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.
I'm awfully big on universality, things that speak to as many people as possible, or that are able to take personal experiences and couch them in such a way that they are recognizable to as many people as possible. It's that ability that allows a good song writer, like Gabe Dixon, to write about emotional subject matters without coming off as self-pitying or a whiner. It's the difference between listening to someone sing about how their heart was broken by a mean girl/boy and someone singing about love and broken hearts in general. I don't know about you but I'd rather read a sonnet about love by William Shakespeare then the scribblings of someone barely pubescent writing about how their first love broke their heart. Now, while Gabe might not be in Will's league yet, compared to the majority of what passes for love songs out there his are head and shoulders beyond what anyone else is writing when it comes to depth and maturity.
Aside from the lyrics, the other thing that is keeping The Gabe Dixon Band from being piped into offices as soothing drone is the fact that their music is far too sophisticated to ever be relegated to the background anywhere. From Gabe's piano playing down to the arrangements for additional instruments, choices have been made that remove the music from the safe pop configurations that most of us are used to. In fact they have more in common with compositions created with jazz vocalists in mind than what you'd hear on pop radio – or any type of radio these days.
Before you listen to the Gabe Dixon Band's latest release, The Gabe Dixon Band, throw away what you have been told pop music should sound like as it will only get in your way of enjoying the contents of this CD. Well written and intelligent lyrics combined with interesting and compelling music makes for songs that are more than a little out of the ordinary and far better for it.