In an era where most commercial releases are easily digested and then forgotten it’s a special treat when a record arrives that rewards repeated spins. On A Rolling Ball, the debut album from The Gabe Dixon Band, harkens back to a time when artists put a lot of care into each release, crafting something unique with enough depth to withstand enthusiastic scrutiny.

Dixon sings with smoky warmth that often breaks loose into passionate falsettos. That he doesn’t always hit the high notes dead on just makes him more human to my ears and thus thoroughly effective. Behind a stack of vintage keyboards he leads his quartet through 14 sophisticated, catchy pieces. Even before the song’s individual charms sink in the interplay between the musicians hits you. This band knows how to come together for a big push and how to drop out & let a single player shine. Quite a few of the pieces find Dixon pulling back after a chorus to let bassist Winston Harrison bubble to the surface or to spotlight the snapping snare of drummer Jano Rix. Floating around all of the others is alto saxophonist/clarinetist Chandler Webber, who doesn’t so much solo as accent the strengths of each composition. He’s often right there offering counterpoint to what Dixon is laying down on the Wurlitzer or Rhodes electric piano. The longer I’ve spent with this album the more I feel like the whole thing is an involved conversation between these four musicians that we get to listen into. Rather than feeling excluded from the conversation though we’re invited to embrace this intimacy.

On A Rolling Ball brings to mind two classic albums for me, Steely Dan's Pretzel Logic and Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark. All three releases combine jazz chops with sharp pop sensibilities. Each orbits around the four big L’s of songwriting: loneliness, love, longing and loss. They speak out loud thoughts everyone has but shares with nearly no one. As such we listeners get to sing along about feelings we normally don’t even want to speak of. Cathartic to say the least. Unlike the Joni or Steely Dan albums, this one avoids easy cynicism. Hope is bruised but not beaten in the song cycle of Gabe Dixon. This record also avoids the excessive layering of instruments & singers that often weigh down much singer-songwriter work. A full sound prevails but with a lot of breathing space between the notes. This combination of sturdy tunes and flexible material really comes alive in concert. By a lucky stroke I wandered into the Gabe Dixon Band’s set at the Bonnaroo Festival and can assure you that the promise one hears for this music on the album is fully realized in a live setting.

Occasionally they dip a bit deeper into their jazz trick bag and go further out on a limb. “Sitting At The Station” has a propulsive rhythm and complex changes far beyond the likes of most radio fare. “Happy Woman” with its freakout jazz coda comes across as a cheerful response to Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.”

However, most of the LP sticks to meat ‘n’ taters style songcraft. All the tunes are good but occasionally blur into a sameness that makes differentiating between cuts a bit difficult. It makes me curious what the next outing from this band will sound like and if they will move into more diverse lyrical subject matter on their sophomore release. In the meantime there are many pleasures on their first album. “Corner Café” is a modern version of Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles” and a welcome anthem for us coffee inclined navel gazers. There’s a cascading loveliness to many tracks which makes the album closing “Beauty Of The Sea” strangely fitting. On A Rolling Ball is like water passing over a stone. Given time and patience it subtly affects what it touches.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | USA
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[Published on: 7/26/02]

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