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The joyful On! is not so straight-ahead as it would have us believe. Don’t misunderstand: Tenor saxophonist Jordon Dixon does draw from the soul-jazz well. His vinegary tone and middle-register tendency evoke Stanley Turrentine or Wilton Felder, and he has a gruff, slightly coarse edge from the days when the line between swing jazz and R&B was much finer. His tunes—he wrote all nine on the album—comprise short, memorable hooks that he weaves into cohesive packages. He even has his pianist and co-producer Allyn Johnson double on organ for the first tune, “Notes from the Nook.” Is the Louisiana-born Dixon going downhome, or what?
Having baited the hook with populist soul, however, Dixon proceeds to subtly subvert it from within. The aforementioned “Notes from the Nook” is a Frankenstein’s monster of form: AAB, with six bars of 4/4 time in the A’s and 10 waltz bars in the B. The changeups continue in the solo sections, with Dixon and bassist Herman Burney playing blues choruses (five and two, respectively) and Johnson firing off two in the 22-bar written form. It’s mostly a message to musicians and deep listeners. Still, the component parts are just atypical enough that the casual fan might hear that something’s a little off.
It’s not an isolated incident. “Way Too Serious” has a short bridge that changes meter every bar; “We Kin” is a conventional song form, but drummer C.V. Dashiell plays in a Latin-seasoned 3 while everyone else works in 4. The 12-bar blues “Flame and Friction” drops the subtlety and becomes a full-on tease, with the band (including guest trumpeter J.S. Williams) going silent in the 11th bar before Dashiell re-enters to turn it around. (On the reprise, the tune simply ends at bar 10.)
Even here, though, there’s not a whiff of being too hip for the room: You couldn’t get more blues feeling into “Flame and Friction” (especially Burney’s long bass intro). Ditto for “Notes from the Nook,” whose weird shape shifts are all chock full of soul. Some of the tunes have little to no trick to them. “Lee Lee Dee (Alternate Version)”—so-named because a ballad rendition appeared on Dixon’s 2016 debut album—is 64 bars instead of the standard 32. That’s it: It’s long. It also drips with swing, and climaxes with Dixon and Dashiell trading fiery but easily-digested eights. “On!,” after its exquisite Johnson intro, is a plain old groover, and Jordon, Johnson, and Burney make hay of it. Williams returns for the New Orleans stomp “Fake Flowers,” and the only thing remarkable about it is the quality of his hollering solo.
One of jazz’s great obstacles is the music’s own identity crisis: a tug o’ war between its earthy folk-music element and its cerebral, iconoclastic art-music one. Yet along comes Jordon Dixon, effortlessly creating a stable and thoroughly pleasurable compound without it seeming to even occur to him that the two elements might be incompatible.