After settling in New York thirty years ago, saxophonist David Bixler cut his teeth touring the world with the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Toshiko Akioshi. He later joined the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Big Band, with whom he played a decade-long residency of Sunday evenings at Birdland and won a Latin Grammy for the recording, Final Night at Birdland.
We caught up with him ahead of the release of his latest album The Langston Hughes Project Vol. 1 in which he realises a longtime dream of composing a series of works inspired by celebrated Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.
Many thanks to David for his in-depth and insightful responses here!
You’ve been a presence on the New York jazz scene for more than 30 years now. How do you feel it’s changed in that time?
DB: Although it seems that the general public doesn’t like jazz, the truth is that music has staying power and will last. Evidence of this is that while some clubs didn’t survive covid, new ones have popped up. Jazz is a strong musical genre. In fact, music is strong, art is strong, people improvise. The human race has been given the ability to create culture and I don’t believe that will be stopped. People are making great music and will continue to do so. I see in some of my students the same drive that I had-you can tell me that playing jazz is impossible as a way to earn a living, but I am going to do it anyway, because this is what I was placed on this earth to do. That spirit is keeping the music alive and changing.
In your early days in New York you worked with Lionel Hampton and then Chico O’Farrill; how did that impact your development as an artist? Any specific things which stuck with you?
DB: Hamp’s band was huge in the transition of my understanding of the music. Hamp was bad, but always an entertainer-wanting to get over to and connect with the audience, and because of that people still wanted to come to see him even in his last years of life. Musically it caused an aesthetic shift in what was important to me in this music after having come straight from school. It was also the first time that I had the opportunity to go overseas.
Chico’s band was a game changer. I got a random call on a Sunday afternoon to go to Birdland that night to play with Chico O’Farrill. I had heard the name, but didn’t know much about him or his music. The rhythm section consisted of “the cats” in Afro-Caribbean music. Arturo on piano, drummer Steve Berrios, percussionist Milton Cardona, and bassist Andy Gonzales. I had no idea of what was going on. I kept praying that someone would give me a downbeat! Somehow I managed to not get fired and that band became a catalyst for a new mentality in my musicianship. Most of my education coming up was about melody and harmony, with the rhythmic aspect not really being addressed. As a saxophonist in that band you had a different role then in a typical big band. It was not about flashy solis, you had a rhythmic function, and that forever changed how I both think about and hear music.
Through your podcast series, you tease out stories from a wide range of international jazz musicians; what’s your story behind the decision to create a musical tribute to the poetry of Langston Hughes?
DB: Nearly thirty years ago in a rough patch of my life, my mother, a retired English teacher, sent me a copy of Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.” I hung that iconic poem in our apartment. I saw it every day, memorized it and even wrote a tune called Mother to Son which thankfully has now been shelved. That poem was my introduction to Hughes whose work I grew to love. I have read much of his work, as well as the two volume biography by Rampersad. I started this music in 2016, but putting the recording together took longer than expected. There are four more tunes and I hope that volume 2 won’t take as long to finish. I also am fortunate to have the musicians that were willing to play this. I am looking forward to presenting it live-it has been performed live only once.
Langston Hughes was a pivotal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. How did his writings and activism influence your musical choices for this project?
DB: His work resonates with me, a white male, because while on first reading his subject matter addresses the plight of Blacks in the 1920s and 30s, when diving deeper into Hughes’ poetry, it becomes clear that he is addressing the struggle of all. We live in a corrupt and unjust world on which he shines a light with sardonic insight.
Could you share a memorable or particularly meaningful moment from the recording sessions for this album?
DB: Violinist Judith Ingolffson, a friend of my wife’s (and mine) is a serious concert violinist and I feel fortunate to have her playing my music. She was living in Berlin at the time of the recording and came into the session and said “we tune to 442 in Berlin. What are you tuning to?” And I was like, uh A? It put me on my toes.
It is also meaningful to be able to collaborate with my wife, the other violinist. I love all the musicians on the album for who they are and what they bring, but it is significant to have my wife playing violin on it.
You steered clear of poems which explicitly use jazz and/or music as the subject matter; can you share some insights into your selection process for the poems used?
DB: For this record the poems used are “Moan”, “End”, “Liars”, and “Justice.” These poems deal with hardship, injustice, racism, and death–dark subjects, but real subjects. His take on them is unique, and really makes me think. I think in the human spirit there is a desire to find hope in the midst of pain and struggle, and my intention was not to airbrush the seriousness out of the subjects, but to find that hope, which I believe is at the core of jazz.
Hughes aside, what musical influences do you think listeners will hear on this record?
DB: I hope that they hear everything; straight-ahead, blues, contemporary classical, freedom, cool sounds created by the electronics. Wide-open music that acknowledges all.
The inclusion of electroacoustic compositions by Elainie Lillios is intriguing. How did this come about?
DB: Originally I had time and money to record four of the pieces and it was too short for an album. While processing this dilemma two musician friends of mine suggested that I bridge the pieces together with improvisations. Initially I had a lukewarm reception to the idea, but then it grew on me. On Inside the Grief, my last record, I added some electronic alterations to my sound as an experiment. I thought about getting some equipment and having at it, but then it occurred to me that people spend years exploring sounds and electronics, and I was concerned I would sound like a neophyte. I then thought of Elainie. I have known Elainie for over a decade and I have wanted to collaborate with her and am stoked about the sounds she created.
What do you hope listeners will take away from this album, both in terms of the musical experience and any deeper messages or emotions it conveys?
DB: At the risk of sounding cliche, I desire to create music that touches a listener’s soul. Improvised music can be difficult for a non-musician to embrace, but I hope that a listener can identify with the humanity in this music. I hope they take the time to find the poem and read it. I think they could then enter into what the poem means to me and experience the music fully. If they do read Hughes while listening to my music, they will discover a gifted writer who wrote about struggles that existed in his time and continue to this day through a musical perspective.
Looking beyond this album, what are your future plans and projects? Are there other literary influences or themes you’d like to explore in your music?
DB: Last summer I recorded two sets of music, one with my group trio incognito with bassist Dan Loomis, and percussionist Fabio Rojas who incidentally is also on the Hughes Project. The other project is a quartet recording with pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Ike Sturm, and percussionist Rogerio Boccato and features music inspired by the Beatitudes. These are both the second recordings for each of the groups.
As I mentioned before, there are also four more pieces that are part of the Langston Hughes Project so I am envisioning a part 2 of the Hughes Project. The pandemic and finances caused the first one to take quite a bit of time to finish-plus the music is difficult. We knocked out the easier ones first and they are on this recording.
Many thank to David for taking the time to talk with us!
You can listen to the opening track of his album below, or visit his website to get your copy.