How many pop groups, or pop musicians, can you name where the lead instrument was or is the piano? Once you get past the obvious, Elton John and Billy Joel, it starts to get a little difficult doesn't it. I guess you'd have to include Barry Manilow (gag) in the current listing, but it seems that the modern era has been predominated by guitars. Sure there were the progressive rock groups with their multiple keyboards a la Rich Wakeman, Yes, and Emerson Lake & Palmer, but that's not really piano. That's using a keyboard to be a million different instruments.
In the earlier days of rock, when it was closer to its roots in jazz and blues, you'd have people like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Neil Sedaka, and others for whom the piano was just as natural an instrument to be playing as the guitar. However more and more its an instrument that's become more closely associated with classical, blues, and jazz than pop or rock music. Oh sure there's still the guys who will on occasion will sit down at the piano bench but they don't use it as their primary instrument.
So, it was something of a pleasant surprise to put on the new disc by The Gabe Dixon Band, on the Fantasy label, and hear the sound of the piano feature so predominately in their music. I have to admit that it is something that takes a little getting accustomed to, because it does change the nature of the music significantly, but if you let it, you can't help but getting caught up in its sound and the quality it brings to music.
One of the first things that you'll notice listening to this album is how the sound is more sophisticated than what you'd normally expect from a pop band. That will probably be around the same time you notice the absence of guitars on half the tracks. None of the three band members, Gabe Dixon (lead vocals and all sorts of keyboards), Winston "Fuzzmuzz" Harrison (bass and vocals), and Jano Rix (drums and percussion) play guitar so their approach to song composition will be far different from those bands built around the usual core guitar, bass, and drums.
While a group led by a piano player isn't always going to be less aggressive by default than one led by guitar, it does allow the band far more options when it comes to the approach they take with their music. There's something about a piano's sound, even if only an upright, but especially a grand or baby grand, that brings an elegance to music that can't be matched by any electric guitar. Perhaps it's that lack of roughness that makes it the rare lead instrument in popular music that it is, as it might make it more difficult to create a song along the lines of what people expect from popular music.
The danger with popular music, when you surrender the rough edge that the electric guitar gives, is you run the risk of producing music that sounds too precious – music that ends up being played in the afternoons on adult easy listening stations or in doctor's waiting rooms because it is innocuous to the point of banality. That's not the case with the music on The Gabe Dixon Band as even those songs which include strings, the sometime kiss of death for a decent pop song, retain a strength of character that preclude them from ever becoming aural wallpaper.
One of the major strengths of the band is the songwriting skills of Gabe Dixon. His lyrics are intelligent and introspective without ever being navel gazing. He also proves that you can write songs that are emotionally honest without them slipping into the territory of cheap sentimentality or stooping to manipulating your listener with catch phrases. "When you don't know where you're going/And you don't know why/It feels like another day is bleeding/Into the night" he sings on "Further The Sky" summing up the sensations of the directionless, watching helplessly as another day disappears and they haven't accomplished anything.