Graded on a Curve:
The Bill Dixon Orchestra, Intents and Purposes, and the Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet, (s/t)

Musician, composer and educator Bill Dixon is one of the key figures in the history of jazz’s New Thing, not only integral as organizer of the storied October Revolution in Jazz, but also as the catalyst for a defining document from the era, RCA Victor’s 1967 issue of Intents and Purposes by The Bill Dixon Orchestra. Once a highly elusive artifact, it’s become much easier to hear of late and on January 27 gets a vinyl reissue by Superior Viaduct. Coincidentally, Dixon’s recording debut, Savoy’s 1962 release of the sole self-titled album by the Archie Shepp – Bill Dixon Quartet is getting a repress by Jeanne Dielman. It serves as an enlightening prologue to Dixon’s later masterworks, while being totally worthy on its own.

The greatest compliment one can pay to the late Bill Dixon is that he was a great teacher, but a complicating side-effect of his dedication to the creative development of numerous first-rate musicians (including cornetist Rob Mazurek, drummer Jackson Krall, and saxophonist Marco Eneidi) is that it diverted him away from the recording studio and for a time diminished his deserved standing as an innovator in the jazz avant-garde; to quote Dixon, from 1970-1976 he existed “in total isolation from the market places of this music.”

Even prior to his long stay at Vermont’s Bennington College, which commenced in 1968 (and lasted until his retirement from teaching in 1996), Dixon’s appearances on record were few; they in fact total four, with the first and last covered in this review. The discographical slimness (especially in jazz terms) meant that many younger ears hungry for free jazz nourishment (such as this writer and surely others) received their introduction to Dixon’s playing via a stone killer in the annals of ’60’s “out” jazz, namely Cecil Taylor’s second masterpiece for the Blue Note label, Conquistador!

But just as importantly, Dixon was busy at the heart of the matter, specifically live performance. Organizing the October Revolution in Jazz, which took place across four days in 1964 at Manhattan’s Cellar Café with over 40 groups participating including Taylor, Sun Ra, Sheila Jordan, Steve Lacy, Andrew Hill, and Jimmy Guiffre, from there he established the Jazz Composer’s Guild, a short-lived but influential outfit directly linked to the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association. Thus, Dixon deserves credit as a prime instigator in jazz’s DIY era, much of which took place in the NYC lofts of the 1970s.

The above info has long been a part of the jazz narrative, but even as he returned to recording in earnest in 1980 via Euro-label Soul Note, the sheer nagging difficulty of finding Dixon’s records (Soul Note discs only infrequently made it into the racks of less urban, non-jazz centric stores) unfortunately pushed him into free jazz’s supporting cast behind Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Archie Shepp.

Well, not no more, though Dixon’s upsurge in profile through the first decade of the 21st century came through new releases, specifically 2007’s brilliant 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (on AUM Fidelity) and the following year’s nearly as grand collaboration with Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra (on Thrill Jockey). During this late renaissance, Dixon’s initial recordings remained out of print; Blue Note managed to get Taylor’s Unit Structures and Conquistador! onto CD by 1987, but Intents and Purposes languished on RCA’s shelf until its beautiful CD reissue in 2010 (the year of Dixon’s passing at age 84).

This delay in availability would’ve been uncool even if applied to a likeable but ultimately second-tier release, but Intents and Purposes’ large group template combined with compositional fortitude and improvisational vigor makes it essential to any free jazz library. It features Dixon on trumpet and flugelhorn leading Jimmy Cheatham on bass trombone, Robin Kenyatta on alto sax, Byard Lancaster on alto sax and bass clarinet, George Marge on English horn and flute, Catherine Norris on cello, Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman on bass, Robert Frank Pozar on drums, and Marc Levin on percussion.

A few names are well known: Workman, Kenyatta, Lancaster, Cheatham, and none more than Coltrane’s bassist Garrison, while the rest are mainly obscure figures in the lore of free jazz (interestingly, Pozar and Levin both cut highly rare LPs as part of Savoy’s New Jazz series under the production auspices of Dixon), but outside of the deserved organizational and artistic marquee credit here one finds a refreshing lack of hierarchy on display.

Although it demands attentiveness as it attains plateaus of abstraction and invention amid often striking depth of feeling, Intents and Purposes begins in a somewhat placid place. Starting inside and then taking it into the stratosphere isn’t an unusual free jazz tactic, particularly across the landscape of the ’60s, but that’s not really what Dixon is doing. “Metamorphosis 1962-1966” heads into outside territory in under a minute, but what follows isn’t an uninterrupted gush of honk, scrape, wheeze, and clatter but rather an intermingling (or ebbing and flowing) of recognizably orchestral elements with the avant-search mode.

And while free jazz collectivity challenged the vinyl format right from the Ornette session that named it, the music Dixon shaped into being here works excellently as an LP, each side opening with a long track and ending with “Nightfall Pieces I” and “Nightfall Pieces II” respectively, both shorter soundscapes finding Dixon employing overdubs as he enters a dialogue with himself and on side one, Marge’s flute.

Overdubbing on a jazz album might bother some, but certainly not the core audience for this album, and the effect achieved through studio manipulation is magnificent as it foreshadows his later more purely abstract work; Dixon is also a painter, and he delivers horn lines like brush strokes meant to inspire the imagination rather than communicate concrete ideas. And yet Intents and Purposes, if often gripping and raw is never chaotic, with the sharp emergence of the percussion section mid-way through “Metamorphosis 1962-1966” enough to pshaw any suggestions that his ensemble lacks discipline.

While anyone who’s absorbed peak Taylor or late Coltrane will comprehend this record as jazz, Dixon also draws from modern classical, using Norris (who also recorded with saxophonist Noah Howard) as an ace in the hole, especially at the start of “Voices.” The great guitarist and music writer Duck Baker has described what’s here as like “Boulez collaborating with Ellington,” and that’s an astute assessment, though it’s important to mention the lack of piano in Dixon’s conception.

The missing compositional tool of Duke, Basie, and Sun Ra helps to place Dixon nearer to Coleman’s tradition than Coltrane’s as he played such a crucial role on Conquistador! Some will quibble with this observation, but giving a fresh listen to the four tracks on Archie Shepp – Bill Dixon Quartet supports the claim, and not just due to the group’s reading of “Peace,” an Ornette composition that upon the LPs 1970 French reissue by the BYG label lent the album an alternate title.

Fire Music, of which Coltrane was a participant and major influence, later came to dominate the New Thing; indeed, Fire Music was the title of Dixon’s co-leader’s ’65 LP for Impulse. But circa ’62 the impact of Coleman was indisputable. It’s heard in the Shepp-Dixon group here, in the New York Art Quartet, and in the New York Contemporary Five, who featured Shepp and trumpeter Don Cherry, the group sharing a split ’64 LP with the Bill Dixon 7-tette, also on Savoy.

The Shepp-Dixon quartet was filled out with Don Moore on bass and Paul Cohen on drums, with Reggie Workman and Howard McRae substituting on “Peace.” Surrounding the Coleman interpretation are dives into two Dixon pieces, “Trio” and “Quartet” (everybody clearly plays on both) and a closing rumination on Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.”

As on much of his early work, Shepp blows hard and raw (Fire always a component in his attack), with the second half of “Trio” becoming attractively harried. Just as illuminating is Dixon’s writing, which if plainly avant-garde was never more peggable to the tradition than here; if he’s not yet at the compositional level of Coleman, whose tune provides the trumpeter a fine platform for soloing, his talent is obvious.

The best valve-blurt comes in the first half of “Quartet”’s hearty slab of burning free-bop, with Shepp skronking up the later portion as Moore and Cohen rumble and clang throughout. The choice of “Somewhere” mildly predicts Shepp’s reading of “The Girl from Ipanema” from Fire Music; the way he and Dixon tangle with the melody is a true gas and a valuable snapshot of a fleeting moment in the jazz avant-garde’s development.

That it’s back in print is a fabulous turn of events. If not as wondrously mind-bending as Intents and Purposes, the entries comprising Archie Shepp – Bill Dixon Quartet endure as an absorbing slice of jazz history.

Intents and Purposes

Archie Shepp – Bill Dixon Quartet

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