By: Trevor Pour
At the onset of last calendar year, my sheltered ears had not yet channeled a singular note of Bill Dixon's extensive catalogue. It took not long, however, until I was introduced to Bill Dixon with the Exploding Star Orchestra, an album that would prove to challenge my views of free jazz and change my perspective on the capacity of sound to tap directly into emotion (see review here). Today, I have the good fortune to ponder Dixon's latest release, 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (Aum Fidelity). The album was one of three productions commissioned and recorded live at the 12th annual Vision Festival in NYC in 2007. True to the title, seventeen individual musicians are featured herein, including a seven-piece horn section, a six-member woodwind department, a pair of deep strings and a pair of percussionists.
A mere glance at track list of 17 Musicians displays Dixon's unwillingness to compromise his artistic ideals to fit the classic concept of album layout. Of the thirteen tracks, four log in at under a minute, while one clocks in at over twenty-three. But, this disparity only begins to hint at the underlying creativity and uniquely personal approach to Dixon's compositional style. Following an extended pair of complex and fleeting preludes, "Sound of Silence" opens with a deep, grandiose horn contingent. The body of this track features a skittish flugelhorn punctuating an otherwise silent ensemble. The piece transitions into "Contour One," which builds, literally note by note, into a gradually escalating exhibit of emancipated expression. While brief, this first "Contour" track captures much of Dixon's appeal. The other title track, "Darfur," is a bit more orchestral than the rest of the album, but contains a unique break at 2:10 that fundamentally changes the character of the piece. Developing into a swirl of intense percussion-driven sound with peripheral horns encroaching into the fray, "Darfur" is an eerily powerful and sobering composition.
Finally, no review of this album would be complete without mentioning the lingering "Sinopia," the closing moments of which may be the highlight of 17 Musicians. The track starts with a touch less cohesion than I want from Dixon, but sluggishly advances towards a unified sound over the course of at least 20 minutes. Parts are tranquil, others deeply experimental, others playful. The final moments, however, ambush your ears with a tight seamless fusion of music that unquestionably demands attention and delivers acoustic rewards in droves.
17 Musicians is a very different recording than Dixon's earlier work with the Exploding Star Orchestra. While comparing them is probably unreasonable, I feel compelled to state that I personally drew more from Exploding Star than this particular album. While the entire experience here is transcendent - from Dixon's own stunning abstract acrylic painting on the cover to the solitary yet vital notes scattered throughout - missing was the high degree of exhilaration present on his last release. That being said, there are beautiful and emotionally stirring elements woven amongst theses notes; I feel fortunate to have heard them.
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