The pianist, arranger and composer Danny Mixon is underrated on the jazz radar screen, but his music and contributions to the field are a big deal.
Mixon recently celebrated the independent release of his sixth CD, “Pass It On,” which happens to be his best efforts to date. His piano preaches the truth, the gospel according to Mixon. He plays in a variety of configurations, from solo to quartet. The tunes range from the standards to his originals.
“These are tunes I believe people need to hear and standards that I wanted to present in a different way,” said Mixon. “I wanted to play straight-ahead music with a feeling of openness and clarity.”
Mixon’s stimulating journey explores a storied piano jazz history from his five decades of experience. The 12 compositions are all jewels that dictate multiple listenings.
He begins with “Blue Monk” straight-ahead with riveting melodies and a tickling of the keys (similar to Jelly Roll Morton just showing off). He travels solo on Wayne Shorter’s ballad “Infant Eyes” with a cascade of harmonies swimming in the blues that make the heartstrings go bing.
He takes “On a Clear Day” into a hard post-bop tune that swings at every bridge. On his solo original “My Blues,” there is nothing to say but amen. “The Sample Way” is a tribute to the pianist Joe Sample, an open breezy tune in a trio format allowing the drummer Damon Duewhile and bassist Paul Ramsey to swing with an intuitive L.A. hipness.
The only musician here with solo carte blanche is the noted tenor saxophonist Fred Stanton, who, at 100 years old, is a strong contributor, offering deep sensuous notes that are bedazzling on the traveled standard “That’s All.”
The lone vocal track sung by Ghanniyya Green is “Minton’s,” a Mixon original with lyrics by the vocalist Antoinette Montague that’s a tribute to the historical Minton’s Jazz Supper Club, where Mixon was the former music director.
The abled ensemble for “Pass It On” included well-established musicians, such as the drummer Rudy Lawless and the bassist Marcus McLaurine, and younger musicians, such as bassist Byrce Sebastien and drummer McClenty Hunter.
This effort isn’t an abundance of solos, it’s the musicians conversing as a unit utilizing time and space. “This is a realm of the Black experience,” said Mixon. “This is a part of my life that I lived, it’s the spirituality of playing piano not playing a ton of notes.”
The Harlem native originally began tap dancing at age 3 and later majored in ballet and modern dance at the High School for Performing Arts. His teachers informed him he didn’t have a dancer’s body. Fortunately, young Mixon’s grandparents started his piano lessons at age 12. He says his grandfather was always playing jazz by musicians such as Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie and Louie Prima.
He credits the bassist Chris White (Dizzy Gellespie and Nina Simone) as being an influential mentor in his life. He is an alumnus of the ferocious boot camp of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Jim Harrison, the renowned jazz promoter (and publisher of a small jazz magazine), played a role in his working with Betty Carter.
“I learned a lot from Betty,” says Mixon.
After sitting in with Frank Foster in Brooklyn at the Muse Arts Center, the saxophonist-composer immediately took him under his wing. Mixon continuously played for Foster’s Big Band, his Loud Minority and his quartet, the Non-Electric Company. “Frank was like my college education, he was my mentor and great friend,” stated Mixon.
“The only way to keep this jazz tradition going is to pass it on because it was passed on to me,” noted Mixon. “I want to lift audiences, to spiritually make them feel better than they did before.”
Mixon teaches at Jazzmobile and is a professor at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. He performs Sundays at the Garage on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village (6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.). “Pass It On” is available on CD Baby and on his website, dannymixonsounds.com.
With the gentrification of Harlem becoming more evident each new day, there are a host of establishments offering live music on a regular basis. Recently moving into the competitive market is Cassandra’s Jazz Club & Gallery, located at 2256 Seventh Ave. at West 133rd Street. “We opened this as a jazz club because music is the priority,” said Cassandra Storey-Dickerson, co-owner. “We want to keep jazz alive in Harlem, where it belongs.”
Storey-Dickerson, a retired attorney and her husband, Dwight Dickerson, have been residing in Dubai for the past nine years, where he was a music professor at the University of Dubai. Dwight is a native of California, where he earned his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at UCLA. On the West Coast, the pianist-composer led his own bands but also worked with the vibraphonist Bobby Hutchinson and the tenor saxophonist Red Holloway.
Currently, Dickerson is holding down the house piano chair at Cassandra’s with a trio that features the dynamic drummer Greg Bandy and alternate well-rounded bassists such as Ron McClure and Lisle Atkinson.
Said Dickerson, “I have retired from academia and returned to the bandstand.” He had his handcrafted Fazioli piano shipped back the U.S., which now sits in Cassandra’s. The seriousness of a jazz club is often determined by its piano (nuff said).
The capacity for Cassandra’s is approximately 100. It offers an intimate ambiance with exposed brick walls and framed art work of jazz legends Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gilespie and Miles Davis. There is a large mahogany bar, and no food is served.
“Owning a jazz club is not easy, but this is a labor of love for us,” said Storey-Dickerson.
The saxophonist-composer T.K. Blue will perform at Cassandra’s Aug. 14, 15 and 29. For show times, visit www.cassandrasjazz.com or text 917-435-2250.
Cassandra’s Jazz Club & Gallery is open six days per week, with live jazz nightly Monday to Wednesday, 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. and Thursday to Saturday, 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. There is no cover charge Monday through Wednesday. Happy hour is 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday.