Sometimes, one bad song is enough to turn you off to an entire album.
The fourth track on Akua Dixon’s Jan. 13, 2015, self-titled album does that for me. The cellist bows and strains, then proceeds to scat — badly — throughout “It Never Entered My Mind,” from the 1940 Rodgers & Hart musical, “Higher And Higher.”
The visual equivalent is walking into my son’s “Sanford & Son” room, seeing the mess, and walking right out again.
The rest of the album features Dixon and her personnel doing an okay job of the instrumentals, except for “Besame Mucho,” which starts off with a terrible squeaking in the string section.
Dixon only sings on that one cover, though, and plays cello ably enough. With her are her working string quartet and three-five special guests, including violinist Regina Carter (Dixon’s Quartette Indigo), who can and mostly does play her ass off on three covers as a soloist (“Libertango” nearly saves the day); the late violin master John Blake Jr.; drummer Orion Turre, the cellist’s son, churning up “Haitian Fight Song”; daughter, singer Andromeda Turre, on “Lush Life”; and bassist Kenny Davis.
They take turns soloing, the core string quartet members jazz students of a sort. “They are all fabulous classical players that studied improvisation with me to be able to play this music,” Dixon said in a press release from Terri Hinte. “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.”
The instrumental covers cover the classical notes nicely, turning jazz standards like “Moon River” into a wandering wanderlust affair, perfect for a night at the opera. But other than the string variations and contrasts lightly cutting into the classically interwoven lines, there’s not much hard-hitting jazz to the naked ear.
The stringed instrumentals are so indelibly classical in nature that it’s difficult to take them out of that well-worn equation, even if you read the details about “changing leads and counterpoint.” I don’t know about anyone else, but I missed the traditional rhythm section of bass and drums, with piano heading up the front.
The stringed voicings on Duke Ellington’s three-movement suite “Freedom” (from his Sacred Concerts) seem dowdy by nature, as if trying too hard with too many musical syllables to get a soaring gospel theme across. Dixon adds her own movement in the middle.
It’s similar in the chunky, disappointing, opener, the late bassist Charles Mingus’ 1955 “Haitian Fight Song,” about “prejudice and hate, and persecution…” The cellist and her violinists laboriously saw away at the notes compared to Mingus’ light-fingered horn players (Shafi Hadi, Jimmy Knepper), taking three times longer to state their piece than the quick and billowing original. Mingus’ crew snaps and sizzles on theirs, Dixon’s plods along, many steps behind, jogging not running to catch up.
Halfway in, and I’ve already lost interest.
Nothing compares to pianist Wade Legge on his slide and carry solo in Mingus’ version, not even strings.
Interestingly, Charles Mingus’ surviving wife Sue commissioned Dixon for the newly arranged stringed piece.
Dixon (Max Roach Double Quartet) came into jazz after mastering an impressive classical resume. The New York-based, first-call string player found plenty to expand on with the two classical genres. “For all these years, I’ve been in and writing for string ensembles of some kind, and I wanted to showcase that music,” she explained in the liner notes, in an interview with NYC Jazz Record/Hot House’s George Kanzler.
The Akua Dixon album’s jazz aspirations seem hampered by the tremendous classical background and that one misstep at a wordless vocal line.