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(Fantasy 30705 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/27/2008)
While the musical world is brimming with guitar-wielding singer-songwriters, from folkies to rockers, there is also a tradition of piano-playing practitioners of the art. From Jerry Lee Lewis to Carole King to Randy Newman to Elton John to Bruce Hornsby to Ben Folds, the pianist vocalist-composer tends to bring a somewhat different sound to the music, in part by the nature of the instrument and its greater possibilities.
This week, we have the new recording by another fine singer-songwriter whose instrument has 88 keys, heard about 90% on the acoustic piano: Gabe Dixon, whose third release is called The Gabe Dixon Band.
Dixon was a classical piano major at the University of Miami when he formed a band in 1999 with his two college roommates, bassist Winston Harrison and drummer Jano Rix. The group also included a sax player and evolved into a kind of fusion and jam band. Based in Nashville, Dixon began to attract attention as a sideman, doing studio work with Alison Krauss, and playing keyboards on Paul McCartney's Driving Rain, as well as being part of the high-profile post-September 11 Concert for New York City with McCartney. Dixon's band was signed to Warner Brothers Records, and released a very good recording called On a Rolling Ball. But the band soon fell victim to changing management at the label, and found their tour support pulled just as they were ready to go out on the road.
With Dixon living in Brooklyn, the others went their separate ways, but they soon decided that they wanted to get back together. So they returned to Nashville, and began focusing on music that was more song-oriented than their previous more jam-based music. Dixon cites as influences some of the sounds he grew up hearing from his parents' record collections, including Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan and James Taylor. And he cites the Beatles as a special influence, since his mother was a huge Beatles fan, who attended concerts by the Fab Four. Dixon and his band took a cue from some of those performers and concentrated not only on the songwriting but also on the arrangements and musical colors.
The result is an excellent recording that features first-rate songwriting, appealing vocals, and very tasteful musicianship. In fact, much of the CD is quite understated in its arrangements, with just the three-piece acoustic piano-led lineup providing the bulk of the accompaniment.
With Dixon living in Nashville, where you'll be hard pressed to find someone who's not a songwriter, he collaborated with others on all but one song. Among Dixon's co-writers are Dan Wilson, formerly of the band Trip Shakespeare, who also co-wrote a Grammy-winning song for the Dixie Chicks, and Tia Sillers, who also wrote a Grammy-winning song for Lee Ann Womack. The songs on this CD don't really break any ground in their lyrical subjects or viewpoints, but they are very well-written, both in wordcraft, and especially in their music and arrangements.
The CD opens with Disappear, a song about love and escape, performed primarily by the trio, though guest guitarist Shane Theriot plays subtly, as he does here and there on the album. <<>>
The traveling song Five More Hours was inspired by Dixon's leaving Brooklyn to return to Nashville, after his previous record deal fell through. It was co-written by Dan Wilson, and is a nice mix of a song with potentially wide appeal with some interesting musical ingredients. <<>>
Fellow Nashville-based singer-songwriter Mindy Smith makes a guest appearance on the song Further the Sky co-written with Tia Sillers. Dixon puts in one of his relatively few appearances on electric piano on the track. It's another classy tune. <<>>
Ray Charles is another of those artists Dixon says he grew up listening to from his parents' record collection. You can hear a little of that influence on the track called Till You're Gone. It's one of the more energetic on the album. <<>>
All Will Be Well is another memorable track, co-written with Dan Wilson. The song came out of experience with having his previous record deal derailed, when he was coming to terms with the disappointment and looking to move beyond it. <<>>
Another strong track is Far From Home, written with one Jon McLaughlin. It's a kind of lost-love song that nevertheless sounds quite upbeat. <<>>
For me one of the highlights in this uniformly high quality album is a track called And the World Turned, co-written with Tia Sillers, and performed virtually solo. It's another song of lost love and coping. <<>>
The CD's closing song is Baby Doll, which shows Dixon's early Elton John influence. <<>>
The Gabe Dixon Band the new CD by the group of the same name, is about as fine a singer-songwriter album as you could want. With Dixon's instrument being the piano, the recording evokes the sound of some of the influential 1960s and 1970s artists he looks upon as influences. But Dixon and his colleagues take the music in their own direction, while keeping true to the durable values of high-quality songwriting. Dixon's level of musicianship in both his writing and piano work is very apparent, and he's got a great, winning vocal style.
Our grade for sound quality is A. The CD is very well-recorded, and the understated production with little added instrumentation and relatively few overdubs makes for an honest, intimate-sounding CD. And notably, the dynamic range is considerably better than typical pop recordings, with minimal compression used.
Mention a singer-songwriter, and most people conjure up a folkie with an acoustic guitar. The Gabe Dixon Band is a reminder of the piano's position in the genre, and a stellar example of the very best in the tradition, and another of those CDs by young artists that can likely appeal to people from college-aged to those of the age of his parents.
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