. On The Auction Project, New York alto saxophonist David Bixler and pianist Arturo O’Farrill, musical partners in
the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, fearlessly cross musical boundaries, improvising over traditional Irish jigs and original Bixler compositions, over a tapestry of Afro-Cuban percussion, in a fierce,freewheeling sextet session.
. The Auction Project was born out of a request for a high school fund-raiser in the form of an auction on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2006. New York-based alto saxophonist rose to the challenge by forming a multi-cultural jazz sextet together with his frequent musical partner, pianist / composer Arturo O’Farrill.
• With Juillard-trained violinist Heather Martin Bixler on board, her intense interest in Irish fiddling focused the new band’s musical agenda on exploring traditional Irish music with an improvisational jazz
sensibility, and the richness of Afro-Latin percussion.
• The Auction Project features 5 David Bixler originals, and 5 traditional Irish jigs and dance tunes going back to the 19th century – including “The Chicken went to Scotland”, “She Moves Through the Fair”, and “Banish
• This is Arturo O’Farrill’s sixth ZOHO CD release since 2005. His 2008 release “Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra – Song for Chico” (ZMR 200804) won a GRAMMY in the Latin Jazz category in 2009. His last, 2009 CD release “Risa Negra” (ZMR 200910) made it to the “Best of
2009” Jazz CD lists of The Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice, among others.
The Auction Project is Jazz with Afro-Celtic sympathies. This group was born out of a request in 2006 from the PTA at my daughter’s school for me to put together a Latin jazz group for a fund-raiser in the form of an auction at her school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Some parents involved knew I was a saxophonist, and of my association with the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. Not really being involved in the “inner-circle” of Upper-Westside activist parents, I saw my opportunity to contribute and put out calls to my friends and colleagues, including my frequent musical partner, pianist / composer Arturo O’Farrill. To the best of my ability, I got a Latin-jazz group together. After playing this one gig at PS 75, my mind was racing with the idea of creating an outlet for the music that I was involved with that fell outside of the umbrella of “The David Bixler Quintet.”
Around this same time my wife Heather Martin Bixler, a Julliard School-trained violinist, was looking to pursue music other than the New York free-lance scene, and had begun studying Irish fiddling. At first I didn’t take it very seriously, but soon realized that Irish music was like jazz in a lot of ways, except that people liked it… Seriously, it is similar to jazz in that it is music passed on by aural tradition, and playing sessions and learning tunes are an integral part of the Irish tradition. When she would play me music that she was working on, there were certain tunes that I could envision reworking into a platform for jazz improvisation.
I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of the music from someone listening from either side-one from the Latin/Jazz and the other from the Irish. Before I do I would like to give a little of the back story of my music.
The date described in June 26th 07 signifies the day after my oldest son graduated from high school. We were sitting around the house in a state of shock wondering what happened to the last seventeen years. Being a composer, I did what composers do and filtered this experience into sounds. One time, after hearing this tune performed, someone asked me if I loved my son.
Green Target takes its name from a Jasper Johns painting that hangs at New York City’s MOMA. There was a season when I spent quite a bit of time there, and continually this painting captured my attention. In thinking about this painting this is what came out. Green Target - Take 2 is here for artistic reasons: it is the same tune, but it has completely different deserving solos. Consider it a bonus track - I think it interesting to present a window into the creative process to the serious listener.
While not my tune, I am envious of Banish Misfortune. I find so much joy in both the melody and the title. Much of what I write and am drawn to is dark, so when I heard this I wanted to latch on to this tune and try to inject that into this group.
Heptagonesque comes from a saxophone quartet that I wrote for the Ancia Saxophone Quartet and is recorded on their Naxos release, Short Stories. I took the basic groove from one of the movements as well as the melody and used it as basis for this tune.
Worth Dying For is an intensely personal offering for my family.
From left to right : David Bixler, Heather Martin Bixler, Arturo O'Farrill. Photo: Jack Frisch.
As someone who’s been involved in playing, presenting and writing about Irish traditional music in New York City for about 25 years, Heather Martin Bixler asked me to contribute a few words about the Auction Project’s Irish tracks. I guess nobody warned her that I was a hard-core “purist” who might not be thrilled to hear jazz harmonies and Latin percussion applied to Irish song airs and dance tunes.
She needn’t have worried. While today’s Irish music lovers might not be accustomed to this sort of fusion sound, most don’t realize that any sort of harmonic and rhythmic backing to Irish melodies is a fairly recent phenomenon. Traditional songs and dance tunes in rural Ireland were originally unaccompanied. And if songs such as “She Moved Through the Fair” or a jigs like “Banish Misfortune” could survive the heavy-handed piano backing that was de rigeuer in the “Golden Age” of 78 rpm recordings, or the ham-handed guitar strumming of early 60’s folkies, they are not going to suffer from contact with the Auction Project’s sophisticated Latin Jazz treatment!
“She Moved Through the Fair” is itself a bit of a fusion – a traditional song collected in County Donegal by Belfast musicologist Herbert Hughes, whose version of the melody was later married to lyrics by Irish poet Padraic Colum. It’s a haunting melody that acquires additional layers of mystery in the Auction Project’s arrangement. “Banish Misfortune” was a jig that became popular among musicians when it was included in Francis O’Neill’s 1903 Music of Ireland, to which it was contributed by Tipperary fiddler Edward Cronin.
“Heather’s Waltz” is actually a medley of slip jigs (aka “hop jigs”), dance tunes in 9/8 time. The first was published as “O’Farrell’s Welcome to Limerick” in an early 19th century collection of piping tunes. The second, “The Arragh Mountains,” is a composition of the late Tipperary button accordionist Paddy O’Brien. The third, which Heather picked up in a Belfast session, is a rhythmic reworking of County Fermanagh bouzouki player Fintan McManus’ “The Guns of the Magnificent Seven,” a reel that includes an odd measure with seven instead of the usual four beats. Don Meade
No matter how carefully you look at David Bixler, you won’t see his swarthy Hispanic side. You talk to him and his accent gives nothing away. Apart from the neighborhood he lives in (decidedly Dominican) his day-to-day life reveals nothing. His family doesn’t particularly look Nuyorican. His position as professor of jazz studies is in Bowling Green State University, a location not renowned for its mofongo or platanos.
So if it’s not his looks, his speech, or his life, where exactly are his Afro- Cuban roots hiding? And then you hear it! It’s in his playing and in his compositions that the passion is revealed. He has that declamatory style and spontaneous melodicism that is such a feature of our best soneros. He has an abandon that is born out of fire and ice colliding as it always does in the art of those who stand culturally in the midst of many worlds.
The Auction Project is very much about colliding cultures. Whether you call it Afro-Latin, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Celtic, Afro-Polka or Afro-whatever, he imbues every note he writes with information about the worlds we inhabit. It is a beautiful sense of syncopated drama that governs his music. This is why we have so much fun playing in each other’s projects.
Two examples from the recording illustrate my point. “June 26 ‘07” has a laid-back cha cha cha feel that is genuine in its rhythmic authenticity. It also has a delightfully syncopated series of interwoven melodies that in the wrong hands could become dangerously thick and not groove-worthy, but in David’s care the whole affair is seamless and quite effortless. Part of this has to do with the musicians he’s picked. There is no room for inflexibility between Vince Cherico, Roland Guerrero and Carlo Dirosa. The ease and transition of styles genres and grooves is always lovely and musical.
“Heptagonesque” is a prime example of musical precepts that I aspire to, a groove driven, Afro-Latin 12/8 bass line, a sophisticated harmonic structure, a quirky jazzy melody, and honest, heartfelt abandonment in the improvisation. These are core musical values to me.
I sense that the project is also very much about the life of a jazz saxophonist/composer married to a classical violinist/Irish fiddler. Heather Martin Bixler is an extraordinary musician whose gentle and graceful performance on this recording is comprehensive in its knowledge of the different styles represented here.
Talk about colliding cultures there is plenty here for a Mexican, Cuban/Irish pianist to sink his teeth into. For a kid born in Mexico, there is a profound kinship with this child of the American heartland. He doesn’t so much resemble Zorro as much as that he gets that twinkle in his eye which I’ve seen in a lot of my people. I think maybe David is Hispanglo. Arturo O’Farrill
Recorded April 2, 2010 at Twinz Recording Studio. Engineer: Katherine Miller. Mastering by Mark Bunce. Producer: David Bixler. Photography : Jack Frisch and Jerry Lacay (photos Vince Cherico, Roland Guerrero, Carlo Derosa). Package Design : Jack Frisch. Executive Producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.