Reading Arturo O’Farrill’s liner notes for alto saxophonist and composer David Bixler’s album The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head may give you the impression that Bixler is something of a cerebral technician. O’Farrill, a pianist and composer in his own right and a strong voice for Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz, has worked with Bixler in his own band, Risa Negra, and played his music. Indeed, he has himself recorded some of the tunes on this album. He knows Bixler’s music well, and while he undoubtedly recognizes its emotional power, his comments on individual tracks, when he talks about things like ostinato and hockets, he may be hiding it in the technical jargon. And, as far as this listener is concerned, it is the emotional power of Bixler’s music that makes his album something special.
Playing with the saxophonist are trumpeter Scott Wendholdt and guitarist John Hart. Ugonna Okegwo plays bass, and the drummer is Andy Watson. They are a tight ensemble working together in support of Bixler’s musical vision. They have bought into the program and play like they’re enjoying every minute of it. All you have to do is listen to the haunting, melodic opening duet between the trumpet and the sax on the album’s second track, “Vanishing Point,” together with the energetic guitar solo that follows and you can’t help but recognize the musicians’ emotional commitment to the work. It is only one of the album’s beautiful highlights.
“Perfected Surfaces” opens the album—this would be the track with the “hockets in the opening melody”. Again you get some tantalizing give-and-take between trumpet and sax, this time laid down against a funky rhythmic vibe. It is an intriguing indication of the originality of the sounds and ideas on tap for the rest of the album. “Vida Blue” is a swinging bluesy number with some really sweet solo trumpet from Wendholdt and some nice work on the guitar from Hart. The number indeed gives each of the musicians a chance to shine.
Other highlights on the album include the title song which swings back and forth between jazz and Latin ideas. O’Farrill describes what he calls “a drive and progression” that is, and write this one down, “purely Bixolodian.” The alto solo he calls “particularly Bix-like” with “twists and turns” that distinguish it from the typical “bop infused lines” of the typical alto solo. There is clearly something Bixotic going on here. “Bixolodian” or not, the track swings. “Arise” seems to begin with an unnamed intense bass solo introduction which for some reason gets marked as a separate track by iTunes, but is skipped over on the album cover track listing. Bixler contributes some elegantly nuanced alto work.
“Thinking Cap” opens with a melodic line that reminds me of the Rogers and Hart classic “My Heart Stood Still.” Almost immediately it takes off in another direction with a dynamic Bixler solo. Once again, I especially like what Wendholdt does on the trumpet and Hart on the guitar. Watson, too, is given an opportunity to get some work in before the Rogers and Hart theme seems to reemerge at the end. “The Darkness Is My Closest Friend” plays with formal constructs and harmonies. The album ends with a dynamic, vibrant “Goat Song” with a sound all its own.
David Bixler is an artist who manages to take much of the best of the jazz tradition and push it in new directions—push, but never shove. He is original, but his originality is not what I would call radical. He works within the tradition. He is not looking to destroy it. The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head is an album filled with inventive ideas and exciting artistry. Most importantly, it is filled with music you’ll want to hear and hear again.