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Octogenarian trumpeter Bill Dixon has never had a high profile--for many years he taught at Bennington College rather than focusing on gigs and albums, and his radical extended techniques and open-ended compositions have made him an outsider as far as the jazz mainstream is concerned. But for the past couple years he's been on a tear, at least for him. In 2007 he made his long-overdue Chicago debut with two concerts, including a collaboration with Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Earlier this year Thrill Jockey released the studio album Bill Dixon With Exploding Star Orchestra, cut around the same time as those concerts, and it makes a nice addition to a discography short on large-group projects.
Now comes 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (Aum Fidelity), another large-group release, recorded live last year at New York's Vision Festival. The ESO album situates Dixon's abstract smears, blurts, and whinnies within a propulsive, dynamically rhythmic framework, but the group on 17 Musicians veers into more abstract territory-- concise nuggets of improvisation generally emerge from either ominous clusters of long tone or pointillistic scatterings. The group is loaded with brass players--Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes, and Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet, Steve Swell and Dick Griffin on trombone, and Joe Daley on tuba--and the reedists and percussionists generally cede the front line to them, painting colors rather than tracing lines (though Warren Smith lays down some thumpin' tympani parts).
The 13-part suite creates an ebb-and-flow effect, with the reeds and horns surging by turns amid throbbing drum rolls and calmly snaking solo lines. The work's centerpiece, the 23-minute "Sinopia," is where Dixon best makes his presence felt as something other than conductor. It leaves room for some intimate dialogues between instrumentalists, but there's no missing the leader's entrance. With puckered blurts, upper-register trills, and rubbery bleats--most of them enhanced with ghostly delay--he stalks across the landscape, his utterances punctuating the arrangement like shadow puppets dancing across an illuminated screen. And even when the piece is more geared toward an ensemble sound--which, to be fair, is most of the time--Dixon shines brightly with his mastery of texture.
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