Saturday, January 17, 2015

Instrumental Jazz CD of the Month - "Akua Dixon"

Jazz CD of the Month
"Akua Dixon" (Akua's Music) 2015

Rating: ***** (musical performance & audio quality)

Produced & Arranged by Akua Dixon
Engineers: Rich Tozzoli, Paul Antonell (Clubhouse Studios), Aaron Nevezie (Bunker Studio), Ted Orr (Creative Music Studios)
Mastered by Dave Glaser @ Airshow Mastering
Album Sequencing: Awilda Rivera
Photos & Artwork: Jose Iorio (G! Productions)
Liner Notes: George Kanzler

Virtuoso jazz cellist Akua Dixon entered a new creative phase with the sleek 2011 quartet session "Moving On," her first album under her own name. Her new self-ttled CD, "Akua Dixon," is a dazzling string conclave that surveys the cellist/composer/arranger's expansive stylistic reach. Dixon's label, Akua's Music, released the disc two days ago.

The project showcases Dixon as a powerfully emotive improviser and dauntingly creative arranger exploring sumptuous American Songbook ballads (Richard Rodgers' "It Never Entered My Mind," Arthur Schwartz's "Alone Together" and Henry Mancini's multi-Grammy winning song "Moon River"), a famous bolero (Consuelo Velasquez's "Besame Mucho," covered by João Gilberto on his "Amoroso" masterpiece with Claus Ogerman), erotically charged nuevo tango (Astor Piazzolla's "Libertango"), and a rootsy Ellingtonian opus ("Freedom".) 

"When I look back at my history I've written for all different sizes of string ensembles, from duos and trios to orchestras," Dixon says. "But the string quartet is the easiest unit to keep together and keep working, and it's the situation I've written for the most." The repertoire also includes Nat Simon's "Poinciana" (Ahmad Jamal's biggest hit ever) and a great take on Israel 'Cachao' Lopez' "A Gozar Con Mi Combo."

The eponymous CD features Dixon's working string quartet (Patrisa Tomassini, first violin; Gwen Laster or Chala Yancy, second violin; and Ina Paris, viola) plus special guests like bassist Kenny Davis, violin star Regina Carter, and violin master John Blake Jr. (in one of his final recordings before his passing last August).

Also featured, on one track apiece, are Dixon's children -- drummer Orion Turre, heard on the album opener, Charles Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song" (the algum highlight) and vocalist Andromeda Turre, who contributes a swooning version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." "They got exposed to a lot of different music growing up and both became wonderful musicians," says their proud mother. "Making music for me has always been a family affair." And this family affair already became the first item in our list for the best albums of this new year. 
Born and raised in New York City, Akua Dixon grew up in a family suffused with music. She started playing with her sister, the late violinist Gayle Dixon, shortly after the cello came into her life in the 4th grade. After graduating from the prestigious "Fame" High School of the Performing Arts, Dixon studied at the Manhattan School of Music at a time when the only track available focused on European classical music. She describes her post-graduation gig in the pit band at the Apollo Theater as an essential proving ground. Backing a disparate array of stars from Rev. James Cleveland and Barry White to James Brown and Dionne Warwick, she developed a vast idiomatic repertoire.

With the doors of most symphony orchestras closed to African-American musicians (to say nothing of women), Dixon found a home in the Symphony of the New World, which is where she experienced the Ellingtonian epiphany that led her to jazz. "I started immersing myself in jazz and spirituals, and became determined to learn the secrets of improvising," she says.

It's hard to overstate the centrality of Dixon's contribution to the rise of visibility of bowed strings in jazz. In the early 1970s the New York scene was exploding with creatively ambitious and talented string players, many of whom gathered in the String Reunion, a 30-piece orchestra founded by Noel Pointer. Dixon served as the ensemble's director of new music, supplying the group with a steady stream of original compositions and arrangements. At the same time, she launched her own string quartet, Quartette Indigo, which made its big-league debut at the Village Gate with her sister Gayle Dixon, Maxine Roach, and John Blake Jr.

Dixon collaborated closely with another jazz giant in the early 1980s as a founding member of the Max Roach Double Quartet. She had honed her rhythmic drive backing the likes of James Brown, but learning to phrase bebop with one of the idiom's founding fathers was an invaluable experience.

After years of lending her skills to recordings by masters such as Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Buster Williams, Carmen McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, Tom Harrell, and her former husband Steve Turre, Dixon made a bold statement of her own with 1994's Quartette Indigo (Landmark), a classic album featuring violist Ron Lawrence and violinists Gayle Dixon and John Blake Jr. (reissued by 32 Jazz). Supported by a grant from the NEA to compose the music, she delivered a brilliant second album in 1997 with "Afrika! Afrika!" (Savant) with Lawrence, and violinists Regina Carter and Marlene Rice.

She spent much of the next decade immersed in education, teaching at various institutions and conducting dozens of performances through the Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concert Series. With the release of Akua Dixon, however, Dixon has refocused her priorities and put her own music on the front burner.

In support of the new CD, Dixon will be appearing with her string quartet 1/18 at the Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church, 122nd Street and Fifth Avenue, NYC (the church she attended growing up was in this facility). Other CD release shows include: 1/30 Trumpets, Montclair, NJ; 4/18 Sistas' Place Coffee House, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; and, 4/24 Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Peter Norton Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street, NYC.
Photography: Jose Iorio
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