The musical mayor of Indy 

Rob Dixon doesn’t make it look easy. As he nears the climax of a solo, his eyes cinch tight, sweat pours down his face. He leans back slightly as if to keep the horn from singeing his trunk (he is outdoors on a hot day, after all). And he’s a substantial guy, tall with a slightly weathered and long face topped with a thin layer of scrub; he’s typically clad in loose button-up shirts with a few buttons undone.

But his results sound effortless, a cool, uniform tone nearly always in the center of a groove, with slight breathiness on the upper register.

And if Dixon was first noticed by a major New York producer for that sound — who said to Dixon, “I like your sound; not so much the notes that you play, but your sound” — he also has a fluid musical intelligence that can settle on an easy, catchy theme or throw off difficult, rapid-fire runs.

Dixon is playing with his newest group, The Dixon/Rhyne Project, for this Labor Day show, blasting jazz onto College Avenue from a stage abutting the Jazz Kitchen. It’s an organ trio today — Dixon, organist Melvin Rhyne, drummer Richard “Sleepy” Floyd — although it turns into a four-piece for big shows and on the group’s first recording, Reinvention, adding guitarist Fareed Haque and subbing Kenny Phelps for Floyd.

Not that Dixon can only be seen with groups that bear his name: He contributes to plenty of ensembles about town, including the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, R&B singer Cynthia Layne’s backing band and the Midcoast Jazz Orchestra. Few weeks go by that Dixon doesn’t take the Jazz Kitchen stage — usually indoors — playing weekly gigs with Dixon/Rhyne and Midcoast, joining travelling musicians or just about anyone local who needs a versatile horn player. If he’s not playing, he might be found sitting at the Kitchen bar, doing business for the new Indianapolis jazz label Owl Studios, signing and nurturing artists both local and regional, walking and talking a philosophy of respect for musicians and their work, brainstorming new ideas to distribute and sell music in a post-Napster environment. At the center of activity in the local music world — whether jazz, R&B, jam or beyond — Dixon has earned the moniker “Musical Mayor of Indianapolis” from trumpeter and Owl labelmate Derrick Gardner.

But at one point in his life, the 38-year-old musician, composer and vice president of artists and repertoire for Owl Studios didn’t plan on living anywhere outside of New York City, where he first established himself in his post-collegiate years. Leave it to a disaster to change plans: His girlfriend, Jamie, wanted to move away from New York City after Sept. 11, closer to her family in Indianapolis. Dixon followed after nearly a year of commuting between his gigs and his girlfriend. They’ve now settled down in Indianapolis with their 4-year-old daughter, Sidney.

Dixon says he had to see the world, live in New York, place himself in the middle of what remains a major hub of jazz in order to understand the different ways that people live and create.

Catching Dixon on an off-day between gigs and record label responsibilities, he reflects on what he’s learned by living in two jazz scenes with historical roots. With puffy eyes, a ready smile and a laid-back, somewhat tired speaking style, he explains that, in New York, he learned a “frantic” playing style and is about “dealing with changes and chord navigation in a more heady way, with substitutions in a more cerebral style.” And in Indianapolis, he’s absorbed jazz that “has a lilt to it, but is essentially laid-back” and is especially concerned with “navigating the chord changes.”

That Indianapolis sound, is carried on by Rhyne, once a collaborator with bop guitar innovator Wes Montgomery, who returned to Indianapolis and major recording sessions for the Criss Cross label after a couple decades laying somewhat low in Milwaukee. The 71-year-old Rhyne is a lively presence on the outdoor stage with Dixon, cracking risqué jokes between tunes and making due with a portable organ that, he would say, pales in comparison to his trusty Hammond B-3.

Dixon, who worshipped hard bop during his musical development, will get indignant on Rhyne’s behalf when he thinks the organist has been overlooked; such is his admiration for the tradition and knowledge of that jazz florescence in the ’60s. But he’s also pushing Rhyne to try new material in their Project, groove-based modern jazz that doesn’t necessarily follow the boundaries laid by Indianapolis jazz, that includes a Moog synthesizer that would be rather lonely on Rhyne’s straight-ahead trio dates.

Raising the bar

Born in Baltimore, Robert Carter Dixon moved at age 9 to the Atlanta suburb Sandy Spring; he says he’s always been a “suburb boy.” He’s also calls himself “black sheep,” though with nary a glimmer of angst; he uses the cliché because no one in the bloodline has pursued a career in music: His father works in physics, his mom is a librarian, his two sisters work in politics. Once Dixon picked up the saxophone in elementary school, those formative musical influences came from outside of his birth family, beginning with a saxophone teacher who clued him into bebop after an adolescence of smooth jazz.

“I took with Charles Bradley, a music teacher in Atlanta who was regarded as one of the top woodwinds; he was one of the original members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,” Dixon says. “And he could play alto saxophone like Cannonball Adderley.” Dixon started to study some alto greats under Bradley — Adderley on Something Else, John Coltrane on Kind of Blue — and played the alto himself throughout high school, although he switched to tenor in college to fill a need in the jazz band.

After two years at Hampton University spent stalling on his true passion (but while playing with school groups), he jumped into jazz head-first, heading for the Indiana University Jazz Studies program chaired by renowned pedagogue David Baker.

“It was night and day,” Dixon says of the transfer. “It’s like going from studying mathematics at a small private school and then going to MIT. At IU, people come in sounding like professional musicians when they’re freshmen.”

Dixon equates studying with Baker to learning a language.

“He was the first person to let me realise that there was a language in jazz; that there were unwritten rules about the way you improvise over harmony and what works, or creating and resolving phrases,” Dixon explains.

That notion of tension and release isn’t just about dynamics or gripping the horn more tightly: Baker taught Dixon how great musicians will exploit the tension inherent to the relationship between different chords to structure their solos. And an emphasis on theory is important to Dixon’s understanding of jazz; he notes that jazz musicians have to know just as much about the mechanics of music as classical musicians, and then, unlike many of those working off of sheet music, they have to put that theory to work on the fly, processing substitutions and complicated changes while trying to remain right on the beat, avoid clichés and maybe even get a few people to dance.

Dixon earned his undergraduate from IU and pursued a master’s program, but never completed his second degree. He was headed to the larger pool that is the New York City music scene by the fall of 1996.

Rescued by Yanni

Dixon says he was “re-educated in New York,” and part of that education was the experience of living as, his words again, a “starving artist” for at least eight months, hustling any available gigs and waiting for any sort of break. Then Yanni intervened. Saxophonist Craig Bailey, who ran what Dixon may or may not exaggeratedly call the “best jam session in Brooklyn,” had a job with Yanni’s backing band one night. So he asked Dixon, who obviously wasn’t doing anything else, to fill in.

It turned out to be a huge break.

After the session, producer and songwriter Weldon Irving —composer of “Young, Gifted and Black” for Nina Simone and “Mr. Clean,” popularised by Freddie Hubbard — approached Dixon. Irving said he really liked his sound (with that caveat about the notes not quite cutting it), and gave him his card, asking Dixon to call him the next day. When Dixon didn’t call, Irving continued to pursue, calling Dixon about a job on the musical Raising Hell, devoted to the music of Smokey Robinson.

That job in the pit band, Dixon’s first steady gig in New York, lasted from March to December of 1997, and allowed for all-important networking opportunities. Along with Irving, jazz trumpeter Jonah Jones proved an inspiration and help to Dixon. Jones, who starred in an early TV variety show with Fred Astaire, was nearing his death at age 91 in 2000 when Dixon met him in 1999, but remained active. Because he lived just around the corner from a club where Dixon was holding down a regular gig, he became a frequent attendee and cheerleader for the young player. Spending time with musicians like Jones and Irving helped Dixon put his lifework in perspective: “I think a lot of older musicians I connected with at that time, they said, ‘Be passionate about your music, and do what you want to do musically.’ These guys told me to do what was in my heart, and from a person with that much experience, that really means something.”

Once Dixon primed the pump, plenty of gigs followed, including long tenures with the Illinois Jacquet Big Band, helmed by the long-lived swing saxophonist, and the straight-ahead quintet Tana/Reid.

If Dixon came to New York to challenge himself, he also found himself branching beyond straight-ahead jazz and becoming more respectful of different genres and disciplines that hadn’t appealed to him before. “I was really focused on straight-ahead, Coltrane, Joe Henderson, post bebop music of the ’60s and then bebop. Then I noticed, the people that were really on top and were really working, they could do everything … The cool thing is, when you listen to the different styles of music, you’re like, why don’t I develop a style that can work on everything?”

Fleeing New York

As the new millennium arrived, Dixon was flourishing in New York City, hustling gigs and making a living. “I was like, I’m never leaving New York,” Dixon says. “I was going to live there for the rest of my life. ’Cause you get used to that lifestyle. You’re in the center of a lot of things that are happening in the world; you’re just current on stuff because that’s where you are.”

But plans changed when Dixon’s girlfriend Jamie boarded a plane headed from New York to Los Angeles on the morning of Sept. 11. She was grounded in Houston, and eventually made it back to their Brooklyn home, but she was not impressed by the presence of the National Guard on street corners or other ways the city had changed. But while Jamie wanted to move, Dixon wasn’t ready to leave.

So they compromised. Jamie was in Indianapolis by October 2001, while Dixon flew between her and the big city for the next nine months. Those trips back to Indianapolis allowed for Dixon to work gigs in the Midwest as well as the East Coast. After nine months, Dixon says, “It got to the point where I was like, ‘Well, I’ve reconnected myself with the Indianapolis scene.’ I could actually move back now.”

He hit the ground running back in Indianapolis, playing with at least 13 different groups or artists before cutting back slightly upon taking on responsibilities at Owl Studios. The list: Steve Allee, Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, Cynthia Layne, Triology, the Rob Dixon Quartet, Brenda Williams, Mary Moss, Wild, Jazz Alive, a Miles Davis tribute band, Mina Keohane, Jeff DeHerdt and Tim Brickley. Dixon tells of playing two gigs a night by fitting an hour-long engagement at one venue into the half-hour break between a four-hour set at another venue. “I was in two different places at once, and I had to do that to make the ends meet, and that was crazy, you know,” Dixon explains. “That’s the hard thing about Indianapolis because the work and the gigs plateau at a certain point. There’s not a lot of money; not disrespectful money, but not a lot to sustain.”

Approaching Melvin

According to Dixon, it was kind of inevitable that he would come to work on a project with Rhyne. The organist’s accomplishments roll off Dixon’s tongue: “This dude has recorded with Wes Montgomery. In the last 10 years he’s probably done about 12 Criss Cross records, which is a big jazz label in New York. He plays with Nicholas Payton; he plays with Peter Bernstein. He’s playing in places like Yoshi’s and Smoke and the Village Vanguard and Birdland and Blue Note. He’s a legendary B-3 organist.”

But when Dixon approached Rhyne to pitch the project, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect; even jazz musicians, who play things anew every night, can be slightly reticent to try out new types of material, particularly something that works with too many modern bells and whistles. Not to mention that Rhyne can be a bit of a joker; when asked if he thinks anything of the age of the musicians he plays with, he says, “Most of the time, we put the younger guys through an initiation like you do in college; take the guys off the top of a building and throw them off.” (A one-story building, he assures.)

“I thought it was going to be a hard sell, but actually, it wasn’t, because I think he really just liked the music,” Dixon explains.

Rhyne remembers asking Dixon, “Are you kidding?” but quickly warmed up to the material. And Dixon, eager to make that new record, pushed the group to record.

Without doubt, Dixon’s own musicianship and respect for the tradition convinced Rhyne to push his work in a slightly different direction. They both approach jazz as another field of knowledge to be studied and practised by the initiated: “Music is just as important as every other system of learning, as far as I’m concerned,” Rhyne says, going on to compare an amateur musician to an amateur pilot, neither of whom you would want to take you for a ride.

The two other players in the Dixon/Rhyne Quartet don’t take the marquee, but do play an essential role. Phelps was always along for the ride on drums, but Haque (a Chicago resident) wasn’t there during those early rehearsals, although his eventual inclusion makes historic and generic sense — one would expect a guitar before a saxophone in an organ trio. Haque already knew Dixon through his work with Owl Studios, with both Haque and his group Garaj Mahal signed to the label. “I was immensely honoured to even be asked to work with Melvin because of his rich history in music, and Rob just plays his ass off, so it was a great project,” Haque says.

Tabla and B-3

On the Project’s first record, Reinvention, released in summer 2008, Dixon and company start from the template of organ trios led by Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, then add touches that bring the record into the new century, while still allowing space and clarity enough to hear inventive, fresh and knowledgeable solos by three of the four players (with Kenny Phelps remaining typically in the background). “Tomorrow Sierra,” the longest tune on the record, heads into fusion rock territory, with tabla, a four-to-the-four set and distorted guitar work by Haque. The head to “Mind’s Eye” seems somewhere between hard bop and modern classical, with unlikely hectic intervals resolving to a more comfortable groove. And “Shadow and Light” again puts that tabla to good use, creating a propulsive and busy backbeat foregrounded by impressive solos by Dixon and Haque. Dixon says he overproduced his other album as a bandleader — 2006’s What Things Could Be by Rob Dixon and Triology +1 — and pushed for something more organic on Reinvention.

Calling the record Reinvention suggests that the musicians are going to attempt an impossible task, completely overturning the whole of whatever genre they work in. But that’s not quite what Dixon meant, he says. “I used it because Melvin’s never played this music, so he’s kind of reinventing himself on it. But the word ‘reinvention’ is just funny to me because how do you reinvent anything?”

Reinvention has stuck around jazz radio charts for longer than Dixon expected. Of course, Dixon is playing two roles when it comes to promotion — not only recording a record for Owl, but also helping to coordinate its release and distribution.

A major force behind Owl

Dixon met medical insurance executive and Owl Studios founder J. Allan Hall while playing at the Colombia Club; the two would chat music before and after Dixon’s gigs. One day, Hall mentioned that he built a studio, and the two men formed a business relationship, with the intention of recording and releasing Dixon’s album. Dixon says “it snowballed” rather quickly — pianist Steve Allee signed up, then frequent Dixon collaborator Cynthia Layne; Brent Wallarab and the Buselli-Wallarab Orchestra, then Haque and Garaj Mahal. Clarinetist Frank Glover, trumpeter Derrick Gardner and pianist Monika Herzig have since followed on, signing to record new material and distribute catalog records through Owl.

“We’re getting the history of Indiana jazz out there, and not just the history, but we’re building on that history with the musicians that we have here,” Owl Studios Director of Operations Matthew Altizer explains from the label’s offices, perched above Monument Circle on the 11th floor of the Circle Building. “Indianapolis could become another major jazz hub. It was a major stopping point for a long time for jazz musicians.

Hall echoes Altizer, and suggests what it will take for a record label in a niche market to succeed: “We need more of the community, the Arts Council and the city to get behind this, or at least be aware of what’s going on ... We need moral support; we need to be more like Austin or Nashville, or any of the others cities where music is what they project as being the lifestyle of their city.”

Hall says he leaves the artistic development of the label to Dixon, and to get an idea of the kind of artists that Dixon has pursued for Owl, it might help to understand his concept of the “Charles Ives syndrome,” which refers to the early 20th century American composer who integrated traditional American folk songs into orchestral works both dissonant and potentially difficult. Dixon says certain critics can develop the syndrome when listening to artist after artist, seeking the most outré and unique musicians and pieces while overlooking well-executed work that doesn’t attempt to subvert established structures. By extension, releases on Owl aren’t yet redefining jazz — although they are perhaps expanding that definition by bringing what might be considered jam bands into the mix (Garaj Mahal) — but they are well-executed, quietly experimental works by contemporary artists, respectful of traditional instrumentation and forms but absolutely original within those boundaries. And artists have a much better opportunity to make money off of their work, according to Hall, with less costs to the artist for comparable services offered by a major label.

Haque, admittedly an interested party, articulates what Owl Studios does differently than the majority of other record labels, in terms that Dixon might be a bit too humble to employ.

“Owl Studio has been, so far, unbelievably together, in terms of being traditionally-minded as a label,” Haque explains. “And I mean traditionally not in the short-term, but in the long-term, in the same way that Blue Note — the old Blue Note — or Riverside or Atlantic had a stable of jazz musicians that they cultivated and developed over years. It seems like Owl Studios has the same kind of commitment to a few artists they believe in.”

Vision, musical and entrepreneurial

Haque can bring together both sides of Dixon’s involvement with jazz, as A&R man and musician: “Well, I think he’s got a lot of vision, and that comes through both in his business sense and in his playing. His playing: He gets a beautiful sound that is at once modern and traditional. His awareness of the connection between modern music and the tradition of jazz allows him to be sensitive to what’s happening, more and more, out in the marketplace. His ability to separate the wheat from the chaff is pretty profound.”

Dixon describes his composing output as a constant stream; at the Labor Day show, the Dixon/Rhyne Project played a bop-influenced tune so new that it didn’t yet have a title. But with so much time devoted to helping to build a label, gigging to make a living and stepping on stage with nationally-touring artists to keep his name in influential jazz circles, it might be asked when he has time to put pen to paper. Owl’s Altizer has a guess: “He has this look like he’s not really thinking about anything; he’s just kind of sitting there smoking a cigarette or having a drink at a bar,” Altizer says of Dixon. “But in his mind, I think he’s actually composing music 24/7; he has something happening in his head and it’s just great when he can get it out on a sheet of paper and make it happen.”

An updated schedule for Rob Dixon’s live performances can be found at his website — myspace.com/robdixonandtriology.

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