to compromise and a lengthy career in education - he taught at Bennington College from 1968-1996 - prevented the kind of widespread acclaim accorded to contemporaries and/or past collaborators like Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane. In the early 60s he was a crucial figure on the developing free jazz, or "new thing" happening in New York, and in 1964 he organized and programmed the highly influential October Revolution in Jazz, an event that practically introduced free jazz to a broad public. He also co-founded the Jazz Composers Guild, a highly practical organization to sought to function like a union, giving cutting edge members like Paul Bley, Sun Ra, and Shepp increased leverage with record labels and concert promoters. He went on to record a couple of albums with Shepp, and worked as a sideman on recordings by Taylor (Conquistador, Blue Note, 1966), but by the time Dixon recorded the classic Intents and Purposes in 1966 it was clear that he had much more in mind than free jazz, creating one of the most distinctive and original albums in the history of the music. Within two years he was essentially missing from the scene, and although he never stopped playing and writing, education took much of his time, and he no longer performed as much as he'd done earlier in the decade.

His focus on sound and texture presaged developments in free improvisations by decades, and there's no doubt that the unconventional abstractions played by trumpeters like Axel Dörner, Franz Hautzinger, Greg Kelley, and Peter Evans all have essential roots in the music of Dixon. He retired from Bennington in 1996 but he remains in Vermont, and finally it seems as though Dixon is finally be recognized as the genius he's long been. In 2007 he was chosen as the Vision Festival's Lifetime Recognition recipient, a logical honor, as the October Revolution was the virtual blueprint for it.

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Mazurek and Dixon spent hours talking together at Guelph and the latter suggested they do some music together and he invited Mazurek to come visit him and his wife Sharon in Vermont. Within a few weeks he took up the offer, traveling to Bennington and proposing what eventually became the recording you now possess. Mazurek wanted to pair Dixon with his Exploding Star Orchestra, which he formed back in 2005, drawing upon a broad cross-section of Chicago's most exciting young improvisers, for a performance presented by city's Department of Cultural Affairs. Of course, the rousing success of that performance led Mazurek to record the band, resulting in last year's We Are All From Somewhere Else (Thrill Jockey 181).

Dixon liked the idea and agreed to proceed, and before long the prestigious Chicago Jazz Festival had signed on to present the concert. Incredibly, Dixon had never performed in Chicago before (although once he started communicating with the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which programs the festival, he was invited for a one-off quartet gig in the city in the summer of 2007). Toward the end of August, Dixon arrived in Chicago where he led open rehearsals for the concert at the Chicago Cultural Center, allowing fans and bystanders to check out the navigations. Two pieces, one by each horn player, were developed.

Mazurek's piece, "Constellation," was initially envisioned to revolve around a video score, realized by seven laptop musicians, while others would either respond spontaneously to electronics or be conducted by the cornetist. The video score would also provide the audience with a kind of narrative to follow during the performance, but once Mazurek realized it would still be light outside when the concert occurred. The text read by Damon Locks of The Eternals was initially the set of instructions written for how to the musicians should interpret the video score. There are two distinct versions of Dixon's piece, "Second of September," for which Dixon arranged his written material with spontaneous conducting. The music was all recorded live with no overdubs.

Considering how small Dixon's discography is, any new addition is always welcome, particularly when it places him in a new context. Although he's worked with medium-sized ensembles before, there has been little documentation. This new album joins Intents and Purposes and The Enchanted Messenger (Soul Note), an outing led by drummer Tony Oxley, as the only recorded evidence of his work with a larger group.

"The experience of working with Bill Dixon on this project was a defining moment in my personal trajectory as a projector of sound and vision," says Mazurek. "Words cannot really describe the power and beauty of Bill Dixon. You only have to open your life and listen."