“I would say that every obstacle you could probably have as an African-American cellist in jazz, I had,” Akua Dixon said this past spring, over coffee on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “It would be easy to say what obstacles I didn’t have. But there’s a sense of satisfaction in just continuing on with my dream.” That dream, after considering Dixon’s lengthy and estimable career, is really more of a reality. Since the 1970s, she’s been there when strings were needed, both inside of and far from jazz, and often somewhere in the middle—see her long-running Quartette Indigo, which takes the string-quartet format into style-spanning improvisational territory.
Within jazz she’s bowed with the best—Carmen McRae, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Archie Shepp—but she’s also gone soul with Lauryn Hill and funk with James Brown. And after a listen to Dixon’s latest album, the stirring Akua’s Dance, it’s clear that she’s incorporated steps from all of those styles in her choreography. There’s ominous yet convivial funk on “Don’t Stop”; a graceful cover of Sade’s “The Sweetest Taboo”; a few tracks featuring bassist Ron Carter; and a jaunty take of Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” with Dixon singing. On most of the album Dixon, 69, plays a baritone violin, essentially an oversized cello that gives her playing a little extra pop. Different instruments, different genres and a different kind of musician.
JazzTimes: Some of the music on this album is from an opera you’re writing. What is the narrative in the opera?
Akua Dixon: The opera is about Marie Laveau, who was a voodoo queen who lived in New Orleans in 1850. So this takes place at the height of her reign, where she’s ruling New Orleans with her magic and her powers, and of course a gentleman steps in to challenge her throne. And interaction between the two of them causes him to challenge her to a duel of magic.
What’s it like writing an opera versus jazz music?
[laughs] Two totally different animals. I would say that jazz has no limitations, within what’s called jazz today. I’m not saying I agree with it, but that’s where it’s at. And really, as a performer, if you’re playing jazz and you want to get airplay and you’re making a record, it has to be a small germ of what you would write for an opera.
You sing an Abbey Lincoln song on this record. What was it like working with her?
I got to meet her a few times in my life, and she’s amazing. I had seen her in [the 1968 movie] For Love of Ivy and other things like that. And when I worked with the Max Roach Double Quartet, I actually got to meet her and visit her apartment. Such a creative woman; it was ridiculous. The recording [Lincoln’s It’s Me, from 2003] was typical in a sense, except for the fact that it was her music. I was part of a large string section. But her music is just amazing, and she touched me in a very positive way. Getting to see her over the years, trying to express herself as a woman in jazz, I’ve seen her have to really be strong and to carry herself in a certain way. That was also impressive for me.
And what did you learn from working with Max?
[laughs] Well, how to play fast, that’s for sure. No, Max was a major lesson in bebop rhythm. There’s a difference between being a soloist and being an ensemble player. When you’re a soloist, you can do pretty much what you like to do—whether people like it or not is another thing—but you have a certain kind of freedom. If you’re an ensemble player and you’re playing in a string section, whether it’s an orchestra or whether it’s a jazz orchestra, all the strings have to be tight and together. Max had specific charts written that needed a certain kind of rhythmic drive, and he let us know in September that he wanted to be able to just sit down to his drum set and play, and he likes to play fast. So we started rehearsing—music was our 9-to-5, five days a week—with him in September, toward a concert the next spring [in 1982]. [We learned] every single phrase to be spoken rhythmically the way he wanted it. He’s very intense, and a perfectionist, so it wasn’t about you just sit down and play what you wanna play. When you work with somebody on his level, he will tell you that it’s not right. He’s demanding and he wants it a certain way, so you have to get up to the occasion.
It was not a jam-session vibe.
It’s not a jam session. We practiced—I’m telling you, that was my 9-to-5 for a good seven or eight months. He had us tape all of the rehearsals. He listened to playback of things and would call you at whatever time he heard something, to tell you what he liked or what he didn’t like, or what he needed from the music. But it was about the music and having it on his level. The bar was very high.
What was the best phone call you ever got from Max?
Oh, boy. That I had the gig [laughs].
Are there any new cellists you’re excited about?
There are a lot of new things being done on the cello. I like Tomeka Reid, coming out of Chicago. I like Mark Summer, from Turtle Island Quartet [Ed. note: Summer is no longer with TIQ]. He’s another fantastic player. I like Eugene Friesen. All these people play the instrument well and are searching out new music for it.