Bill Dixon: In Italy, Volume 1 12” (Soul Note)
A few weeks ago we got in copies of this album by Bill Dixon and I got excited, but nervous at the same time. To explain why, let’s go into a little backstory.
In 2017, Superior Viaduct reissued a Bill Dixon album called Intents and Purposes. We carried it at the store even though I knew nothing about Bill Dixon; Superior Viaduct’s stamp of approval was enough for me to order a few copies. I may not have thought about the record again, but a customer bought one and returned it because the vinyl had a pressing defect that made the first few minutes of each side unplayable. It sat for a long time in a pile of defective records—I have trouble figuring out what to do with these piles since it hurts me to throw away records—and one day, on a whim, I listened to it. It knocked me out.
Intents and Purposes sounds like nothing else I’ve heard… even now, when I’m a little more familiar with the record and with Dixon’s work, it is still one of the most singular records I’ve ever heard. Part of it is that it doesn’t sound like jazz at all. Dixon all but abandons conventional approaches to rhythm, melody, and harmony, but he does so differently than most of the free jazz musicians with whom he’s often mentioned. In a lot of free jazz I’ve listened to, there’s a kind of antagonism toward these established conventions, but Dixon’s attitude as a composer seems more like agnosticism. His music rarely feels like it has a center—rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic—but it’s full of rhythm, melody, and harmony, just deployed in ways that sidestep any kind of convention. It’s less like Dixon is combating these conventions, and more like he’s transcended them.
So, I love Intents and Purposes, but I’d never explored Bill Dixon’s other music or learned anything about him until In Italy, Volume 1 showed up at the store. I grabbed the record and took it home, but I was nervous to put it on. One thing I’ve learned about following jazz musicians is that you should put aside your expectations, particularly if you’re dealing with an artist who is interested in challenging expectations. I’ve heard punks talk about “departure records,” or records where a band leaves one style behind (usually a more primitive and/or extreme one) and pursues another (usually a more commercially viable and/or palatable one). This isn’t a useful way of thinking about jazz, especially for musicians who had long and restless careers. For instance, I’ve learned that I like Bill Evans’ music, but when I pick up one of his records, I might hear anything from solo piano to orchestrated avant-garde compositions to a traditional piano trio. None of these are “departures,” just different projects that reflect Evans’ interest and growth as a musician or whatever other considerations (material, emotional, economic) pulling on his music at that time.
So, I dropped the needle on In Italy, Volume 1 not knowing what I would hear, since the record came out thirteen years after Intents and Purposes, the only other Bill Dixon record I’d heard. However, just like when I first heard Intents and Purposes, I was rapt from the first moment. After “Summer Song/ One/ Morning” starts the record with a maximalist tone that’s not too far away from what I think of as free or atonal jazz, the record settles into the Bill Dixon sound that caught my ear. Researching Dixon this morning, I read one writer compare his music to the soundtracks of old Italian horror movies, and I think that’s apt. Like some of that music, Dixon’s compositions are minimal and languid, drifting along in a way that’s pensive but untroubled, and while moments can sound tense or sinister, those feelings evaporate just as quickly, drifting along to something else with a kind of Buddhist sense of acceptance.
Just like with my staff pick last week, thinking about this record has me going to Discogs to find out what else there is to hear. Unlike a lot of his peers in the free jazz world, Dixon wasn’t a prolific recording artist, devoting much of his energy to his teaching position at Bennington College in Vermont. From what I’ve read, he seemed to have a fraught relationship with the music marketplace. Early in his career he helped found the Jazz Composers Guild, essentially a trade organization for jazz musicians. He released little if any recorded music during the first half of the 70s, though recordings from that period have been compiled compiled on a 6 CD box set. Fortunately for us, he warmed to recording again by the early 80s, when he released a string of albums on the Soul Note label, of which In Italy, Volume 1 is the first, and continued releasing records until his death in 2010. I’m looking forward to exploring these records, plus Dixon’s earlier collaborations with Archie Shepp and the work he did as a sideman (including on Cecil Taylor’s 1966 Blue Note album Conquistador!).