Honed alone

A free-jazz disciple gets the last laugh

Dennis Gonzalez almost ceased to exist this September, when he and his Harley were run off the road by an unidentified motorist. After the impact, flying through the air, he took time to accept his death, he says. He needn't have. Although re-establishing contact with the firmament peeled off much of his hide, he survived. Five hours of having his frayed ends scissored and snipped in the emergency room made him aware that nearly being killed was serious stuff, but it won't stop him from making art or causing controversy.

Gonzalez is an avant garde jazz musician and visual artist who also fronts a Tejano band (Trio Brujos) and teaches school. Since 1996 he's done concerts in Cuba and the Dominican Republic and has three albums out: Earth and the Heart, Catechism (both on the Music and Arts label) and Welcome to Us (on Koch). And darned if the jazz players who scorned him most vociferously when he came on the scene some 20 years ago haven't all but ceased to exist.

He has a video of the concert he did on television in August in the Dominican Republic. The show's producers figured he'd perform with local jazz mainstreamers, but he instead showed up with a nine-piece band whose members spurn store-bought instruments, preferring to play conch shells and pal (hallowed-out tree trunks). They beat on the latter and blew through the former, while Gonzalez improvised on his trumpet. The resulting sound was exotic but surprisingly cogent. The local jazz provincials, however, were unimpressed: When the camera pans over a knot of them in the audience, their faces register a comic menu of amusement, condescension, and loathing--a classic picture of Gonzalez's frequent effect on the entrenched.

Born in Abilene in 1954 and raised in the border town of Mercedes, Gonzalez lived with his parents in Ohio, Nebraska, and Kansas before graduating from Arkansas State University and settling in Dallas in '76. A disciple of free jazz, he'd recently taken a course under Cecil Taylor at Woodstock's Creative Music Studio and wanted to do his music, not jam to "Stella By Starlight." Local jazz police immediately indicted him for these crimes, so he missed out on the jam sessions that might've gained him access to the local jazz scene's buddy system.

"They were skeptical of my being audacious enough to play what I wanted and not conform to their standards," he explains. "They didn't have any references for my music, and a lot of them refused to play with me. That's OK. It made me stronger."

In 1977, Gonzalez headed up DAAGNIM (Dallas Association of Avant Garde and Neo-Impressionistic Musicians) and recorded an album--Air Light/Sleep Sailor on a four-track tape recorder his wife bought him. Since so few people would have anything to do with him, he played all the instruments (except for some guitar and drum parts on the selection "Madrugada") himself, and his liner notes confessed that "most of these instruments I have never played before." His detractors brandished this declaration as proof of what they perceived as dilettantism, but they couldn't make him go away.

DAAGNIM sponsored concerts and workshops with Anthony Braxton and Max Roach, luminaries whose presence helped ratify Gonzalez's. He staged concerts of his own (playing trumpet and/or bass) at art galleries and in a back room at the now-defunct Metamorphosis record shop, an essential part of the early Deep Ellum scene. Gradually, his music attracted others who found it refreshing to play in a free-form environment: Inner City recording artist Fred Raulston, fusionist Pat Coil, Buddy and Jamal Mohamed, Claude Johnson, Ed Smith, and Bob Ackerman all threw in at least the occasional lot with Gonzalez and played on DAAGNIM albums, of which there have been 23. (Several of them have been reissued on European labels: Connex in Germany, Silk Heart in Sweden, and Gowi in Poland.)

By the '80s, European jazz audiences were tiring of former avant darlings such as Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, saying that all they did was blast away--and any brain-dead rock band could do that. More to their taste was the chillier, cerebral "Euro-jazz" characterized by what was coming out on the then German-based ECM label. Though Gonzalez's work is generally grainier than the ECM stuff of that era, it was close enough to gain attention across the water, all the more noteworthy because DAAGNIM "distribution" didn't travel much past Denton, let alone overseas.

In 1983, Gonzalez made the first of his by-now innumerable European treks, conducting workshops and leading a band that played the 23rd annual Ljubljana Jazz Festival in Yugoslavia. He played the east again--along with Milan and Paris--in '85, and in that year he also played with the 24-piece New Music Orchestra. Finland, Poland, West Germany, Norway, Sweden, and other countries followed, and in 1987 Swedish jazz label Silk Heart booked recording sessions in Dallas to gain access to Gonzalez's production and motivational skills. Saxist Charles Brackeen and trumpeter Ahmed Abdullas traveled from their homes on opposite coasts, and other participants came in from Chicago. Abdullas, the New Yorker, was plainly uneasy about being in primordial Texas, but he and the rest of the assemblage spent most of their non-studio time at Gonzalez's residence, amid his myriad paintings, xerographs, and exotic instruments. Results of the project--Brackeen's Attainments and Abdullah's Liquid Magic--are triumphs.

Not all of Gonzalez's collaborators have been jazzers, however. He's done shows with art-rockers Keith Tippett, Richard Sinclair, and Elton Dean, and with the Crescent City Brass Band (led by saxist Tim Green, who's worked with Peter Gabriel and U2 and was just in town with bluesman Mem Shannon).

On a recent London show with Greene's septet, Gonzalez was playing away when, in the sea of faces around him, he discerned one that was staring at him with unsettling intensity.

"It spooked me!" admits Gonzalez. "Next day we're playing in a totally different part of town, and there he is again. Third day, he's at that gig! He comes up afterward and in flawless Spanish says, 'We need to talk,' and he started listing some of the very things I'd been thinking about! He said, 'Your music's changing, your artwork's changing, you don't know what to do,' all this. I learned he'd not only studied voodoo and mystical magic, but he's also learned a lot of deep dark secrets, like how to read minds, how to read auras--things I'd never delved into."

The man turned out to be anthropologist Geo Ripley, who would eventually set up Gonzalez's shows in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. (In the latter country, he's minister of housing, and it was he who hipped Gonzalez to the conch cadre). Partially on Ripley's suggestion, Gonzalez split for India to scope out some deep dark secrets of his own.

He went to India, Nepal, and Tibet. In Varanasi, a holy city where peddlers tried so relentlessly to sell him unholy things that he couldn't get any searching done, he met a wise man who owned a loin cloth and a boat; he offered Gonzalez use of the latter. Removed from the madding crowd, Gonzalez could sketch, write, meditate--whatever--bobbing about on a boat in the Ganges.

"It overwhelmed me!" he says. "Just listening to the sound of the Ganges at flood stage, thunder over the skies during monsoon, crowds of people--just the sheer culture shock of it all. I knew it would take a while for me to learn what I had learned!"

When he got back to Dallas, he declared a moratorium on music. He didn't play it or even listen to it, leaving his mind clear in order to process what he'd seen abroad. His creativity continued in a series of xerograph-montages that are dark and mysterious with an Asian spin.

"Eventually all the visual things I'd brought back with me ended up in my artwork," says Gonzalez. "Then it was time to bring my instruments back out and instead of accepting the avant garde gigs I'd been doing--I dunno, I just decided to do something else."

Enter Trio Brujos, with Gonzalez on guitar, bassist Drew Phelps, and accordionist Jesus Vasquez. Though ostensibly a mariachi unit, traditional mariachi has violins and trumpets, not accordions, and features no spacey jazz bass solos, nor spoken word segments concerning enlightenment on the Ganges.

But Gonzalez knows where he ventures; for years he taught mariachi courses at North Dallas High, and it was there that he met his accordionist.

"Jesus was a student of mine. Now I'm a student of his," Gonzalez says. "He's been playing accordion--a button accordion, which is a difficult instrument to play--since he was 7, and plays with his father's band, Los Vaqueritos. Lots of people have asked him to record or go on the road, but he won't play with anyone but his dad's band--except for me, which is an honor, because that sort of family thing you don't break. But we've played at Richland College, and we did an Arts & Letters Live at Club Dada for the DMA, and we play on Channel 13 (KERA) a lot. We were invited to play New Orleans in September, but that's when I had my accident.

"When Jesus started playing with us, he wasn't sure how he'd fit in. Drew and I had been playing together off and on for 20 years, and we'd kind of mess with (Vasquez) onstage, so soon he started doing his own little things, and it was amazing. He'd never played jazz and didn't come up in an improvisational style, but when it came time to improvise, he started kicking our asses all over the stage."

Too bad ass-whipping of more literal sort couldn't be given the goon who ran Gonzalez off the road. But his wounds healed, and it's likely he'll do xerographs that'll depict the experience.

Some years back Gonzalez noted that the mavens of free jazz seemed to have run out of steam: They had virtuosity, but no daring or mystery. "Instead of jazz, I'm listening to Tejano, and rare and mystical music I pick up on because of my travels," he says. "My music is actually less influenced by music than it is by my reaction to writing, to different cultures, and to my experiences. I used to think Keith Jarrett was really uppity when he said he didn't listen to anybody, he listened to himself. But I understand now what he was saying. There's a certain point where you're your own best inspiration."

Dennis Gonzales and Trio Brujos will play Sunday, December 21, at the First Unitarian Church at 4015 Normandy. For more information call 528-3900.

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