Classic Albums: Bill Dixon & Cecil Taylor, DUETS 1992

I transferred to Bennington College from the School of Visual Arts as a philosophy major, which lasted all of two weeks before I switched back to fine art.

This change meant I had to adjust my course load by adding some visual art classes and dropping some non-visual art classes. One from the drop list was “Introduction To Black Music” which was taught by the head of the Black Music Division, Bill Dixon.

A short Bill Dixon story:

The Black Music Division lived in its own building, Jennings, which stood apart from the rest of the campus. I decided to walk up to Jennings to tell Bill Dixon is person why I was dropping his class. It seemed to be the right thing to do. I was shown into Bill’s office where he was sitting behind his desk. Arthur Brooks, who also taught music, stood by Bill’s side.

I remember the vibe which was a mixture of pure intimidation coming from Bill, a kind of gleeful anticipation smiling on Arthur’s face, and my general discomfort.

“Why are you here?” Bill offered.
“I’ve decided to change my major so I have to drop your ‘Intro’ class.”

There was an uncomfortably long pause, silence, filled only by Bill slowly turning to look at Arthur, deadpan, and Arthur returning Bill’s glance with a slight, sly smile.

“You came all the way up here just to tell me you’re dropping my class?”
“Yea. It seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted you to know I really want to take this class but due to me changing my major, I can’t this semester.”

There was another uncomfortably long pause, silence, filled only by Bill slowly turning to look at Arthur, deadpan, and Arthur returning Bill’s glance with a slightly larger, sly smile.

“This is one of the most important classes you can take at Bennington.” Bill said with all of the certainty and assurance with which one responds to the question, “What’s your name?”

“I plan to.”

There was an uncomfortably long pause, silence, filled only by Bill slowly turning to look at Arthur, deadpan, and Arthur returning Bill’s glance and shaking his back and forth while smiling slyly.

Finally Bill spoke to Arthur, “You know, I kinda like this kid. He’s a space case, but he seems OK.” To which, Arthur nodded and I got a look from Bill signaling our meeting was over.

I had the pleasure of seeing Bill Dixon perform a number of times with various accompanists during my time at Bennington in addition to a show at the old Knitting Factory on Houston and count these experiences as some of the most intense musical performances I’ve witnessed. I never did take that course.

Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor began performing together in NYC in 1951. Bill performed as a side man on Taylor’s classic Blue Note LP Conquistador! from 1966 (very highly recommended), and the two teamed up again in 2002 for Taylor/Dixon/Oxley. But we’re here to talk about Duets.

From Triple Point Records:

In 1992 they made the briefest summer festival tour to Italy and France, budgeting in two additional days for this recording session. That musical output was prepared for a release that was shelved for more than a quarter century and now comes out as a posthumous release in tribute to both giants. The initiative to release this music began with the Bill Dixon Trust and was approved by Taylor in his final years. Now, a wider public will hear music that they both prized, documenting the extraordinary relationship between their musicalities.

And from the liner notes by Ben Young:

Long before this 1992 date, he [Dixon] and Taylor within their own spheres had concluded that playing “in step” was old-fashioned, slow, and, uninteresting. The music had outgrown written parts and what Dixon would called “pulsative time.” It also outgrew the need for improvisors to repeat or echo one another. That is, if the goal is an art form whose success is synchrony and repetition, tools other than improvisation would get you there more efficiently. Duets models gloriously this improvising intelligence whose highest achievement is complementary, rather than locking into patterns that match.

Translated as – not easy listening. Or perhaps the easiest of listening because all you have to do is listen. And not judge (that’s actually the hard part). What you’ll hear, if you listen, is two musicians who, at the time of this recording, had 40+ years of playing. 40+ years of developing their own unique voice and forms of communication playing live, in studio, together. Unrehearsed, unscripted.

The recording quality is brilliant, highly dynamic (and I mean highly), and the interplay is pure time-defying magic. The 2-LP set was made with great care by Triple Point Records in an edition of 665. As far as I know, there’s no digital version.

Bill Dixon & Cecil Taylor, DUETS 1992 is avialble directly from Triple Point Records.