David Bixler is a conflicted individual. He has many musical (and non-musical) directions pushing and pulling at him. He is a jazz saxophonist, a classical and jazz composer, he is an arranger, he is an Afro Cuban, Afro Celtic composer and performer. He is an educator, a family man and an avowed Curling enthusiast.
I’m afraid he’s also developed a questionable habit. He’s got a small group. They play his compositions.
In his defense, you can understand the addiction. I mean look at the personnel. John Hart plays the guitar with impeccable swing and taste. Scott Wendholdt is a trumpet players’ trumpet player, playing modern but without disavowing the tradition. Ugonna Okegwo lays down a plush carpet, defiantly flexible but rock solid. Andy Watson has a motianesque usage of space and never ever forces the groove, it just flows. It’s no wonder Bixie (as we call him) is hooked.
And then there are his tunes. As betwixt as he is. The product of a brilliant mind, an outsider looking in at all the restraints of what is normally called jazz but like true observers not bound by any of them. His is an original voice. A beautiful and reflective antidote to fad oriented or doily covered jazz (the only two directions the machine seems hell bent on rewarding).
Perfected Surfaces: It is precisely this kind of group intuition that helps us understand David’s need. The hockets in the opening melody, the duet and the group improvisatory and written textures can only take place amongst musicians who trust each other and their composer. It also helps that the rhythm section is funky without being clunky, holding it down without holding it back. Obviously perfected surfaces don’t exist in real life, perhaps it is a Platonic ideal that exists only in David’s mind.
Vanishing Point: A vanishing point is a distant point somewhere off in the horizon. This music is yearning, looking far away, into a hopefulness that belies its simplicity. I love the full and rich tones that Scott and David use during the melodic statement. It is somehow heroic as if the journey forward, towards that vanishing point is not melancholic but strong and filled with purpose. John’s solo has that same quality of being purposeful and rhythmically sure, a steady journey into the horizon.
Vida Blue: This is hard bop, cool jazz at it’s finest. Scott shows the ease with which he swims in the style but never losing a modern and very individual edge. The guitar solo by John is slamming with a bluesy quality that captures the idea of keeping the playing hot and passionate but with a cool head. Bixie begins his solo with a trademark long phrase that is more melody than riff and evolves beautifully from there. The Ugonna contribution breathes much fire and the trades are simply beautiful.
Three Dog Years: This title has something to do with dog years compared to marriage years and I can’t quite get whether or not that’s a positive or negative statement. Either way I refuse to touch the narrative behind the tune. What I can tell you is that the music is beautiful, the melodies typically ponderous, typically Bixolodian. The solos establish the mood even further, never seeming note heavy but thoughtful and clear. There is a beautiful Ugonna solo that ends and begins with a time transformation in which the pulse of the piece doesn’t change but the counting does seeming to give two interpretations of where the time lies, not unlike marriage.
The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head: This modern swinger goes back and forth between “latin” and “jazz” grooves and has at its roots a drive and progression that again is purely Bixolodian. It is typical of David that the melodic material is all angles and modern shapes. The alto solo is particularly Bix-like with twists and turns rather than bop infused lines so typical of the alto world. The sound of this configuration is particularly suited for this type of piece, it requires lightness and accuracy without sounded rigid and overly written and rehearsed. These guys deliver uncompromisingly
Arise: This is a pensive process, this unfolding of a meditation. Yet it never feels meandering or aimless. Ugonna Okegwo has a beautiful and rich tone. You can really hear the instrument, the wood, the texture of each string. It is rare to hear him solo, as he is one of the most in demand players on the scene performing with many of the greats. The structure of this intro is simple and has a slightly Mingus quality to it but the fluidity of it could only belong to Ugonna. The beginning Ostinato gives way to a beautifully wrought and mysterious set of chords and intervals punctuated by an ensemble performance of the beginning material. I like this particular style of Bixie playing. His methodical unfolding of ideas is I believe a trademark of his playing. It feels intimate and heartfelt, not phoned in. The release of this intention is a beautiful understated drum solo during which the beginning material is performed as an ensemble, unison, and a slow fade out.
David Bixler. Photo: Mariangela Chatzistamatiou.
Thinking Cap is a quirky swing number with an angular melody and great independence between the voices. The Alto solo reflects this melodic aesthetic beautifully. The trumpet solo retains a more traditional “line” oriented approach which flows through the changes effortlessly. John’s guitar playing always has a great usage of space, momentary pauses which have the effect of making his improvisations seem like conversations with himself. The drum trades are swinging and bring this composition to a very natural conclusion.
The Darkness Is My Closest Friend: This is a piece I adore, having recorded this on my own CD with David and my band Risa Negra. There is a gentle growth and progression in the composition that grows in agitation melodically, harmonically, in terms of improvisation and dynamically that reaches a peak at about 3:48. It is not a 32 measure head, it is not a form that is standard issue jazz, this is the real deal, composition for small ensemble. More chamber music than typical jazz. The chords are typically Bixian in that they have their own internal logic (and are fun to play on) both David and John have the uniqueness and depth to realize the harmony without sounding overly preoccupied with playing chords.
Goat Check: This is a way different take on this tune than the version I recorded, again with Risa Negra. More rock than funk, little bit of Midwest twang and less Bronx cheer. Nonetheless it works completely and authoritatively. It is a more effect-laden John Hart than I am used to but I dig it. It is a great piece about the behavior of goats or goat-like entities and their orneriness. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen too many goats but they do have that reputation. The way these guys play, with attitude, swing, and mastery is maybe not ornery but certainly close to it.
I am glad there are musicians like David Bixler. Complex, perhaps tortured but reassuring to me. In this age of safety pin jazz, with the world evenly divided between classicists, replicating styles of yesteryear or modernists content to groove in odd meters and call it a day. It’s nice to see someone who balances the idea of coming from somewhere and going in new directions. Why would anyone choose otherwise. David has the skills and knowledge as a player and as a writer to go in either direction. That he has the heart and sensitivity to straddle both is the mark of a true artist. I kept listening for the piano on this record, it must’ve been broken. Oh and by the way, the man knows what Curling is all about, you should see him on the ice, it is a thing to behold. Arturo O’Farrill
Produced by David Bixler.
Recorded on September 17th, 2011 at Twins Recording Studio
Engineered and mixed by Katherine Miller
Mastered by Mark Bunce and Chris Aftoora
Photography: Mariangela Chatzistamatiou.
Package Design: Al Gold.
Executive Producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.
David Bixler plays Selmer saxophones and uses Vandoren reeds and mouthpieces.