Music: Intents And Purposes (The Bill Dixon Orchestra)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-01-03 10:00:00-05:00 No comments

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In John Cage's essay "History of Experimental Music in the United States" (collected in Silence), Cage wrote (in the context of a discussion of composers such as Elliott Carter and Henry Cowell), "Jazz per se derives from serious music. And when serious music derives from [jazz], the situation becomes rather silly." He made exceptions: William Russell, for instance, and Cage also had approving things to say about Harry Partch, whose train-jumping lifestyle and omnivorous ear made for compositions that still sound radical and striking today.

I know Cage was still alive and well when Intents and Purposes was first released in 1966 — eight years after the above essay was penned — but if he had any awareness of it, or reaction to it, I am unable to say. I suspect it would scarcely meet with Cage's stern standards for what constitutes "experimental", and he might well have been dismayed, if only in principle, at the way this serious music (as per the "orchestra" in the group name) derives almost entirely from jazz. It's records like this which convince me Cage, despite still being an idol of mine, held a stance was as naive and divisive as it was sophisticated (shilling for recherché).

Intents and Purposes may be rooted in, and derivative of, jazz, but it just as quickly turns its back on its source material and forges ahead into territory more akin to George Crumb than George Russell. Even in the extreme fringes of jazz there hasn't been another record quite like this, and many the reviews published since its release have as their common thread excited rumination about where Dixon, or others, could have gone from this point forward. Why RCA didn't elect to reissue the record isn't hard to see, though: I&P was, for all of its melodicism and surprising accessibility, probably far too radical for a jazz scene that was still wrestling with the mutations of Miles Davis (Sorcerer also came out that year) and the death of Coltrane, and still hadn't come to terms at all with the likes of Sun Ra.

I&P is broken into four movements: two long ones ("Metamorphosis 1962-1966" and "Voices"), which begin each respective side of the original LP; and two short ones ("Nightfall Pieces I and II"), which end them. The whole album isn't more than half an hour long, but within that half hour it goes through so many changes of tone color, so many rhythmic variations and suggestions of different influences, that it feels far longer without being elephantine. The work is credited as whole to the  Bill Dixon Orchestra for a reason: it sounds, and feels, orchestral — not just a group playing while "listening to each other" (as Ayler said about his band's New York Eye and Ear Control performance), but a group moving decisively and deliberately towards specific goals, even if the approach towards those goals are sometimes roundabout.

The whole thing is best listened to as a single suite, but there are individual sections that command my attention, and which seem the key to understanding the work. In each case there are foundational instruments that provide a base, with the rest of the band responding intuitively. Consider the second section of "Metamorphosis", where a simple, quiet two-note trumpet phrase (right channel) provides a context for a subtly furious workout on the bass (left). With the concluding section of "Voices", it's a regular phrase on the drums, one which seems more circular than forward-moving, that provides a bed for the rest of the band to wail and moan and cry out (hence, I guess, the name of the piece). Sometimes — as in the following section — it's a little harder to tell what the exact foundational instrument(s) are, but that only makes the way they collude all the more electric. There's always someone in the lead, some guiding intelligence present, even if you can't always quite tell who's manifesting it most directly.

Dixon has a good deal of other recorded material from various phases in his career, but encountering something this striking as my first exposure to someone's work is always intimidating, and a little saddening. I always wonder if anything else they did will measure up — and then I wonder how that might even be possible.

[Edit: The original version of this piece had some speculation about Dixon's career after this record which I've since found to be unsupported by fact and have thus deleted.]

Tags: Bill Dixon John Cage jazz music review