"The latest New Dallassomething CD begins auspiciously, with an uplifting but surprisingly springy anthem called Hymn For Julius Hemphill. Brackeen's dry, dry, dry tenor makes a strong statement; Gonzalez rings out like Don Cherry on a day of sunny skies and good chops; Session's alto reaches for the heavens. Well worth hearing. Good recording as always."
Robert L. Campbell, Cadence, June 1993
I am hearing this, though not quite believing it, from a friend who sits just inches from me in a crisp, white shirt, and a dark silk tie. His name is Dennis Gonzalez. We're sharing lunch at a modest Dallas restaurant a couple of miles from where he will be teaching in about an hour. Earlier, Gonzalez and his Mariachi band class were preparing for performances in the citywide celebrations of Cinco de Mayo, a patriotic Mexican holiday.
We've crossed paths in this city so many times before, but today we get to talk. His long black hair dangles as he leans forward to see me swallow what he is saying. "I point them out," he says, "because I'm a human being." He laughs at my surprise. "I have weaknesses. We all have weaknesses." He is still laughing. It is this laugh that is one of his finest assets and I, too, am now smiling broadly.
Perhaps he oversimplifies, but he is not feigning modesty. It's simply his own analysis of his life's work thus far. An interesting angle considering the coverage of this man's artistic reach. He is famous for building his own expressive outlets in a city famous for its slow cultural growth. Twelve years ago, he, along with pianist Art Lande, established the Dallas Association for Avant-Garde and Neo-Impressionistic Music (daagnim), a new music collective inspired by Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
Since its inception, daagnim has become the tap root for original music in Dallas, spawning numerous workshops and concerts; a nine-piece large ensemble (The daagnim Theoretical Big Band), his Dallas-New Orleans-Jackson (Mississippi) double quartet, New Dallas-Orleanssippi; his Yugoslav New Music Workshop Orchestra; and a record company through which 21 major projects have reached production and distribution. The latest production, recorded live at Caravan of Dreams, features British guitarist Mark Hewins with Gonzalez's Dallas-London Quartet and a special guest, Canterbury bassist Richard Sinclair. And all along the way he has been attracting an increasingly solid American and European following.
It was Keith Knox who first gave Dennis an outside lead to an international audience.
Knox planned on launching a Swedish record company dedicated to recording the new American jazz. Subsequently, Silkheart Records debuted in 1917 with Stefan, featuring the Dennis Gonzalez New Dallas Quartet.
The Desert Wind is now the fourth album on Silkheart with Dennis Gonzalez out front, and this time he presents New Dallas Angeles. Specifically, that's Alvin Fielder from Jackson; Kim Corbet and Michael Kruge, formerly of the Theoretical Big Band; and Henry Franklin, Michael Session, and labelmate Charles Brackeen – all from Los Angeles; and all serve him well.
For instance, on Hymn for Julius Hemphill, let Kruge's cello be the first clue to prepare you for what's coming. When Brackeen comes in, get ready to fly. And from Horace Tapscott's L.A. ensemble comes Michael Session, bringing buoyancy and color to the compositions, especially Aamriq'aa.
The difference in Gonzalez's composition is compassion, and it's evident on The Desert Wind. Its smooth opening is compassion charted, and from there we follow Brackeen to the leader. Then it's more compassion which separates Session and Fielder and then brings them together in the end. All have artful solos.
Right now, Dennis is glancing in my direction where the conversation will soon continue. I'm still stuck on this "weakness" thing. I am obviously intrigued, and, observing my puzzled expression, he speaks to fill-in the blanks: "The weakest weakness that you have can be turned into the strongest asset. That's really what everything I do is based on." Everything? The music, the teaching, the summer concerts in Europe, the two children he has fathered, his wife of 14 years, the ten years behind a Saturday night radio show in Dallas, the writing, the sculpting, the paintings displayed in 20 exhibits across the world – all of this is based on turning weakness into strength? Of course!
"We all have these weak points, but in America we cover them up cosmetically. And I don't just mean physically." He looms closer, as if to whisper. "That's what the American culture is all about. You're supposed to show only the strong points." Dennis rests on this one, leaning back into his wooden chair.
He sips his Sprite and speaks again. "In my painting, I have a technique like the primitive painters. The reason that they're so charming is because they're primitive. They have no tech..." He stops himself, and grabs at the air high above us with both hands. "Well, quote-unquote, no 'technique'. But that is their technique. In fact, it's such a strong weakness that there are big-time artists who are imitating this weakness and making it a hip thing so that they can sell."
Our laughter subsides. My giggle and his laugh dissolve into the crowded air of the lunchtime pace. I am thinking now (and I look to my friend who is toiling too) about the level of cultural standards in a capitalist society. Art that has reached the mainstream is rarely art. Music that can't be defined for optimum market value is left to struggle on its own.
What invariably turns up throughout Gonzalez's recordings is a spiritual heritage. In Mercedes, Texas, near the Mexican border, Dennis was brought up in the church, and as often as possible, he plays Sundays at the First Mexican Baptist Church of Dallas. He is clearly magnetized by the power of the hymn. His Hymn series, of which Julius Hemphill is part, is based on the signature tune Holy Manna with its eighth arrangement featured here. Previous Hymns have ben dedicated to Bob Marley, Sam Rivers, Albert Ayler, King Sunny Ade, Johnny Dyani, Don Cherry, and John Carter.
The arrangement for Hymn for Julius Hemphill is based on the music of African singer Salif Keita and the Griot music of Mali. Aside from his influence as a New Jazz pioneer, Hemphill's research into the music of the Dogon people of Mali strongly shaped Gonzalez's style of composition. "Because of my respect and love for him and his music," says Gonzalez, "and because he has sparked in me an interest in the folk music of Africa, this is dedicated to him."
Aamriq'aa is the name given to America by the Persians. "After the revolution in Iran," Dennis explains, "I lost track of the Iranian friends with whom I attended college, and who had taught me much about the music and culture of the Middle East and Islam. This is a prayer that one day we will be reunited. This song is dedicated to my teacher, percussionist Fariborz Amirbehboody who helped me understand the way I hear."
Gonzalez wrote The Desert Wind specifically for Charles Brackeen's soprano saxophone. It is dedicated to a group of musicians from the Middle East, The East-West Ensemble, from Tel-Aviv. New Dallas Angeles shared a concert with the group in Albuquerque under the auspices of the New Mexico Jazz Workshop the day before this recording.
The title for Battalion of Saints comes from a book that sat on Gonzalez's parents' bookshelf when he was a kid. "When I first learned to read, the title intrigued me because I read the title as Battle Lion of Saints. You can imagine what kinds of visions that conjured up in my mind!"
On Max-well, Alvin Fielder explores the drum musics of Max Roach and his friend and mentor Ed Blackwcll. "The melody line is very difficult for horn players", says Dennis, "and the composition reflects the style of Alvin's long-time association with Kidd Jordan in their Improvisational Arts Quintet."
Getting inside Dennis' music merely involves recognizing his individuality and appreciating the strength of character that makes up the sound. A sound which is, by the way, a fresh, invigorating blend of international influences. World music. Gonzalez points to Don Cherry and to European trumpet masters Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, and Manfred Schoof, and he also credits the Beatles for their open-minded sense of expression. He really does find inspiration in almost anything. He is a student of the world's many cultures.
In his travels he has collected well over one hundred musical instruments, become fluent in half a dozen languages, and all of it seems to seep in somehow. He and Brackeen are planning to record together again in the near future – another musical and spiritual collaboration between friends.
Our noontime visit is at an end and I reflect on the men I've come to know a little bit better. Dennis Gonzalez and myself.
1. Hymn for Julius Hemphill 14:14
2. Aamriq'aa 11:10
3. The Desert Wind (The Breath of Jehova) 18:44
4. Battalion of Saints 05:24
5. Max-Well 10:55
Dennis Gonzalez conductor, Bb trumpet, C trumpet, pocket trumpet
Charles Brackeen soprano sax, tenor sax
Michael Session soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax
Kim Corbet trombone
Michael Kruge cello
Henry Franklin bass
Alvin Fielder drums