Daniela: Ian Dixon thank you for speaking to Australian Stage Online. What defines ‘Black Jesus Experience’ artistically?
Ian Dixon: One of the ways the band came together is a bunch of us have been working together in various ways over the years in various countries and, at the moment, apart from myself most of the people live in and around Collingwood. This reflects the multicultural nature of Collingwood. We took an interest through members of the band in Ethiopian music and blended that with a modern urban sound like funk and hip hop and so on. Then when we were on tour last year in Ethiopia last year we met Mulatu Astatke, who is the godfather of modern Ethiopian music. We met him there and he asked us to support him with the Melbourne International Jazz Festival earlier this year and we had such a good time at that that we went on to arrange this tour. So, I guess, ‘Black Jesus’ is not like a touristy experience if you like, it is contemporary music, drawing on a fabulous tradition of Ethiopian music which I think is much less well known than West African music.
Daniela: Where is the tour taking you this time?
Ian Dixon: We were just in Bellingen in New South Wales and we are in Perth on Friday night, then we go back to Melbourne for two nights at ‘The Order of Melbourne’, then we are going to be recording in the intervening week. Then we are in Sydney for a couple of shows at the Basement. Then we are back in Adelaide on the 21st of October and then we go to Brisbane the next day to finish off the tour.
Daniela: How does Mulatu Astatke influence ‘Black Jesus Experience’ as a group?
Ian Dixon: When we play with Mulatu we get to do a couple of ‘Black Jesus’ songs to open. Then we focus on doing his tunes, he is the star. They have a particular character. Particularly, in the 1970s he introduced a mixture of Ethiopian music styles with a very European harmonic sense; that, along with contemporary grooves, for instance funk grooves. It’s like the template for the way we worked, only we’ve come at it from being a multicultural community in Australia, rather than, in Mulatu’s case, I believe he is the first Ethiopian to study music overseas. I believe he studied at the Guildhall and at Berkley.
Daniela: What have you learned from Mulatu? What is he best at teaching you?
Ian Dixon: You can listen to records, read music, and transcribe things but direct transmission - just being with him when we are rehearsing or during concerts. It’s like the little gesture of his hand or a raise of an eyebrow just tells you a particular bounce he wants in the music or how he wants the feel, a bit more subtle a or a bit heavier. It’s some magical universal language - by the time he suggests, he gets what he wants really quickly.
Daniela: It is amazing how music communicates. It is a language in itself, isn’t it? The melody speaks.
Ian Dixon: Absolutely! At the risk of being too theoretical, playing with him on stage and being able to see when he plays the vibraphone. It’s like a giant keyboard and the voicings are simpler. To hear this voice taking on a simple quite stark five note scale but then harmonised in a sophisticated Western way behind has been a real lesson. That has been a lesson, really.
Daniela: How does brass and, specifically, the trumpet, fit into the style of Ethio-jazz?
Ian Dixon: They were present in the earliest Ethiopian recordings from the late 1970s, late 1960s maybe early 1970s, particularly tenor saxophones. I think the vocal quality of horns lends itself to this music, in the fact they are not tempered instruments. When we toured in Ethiopia, a guy Solomon joined us on a local ethnic instrument like a single stringed violin but with a body like a diamond shape banjo. When he was playing, he extrapolated a long way, temporalised for a long time. I knew the scales he was using but I tried and soloed what he was singing with his voice and it would hardly touch the scales that were being played otherwise. You would presume he did until you tried to play. The sort of melisma that is going on really lends itself to the trumpet and sax and I would guess, the trombone as well, which we don’t have in the band currently.
Daniela: What’s in store for audience at the concert on the 21st of October in Adelaide’s Festival Centre Piano Bar?
Ian Dixon: The audience will hear some new things, you get a chance to hear some of D Jake’s things and you get to hear some of Mulatu’s compositions - probably some that people are familiar with, some of his great things and also some things that they may not have heard with particular arrangements for the horn line up. As well as myself and Peter Harper, who plays alto and leads ‘Black Jesus’, there is also James Arben from the ‘Heliocentrics’ that Mulatu plays with when he is in Europe. He uses different bands in different parts of the world. So it’s a three piece horn section and so Mulatu has written some arrangements especially for this tour.
Daniela: What’s next for ‘Black Jesus Experience’ after this tour?
Ian Dixon: We’d very much like to go to Ethiopia again. We will be recording during the course of this tour while Mulatu is here. Bigger and better things, I guess. We will still do our regular residency gigs when we are in town at ‘The Horn’ in Collingwood. It’s a great Ethiopian restaurant, sort of music bar. It is such a nice contrast doing that which is very much part of the community and on some occasions, very much a public rehearsal. We run new tunes there. It’s a nice contrast to doing the big festivals and concert venues and so on, where you have to hit people. But having said that, we still do new tunes, not just new tunes, but tunes that we’ve never performed before when we do the large concerts, tunes with a jazz improvising background that runs through all the band members. We like to be in that sort of situation.
Daniela: Thank you for speaking to Australian Stage online and best wishes for a great tour and recording sessions with Mulatu.
Black Jesus Experience with Mulatu Astatke plays at Adelaide's Piano Bar, October 21, 2010. Further details»
Top Right - Black Jesus Experience
Bottom Right - Mulatu Astatke