Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hartbeat Ensemble/Plays in the Parks
Blue Back Square/West Hartford, CT

I spent last Saturday playing duets with one of my best musical friends, Joe Morris. I love Joe, and we just jump into the music without having to discuss anything: a bit like continuing a running conversation. Add to that the fact that Joe is a quintessentially orchestral player, as Bill Dixon would say, and you have the makings of a delightful work environment. Joe always creates such beautiful form!

We were invited to join Hartbeat Ensemble, a wonderful local theater group, for the third year of their Plays in the Parks summer performance series. Okay, Blue Back Square is not a park, but it was a pleasure to perform in West Hartford, something that almost never happens for me. The last time I threw down in this neighborhood was at a benefit for Real Art Ways, where I used Salim Washington, Wes Brown and Alvin “Abu” Carter, Senior.

Big ups to Universal Healthcare Foundation of Connecticut for their ongoing advocacy for public healthcare and for choosing the arts as a medium to convey this essential message.

Image of Joe Morris by Nick Lacy

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bill Dixon Recording Residency
Firehouse 12/New Haven
Project Journal

July 10, 2008
We began the morning early, filming the ensemble without Bill, seated in a semi-circle downstairs in the wine bar, below the recording studio. Questions were directed to the entire group and to individual musicians. Some wonderful stories of experiences with Bill arose, along with a range of mostly parallel takes/assessments of the methodology that Bill employs in creating music and his overall significance in ‘this music.’

When we went upstairs to warm up, Bill had already begun work at the piano, and he continued while we prepared, finally voicing an entire page of horizontal material that we had used the previous day. What had been employed as distinct but linked language sets for each brass player now became a slowly moving harmonic bed played by the brass for an improvising grouping of contrabass clarinet, cello, bass, marimba and vibes.

It is worth noting one particular aspect of the music that we produced over the two days of recording that is distinct from the work produced with the full orchestra (17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur) during the summer of 2007. Nothing that we did here was conducted by Bill. He would rehearse sequences and events, adding verbal notes or demonstrating changes in individual/group stance (e.g., attack, spacing); and then say “okay, let’s try this. It should go on for about twenty minutes.” The music would begin. Bill would listen intently and occasionally make subtle indications when they were needed. For the most part, he would let the music unfold naturally, making corrections verbally afterwards and then recording another version. We seldom used playback as a tool.

Nick Rueschel took some marvelous formal portraits of Bill, alone and with different groupings of musicians against a white background and got images of the full ensemble in front of Firehouse 12. Isabelle (Michel’s wife) stood back from the goings on and took images of the photography in progress. You may remember Isabell’s candid images of last summer’s orchestra rehearsals, posted on this blog.
The ensemble arrived at a particular place at the end of the second day of recording that would have been a nice starting point for a curve of work. We really could have used another week to work together. Food for thought, indicative of the ironies of the struggle inherent in creative work in this culture during these times.
The Bill Dixon Recording Residency Project at Firehouse 12 is funded by the LEF Foundation and Firehouse 12 Records, and receives essential support from FONT: The Festival of New Trumpet Music.
Images by Isabelle Moisan.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bill Dixon Recording Residency
Firehouse 12/New Haven
Project Journal

July 10, 2008/Climbing the Mountain

Yesterday we worked from 10 in the morning until 11 PM, with breaks for meals. Much was accomplished, but the way ahead was not easy initially. Bill spent the first half of the day working relentlessly to get the ensemble members to surrender so that they could receive and fully inhabit the music. When we finally did manage to cross this creative threshold with the completion of the first fully-realized ensemble piece, it was a relief. The material for the first piece was a suite-like combination of the line for Judy Dunn, delivered as a chorale, and a page of new lines that Bill had written for the residency week. He ended up dividing the line finally, giving each brass player a part of the material and instructions to use the material as the basis for individual voice in the composition.

After lunch, a spontaneous trio emerged with Bill, Ken Filiano and Warren Smith. No directions, just pure music created in the moment between three sympathetic individuals. The first piece was a long arc, slow-moving and beautiful. Suddenly, Bill leapt into aggressive movement: bursts of pure sound driven by force through the horn, visceral and vocal. Ken laid a rhythmic bed and Warren moved across the vibraphone, marimba and cymbals. The music made us all want to dance. Michel was in tears when Bill finished. Pure joy!

Next, Bill developed new music for the full ensemble through dictation, employing a deceptively simple grouping of three pitches (‘call this an exercise’) that, when employed independently by the brass created either subtly phased unison lines or clusters of pitches. What I would call cloud sound. On top of this, Bill built layers of sounds with the rest of the ensemble and weaved through the entirety with his singular trumpet voice.

During a break, in conversation with Graham, he talked of one of the primary and persistent difficulties that flowed from this instrumentation: finding one’s place in a cluster of brass players who all, though possessing distinct voices, have consistently dark sounds. Both Graham and Rob have employed electronics freely, but even that method does not solve the problem completely.

We ended the evening in a sound environment that was unlike any I have ever heard or participated in before. Again, no instructions, not even a signal to start. Bill began slowly and softly intoning pitches. I added a chant, a single pitch in the pedal register, and stayed in that position invariably. What unfolded was almost dreamlike in quality, and had the feeling of suspension, with motion so slow as to be almost imperceptible, shimmering like light on water. For a moment after we finished, no one spoke or moved.

Today, we will begin with a group interview of the ensemble by Robert O’Haire. There will also be a formal photo shoot of Bill, as well as a group image in front of our short term home, Firehouse 12. Throughout, Nick Ruechel and his assistant have done a wonderful job moving through the musicians during rehearsal and break periods, managing to capture image without disrupting the energy in the room. No small task.

Hard to imagine what will occur musically today.

Images by Nick Cretens

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Bill Dixon Recording Residency
Firehouse 12/New Haven
Project Diary

July 9, 2008
Yesterday’s schedule of transportation had a few bumps along the way. Warren’s car broke down somewhere outside of Bridgeport. Fortunately, Taylor and Graham were enroute and able to pull over and meet Warren. The percussion equipment was loaded into Taylor’s already crowded coupe along with Anton, Warren’s assistant, carted to Firehouse 12 and offloaded. Later, Taylor drove back and collected Warren.

Bill had a productive morning with Nick, and succeeded in setting up his equipment and blocking the stations for all of the ensemble members. The recording contract was also discussed in some detail.

Meanwhile, I made two airport runs. First, picking up Rob, who came back to my house for a late lunch of buffalo mozzarella with basil and olive oil and a few glasses of pinot grigio. We had a long conversation about our shared desire to create performing opportunities for this ensemble (or some variation of it) and Bill during the coming season.

We realized that Sharon (Bill’s partner) has a birthday coming soon. On the way back to the airport, we stopped at Mozzicato Di Paquale Bakery on Franklin Avenue in Hartford's South End to pick up the previously-ordered cake (forgot to mention yesterday was Rob’s birthday), adding Sharon’s name to it, and then swung over to Spiritus Wines to get a bottle of calvados as a gift.

We collected Michel (resplendent in blue tropical shorts) and Isabell and drove down to New Haven with Ruben Blades (Mundo) and Dizzy Gillespie (Old and New) on the box. We all agreed that there is a clear connection (heard so well in these earl sixties quintet recordings!) between Dizzy’s work-his sound/use of dynamics/register, air attack, articulation and Bill’s conception. Ask Bill about Dizzy sometime. Begin with the stories about going to watch the big band rehearsing in the fifties.

After all the layered events of the day, we managed to spend time before dinner playing some music. Bill sat at the piano and dictated a lovely, three-phrase, lyrical line. This was then played as a canon with all the brass players entering in staggered fashion and gradually extrapolating from the material. Bill had rediscovered this line in an old notebook and worked at it on the piano at his home studio (where it sounded considerably darker). The material had originally been written for a duo concert at Judson church with Judith Dunn in the sixties.

The evening was capped off by a dinner at the wonderful Chinese restaurant across the street from Firehouse 12. The steamed fish and tofu, pea pod greens with garlic and twice-cooked pork were slammin’ but nothing compared to the company and storytelling that swirled around the table as folks got reacquainted and new friendships began to be forged. As usual, the hippest rehearsal is always dinner!

Images of Bill & Taylor by Nick Cretens/my studio setup by Isabelle Moisan.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Bill Dixon Recording Residency
Firehouse 12/New Haven
Project Diary

July 8, 2008
Spent yesterday on a long leisurely drive to Bill’s home in Vermont, then drove Bill and his partner Sharon down the hill to New Haven. The best thing about my driving trips with Bill are the stories. He told one that took place early in the fifties, revolving around a touring big band that included Dennis Charles and Cecil Taylor. Someone should write a book (and I don’t mean Dixonia) filled with these anecdotes. Perhaps an audio book, as more than half the fun resides in the delivery and the sound of Bill's voice.

Today we begin the technical setup for the recording and film process. Bill hits the studio in the morning with Nick Lloyd, engineer and director of Firehouse 12. Warren Smith will roll in mid-afternoon to set up his battery of instruments: tympani, vibraphone, marimba, drums and percussion. Videographer Robert O’Haire will be there capturing the early work and getting his feet wet. Our photographer, Nick Ruechel, will arrive early Wednesday morning. The rest of the ensemble will arrive throughout the afternoon and early evening from Chicago, Quebec, Boston, Connecticut and New York.

Bill plans to play the piano, a lovely Steinway, and has asked for a large black board.

We finish the day with a big family style meal, during which Bill will begin the reveal of his plans for the ensemble and set the tone for the next few days.

The last image was taken by Isabelle Moisan of Ken Filiano's setup.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Peter Zummo in the Woods
Montague Bookmill and Café
Montague Center, MA

After meeting Peter (and Jon Gibson) years ago through JD Parran, I have recently had the pleasure of playing with Peter at Roulette with Adam Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra. I always thought Peter would be fun and I was right.

Peter just called me for an informal concert in Massachusetts, an hour from here. He will mike and manipulate the sound of the river that flows outside this historic converted 1842 grist mill site. And that's just for starters...

The ensemble is called HER and features Peter, Yvette Perez and Ernie Brooks (Modern Lovers). Ernie unexpectedly can’t make the gig, so my Hartford friend Todd Merrell has agreed to tag along and add his sonic seasonings to the broth.

Should be fun.