Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra


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By: Trevor Pour

This is a free jazz album. Still reading? Congratulations. A few short years ago, I would have already hit the 'back' button and moved onto show reviews. Those two words in succession - free and jazz - have the power to make even experienced listener turn a cold shoulder. But, like great poetry, blue cheese and Flemish sour ales, free jazz is an acquired taste with potentially vast rewards. Before listening to this album, however, I had very little interest in the subject. Despite my continued love affair with all things jazzy, I craved at least a semblance (and oftentimes only a semblance) of melody and rhythm. My introduction to free jazz was during my Phish-fanaticism heyday, when I caught Trey Anastasio's name on a album entitled Surrender to the Air. I distinctly remember popping that disc into my car stereo, expecting to hear a full bodied and complex jazz jam. Instead, I heard noise - a grating, caustic, ugly noise. I couldn't understand a thing. I doubt I ever gave that album a full listen. In the next few years, I lent the CD to a friend writing his thesis, and just never bothered to get it back. So ended my initial foray into free jazz.

For those unfamiliar, Bill Dixon is now 82 years old. As a performer on the trumpet, flugelhorn and piano, he dedicated a good portion of his life to academia, teaching music at Bennington College in southern Vermont for nearly thirty years. Yet despite this somewhat isolated career, he was named Jazz Magazine's musician of the year in 1976 and won BMI's Jazz Pioneer award in 1984. His name rarely frequents cafe conversations as often as Coleman, Coltrane or Monk, but his influence may be as significant. In addition to organizing the 1964 October Revolution in New York City, he was named the Vision Festival's Lifetime Recognition Award recipient in 2007.

Conspiring with Dixon on this album is Rob Mazurek, cornetist and composer with the 13-piece Exploding Star Orchestra. The orchestra is a recent creation, formed in 2005 and drawing from a host of talented Chicago-area youth jazz improvisers. Mazurek and Dixon met a few years ago at the Guelph International Jazz Festival and developed a relationship based on mutual respect and admiration, eventually leading to a performance at the prestigious Chicago Jazz Festival. The pieces composed for that performance are the foundation for this album.

Of the three selections on the disc, the first and last tracks are two distinctly different interpretations of Dixon's composition “Entrances." These two pieces are just over 18 minutes each and initially contain some element of primitive rhythm, buried deep beneath opaque arrangements of sound. As each piece develops, all elements of rate and constancy dissolve, and the listener is left with an intense soundscape, which climaxes, gradually calms and trails out peacefully. Despite the sometimes-overwhelming amalgam of instruments, Dixon's trumpet manages to rise above and be heard at nearly any instance. In addition to Dixon's “Entrances" is Mazurek's 24-minute epic “Constellations for Innerlight Projections," a piece envisioned to revolve around a video score realized by seven laptop musicians (photos of which may be seen on the inner CD tray). “Constellations" begins with a dense text read by Damon Locks, which was initially the set of instructions' for the Exploding Star Orchestra to interpret the video score and form their unique creation. After the initial text is read, the piece explodes into what Locks describes as a “ball of thunder," a breathtaking eruption of resonance leading to a beautiful and meandering exposition, again revealing scant but evident rhythm between moments of chaos and freedom.

This album has an exquisite sound. I assume many readers understand the moment during a musical performance when, if all elements align and notes are played to perfection, a rare, transient, pleasant shiver runs down your spine. I felt that sensation more often and more intensely during repeated listens to this album than during any other musical work or live performance thus far in my life. That fact alone speaks volumes to the emotional intricacy and depth of these compositions.

I wish I could find that old Surrender to the Air album to see how much Dixon and Mazurek have truly educated my ears. They have opened my mind to an entirely new realm of sound, and for that I am grateful. I hope this brief and admittedly incomplete document will impel others will give this album a listen - followed by another four or five listens- until the message breaks through. Jazz neophytes and conservatives probably should steer clear, since this album is legitimately challenging, and if you put it on during a dinner party your guests may understandably leave. Bill Dixon absolutely demands your full attention, and he deserves it. For those who already understand, and for those willing to try, I give this album my full recommendation and some.

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