“I started immersing myself in jazz and spirituals, and became determined to learn the secrets of improvising”
Cellist, arranger, composer, vocalist, and educator Akua Dixon is a jazz string pioneer who has thrived in a vast array of settings. She’s collaborated on world premieres of major works by reed stars Paquito D’Rivera and James Carter, founded and directed the celebrated, improvisation-laced string quartet Quartette Indigo, and created the string arrangements for the five-time Grammy-winning neo-soul manifesto The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She entered a new creative phase with her sleek 2011 quartet session Moving On, her first album under her own name. Her follow-up album, Akua Dixon, is a dazzling string conclave that surveys her expansive stylistic reach.
The eponymous CD features Dixon’s working string quartet and special guests like bassist Kenny Davis, violin star Regina Carter, and undersung violin master John Blake Jr. (in one of his final recordings before his passing last August). More than anything, the project showcases Dixon as a powerfully emotive improviser and dauntingly creative arranger exploring sumptuous American Songbook ballads, a suave Afro-Cuban standard, erotically charged nuevo tango, and a rootsy Ellingtonian opus.
“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.”
While Dixon is a prolific composer, she decided to reintroduce herself as an arranger by dipping into her extensive catalog of commissioned works. The album opens with a fiercely swinging version of Charles Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” featuring John Blake Jr., a piece propelled by the dynamic rhythmic section tandem of bassist Kenny Davis and Akua’s son Orion Turre on drums. As pugnacious and fervent as Mingus’s classic 1955 live recording with Max Roach at the Café Bohemia, the piece is a tantalizing taste from an entire program of string arrangements that Sue Mingus hired Dixon to write.
From Mingus’s volatility Dixon moves to the sublime melancholy of Arthur Schwartz’s lament “Alone Together.” With her burnished cello singing the aching melody in counterpoint to the insistently agitated strings, the tune has never sounded so desolate. She reaches a similar emotional space on a ravishing version of the Rodgers and Hart standard “It Never Entered My Mind,” with her wordless vocal line engaging in an elegant pas de deux with Davis’s supple bass. Dixon’s lush arrangement of Mancini’s “Moon River” showcases the impressive improvisational skills of her bandmates with solos by violist Ina Paris and first violinist Patrisa Tomassini. Conservatory trained musicians who came to jazz relatively late, they’ve blossomed under Dixon’s mentorship.
“They are all fabulous classical players that studied improvisation with me to be able to play this music,” Dixon says. “As a composer of string music I’ve developed the players in my ensemble so they really learn my phrasing. This CD has been a five-year journey for them.”
If the album has a centerpiece it’s “Freedom,” a three-movement suite with two Duke Ellington spirituals sandwiching Dixon’s jaunty middle section. With its distinctive blend of melodic momentum, bluesy authority, and emotional integrity, the suite feels like it was designed for Regina Carter, who gained early attention as a member of Dixon’s Quartette Indigo. Another high point is Dixon’s beautifully distilled version of Israel “Cachao” Lopez’s classic charanga “A Gozar Con Mi Combo.” Dixon’s acquired her deep comprehension of the Afro-Cuban idiom directly from the source, as she performed and recorded with Cachao (and included a different version of the piece on Moving On featuring guitarist Ron Jackson, bassist Dwayne Burno, and drummer Willie Jones III).
Dixon closes the album with three beloved standards that seem to speak to the revivifying power of love. Billy Strayhorn’s world weary “Lush Life” features the lustrous vocals of Dixon’s daughter Andromeda Turre. Her swooning version of “Besame Mucho” glides right into the last track, a gently but compellingly grooving arrangement of “Poinciana” that translates Vernel Fournier’s buoyant beat to a string setting. Dixon is particularly proud to include contributions by her children on the album.
“As a parent I didn’t feel that I could just leave them at home,” she says with a laugh. “They got exposed to a lot of different music growing up and both became wonderful musicians. Making music for me has always been a family affair.”
It’s hard to overstate the centrality of Dixon’s contribution to the rise of visibility of bowed strings in jazz. Born and raised in New York City, she grew up in a family suffused with music, starting with her early experience singing in the Baptist church. Her first creative partnership was also her most profound and enduring, as she started playing with her sister, the late violinist Gayle Dixon, shortly after the cello came into her life in the 4th grade.
“My sister was two grades ahead and she was already playing violin,” Dixon recalls. “The connection was really deep. If I didn’t play well, she wouldn’t let me play with her. And as we got older we always played together. As teenagers we got together with friends on weekends and instead of going out to the park we’d play string quartet pieces. By junior high we were playing little gigs, and in high school I started freelancing seriously.”
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. After Sammy Davis Jr. insisted the Westbury Music Fair include African-American musicians in the orchestra Dixon worked with numerous major acts at the theater and broke into Broadway pit bands for shows with Charles Aznavour, Liza Minnelli (Liza with a Z), La Cage Aux Folles, Cats, Doonesbury, Dream Girls, and many others.
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. While performing a new work by Ellington who had supported the creation of the orchestra, Dixon realized she hadn’t “studied the music of my own heritage,” she says. “I started immersing myself in jazz and spirituals, and became determined to learn the secrets of improvising.”
Dixon was at the right place at the right time. 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. She served as ensemble’s director of new music, supplying the group with a steady stream of original compositions and arrangements. At the same time, Dixon 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.
“There were so many opportunities for interesting work,” Dixon says. “You had cats like Archie Shepp, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Woody Shaw, Jimmy Heath, and Frank Foster wanting to write for strings. Leroy Jenkins, Charles Burnham, Abdul Wadud, and I got to jam and I developed a free, creative aspect to my playing.”
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. “He knew the sound he wanted,” Dixon says. “We rehearsed nine-to-five five days a week starting in 1981 and the first big concert was at Kool Jazz Festival in 1982. I did the first European tour with Max in summer of 1983.”
Over the years, Dixon has collaborated with many of the world’s greatest arts organizations. She’s conducted for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, lectured at the Smithsonian Institution, and composed an opera commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation, The Opera of Marie Laveau that premiered at Henry Street New Federal Theatre in New York City.
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, 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. Her new album is just the latest dispatch from a restlessly creative artist who’s just starting to reveal her full musical vision. Now living in the Hudson Valley area, she’s busy writing new music for her string quartet, the Moving On quartet, and other ensembles.
“I’ve definitely changed my life around and have some new goals,” Dixon says. “I’m enjoying the freedom to compose and practice. I’m sure I will start teaching again. It’s inevitable and I love it. But I’ve also finished another act in my opera and two symphonic pieces. I have a lot of music within me to set free.” •
Bio by Andrew Gilbert.
Akua Dixon: Akua Dixon
Street Date: January 13, 2015
Web Site: www.akuadixon.com