Saturday, May 16, 2020

'Blended Lineage': David Bixler's mixed results in suite on theme of tribes

Current political and social commentary tends to tsk-tsk at "tribalism," suggesting a regression from civilized norms.  Pushing back against such connotations, alto saxophonist David Bixler leads a five-man group he calls the Bixtet, supplemented by a string quartet, in a commissioned work on the theme of tribes.

"Blended Lineage" (Red Piano Records) is a 34-minute suite in which the composer's forces are well-
Composer-saxophonist David Bixler
distributed, but sometimes seem to be searching for musical substance. Bixler has said he deliberately accentuated the positive (to use Johnny Mercer's phrase) in writing the work. The ferocity and insularity of tribal identity clearly held little appeal to him.

Ensemble virtues fade a bit into the background in the finale,"My Soul Swoons Softly," a phrase borrowed somewhat disconcertingly from James Joyce's eulogistic short story "The Dead." Bixler makes this summing-up an alto-sax showcase. That cuts against the ensemble focus of the rest of "Blended Lineage," but it's meant to emphasize the personal import of the theme.

Even when the string quartet sits out, in "Motherland," the suite usually maintains a nifty balance of instruments. Thus, in "My Soul Swoons Softly," the way the strings seem to be coming in from a distance may well be an artistic decision rather than an engineering flaw. I guess it's designed to represent the soul's soft swooning, a risky area for music to settle into, but a plausible foray here.

Here's a contrast: In the suite's opening section, "Origins," the string quartet partners steadily with Jon Cowherd's piano after the deliberately careful jelling of the material. Bixler's tone is reflective, soft-edged, and verges on the lugubrious.

The positive message becomes more explicit in "Motherland," a tribute to Bixler's Wisconsin heritage. There's energy in the theme that the alto sax shares with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez. The open-road feeling evokes for me memories of motoring along the rolling farm country of the state with my wife and her mother (both native Badgers). The tune's ending kicks up agreeably.

My favorite track is "Trenches," where both the theme and its treatment are edgy. The trenches of the  title allude to the life of musicians, often struggling to maintain a foothold, especially since mid-March. I like the way the anxiety of that lifestyle is both tamed and projected through the music. The Rodriguez solo in particular displays the mood. The strings seem more than window dressing, and there's some fine interplay near the end in patterns placed on top of Fabio Rojas' drums.

Luke Sellick completes the Bixtet personnel on bass. The string quartet comprises Judith Ingolfsson, gold medalist in the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, violinist Heather Martin Bixler, violist Josh Kail, and cellist Rubin Kodheli.

No comments:

Post a Comment