“Opus 2”: Track by Track

Opus 2 album coverAs a student recording engineer for live concerts at East Carolina University in the late 80s and 90s, I had recorded a ton of excellent jazz recitals/concerts, so that experience rubbed off in a positive way. So much so that in 1992, I composed a suite of instrumental jazz and funk-influenced tracks, recorded on a Korg 01/W workstation. Not knowing what to do with them, they were filed away on a floppy disk. Fast-forward to 2020. With lots of time staying at home as the world grappled with COVID-19, I went through the 600+ recordings in the Dixon “Vault” for long-forgotten recordings and found these 8 pieces. I also found “Moon”, a big band original with vocals that I recorded electronically on the same Korg hardware. I had cataloged these recordings under the “Op. 2” designation, as I did with most of my compositions during college. So it seemed fitting I’d use that as the album title.

The sequences on the Korg still played (yes, I still have that keyboard!) but some of the performances had errors, glitches and/or dated sounds. So I decided to go full-Frankenstein on them! I transferred portions of each work into my computer’s digital audio workstation (Logic Pro X). I then recorded some new parts to replace what I didn’t transfer. So what you’ll hear is my 2020 self performing with my 1992 self! All of the recordings have some of the 1992 original performances blended with performances from 2020. I then spent 2 months mastering the 9 tracks to ensure they had that 2020 polish.

The album is a mix of traditional, contemporary and modern jazz, funk and big band. At the time of their original creation, they were only titled with a number. But it was clear each track was inspired by a certain musician or performer, so I chose first names of those jazz/funk masters as the track titles for this release. This album released digitally worldwide on Friday, July 23, 2020 on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, AmazonMP3, Google Play, Tidal, YouTube Music, and over 100 others. All music was written, performed and produced by Michael Barrett Dixon.

  1. Prince
    Some likely question why Prince was included amongst such masters of jazz and funk in this album. If you know Prince’s music, not just what hits the top-40 but deeper in his discography, you will discover a serious influence of funk in much of his upbeat music. This opening track was inspired by his 1991 album Diamonds and Pearls and in particular, the final track “Live 4 Love” with its infectious funk-inspired beat. Creating this track and its intricate drum fills was no easy task in 1992, as I was using a 16-track sequencer on the Korg 01/W keyboard. In those days, while there were some early DAWs out there, they were expensive or still in their infancy. In this track, there were no loops, and those crazy drum fills had to be meticulously programmed in note-by-note (it took an hour to get a 7-second drum fill done). Some tracks were recorded in real time, such as bass and horns. The solo track, the gospel organ, was re-recorded in 2020, as the original solo track from 1992 was sloppy and rushed. The audience noise you hear at the beginning is an actual sound patch in the Korg 01/W. It wasn’t a live track, but it felt like a nice way to begin the opening track.
  2. Chick + Herb
    Named after jazz pianist Chick Corea and legendary trumpeter Herb Albert, this smooth jazz piece is one of my favorites on the album. The trumpet is purposefully enveloped in reverb, as is often typical of Herb’s recordings. Neither part is virtuosic, but I felt it was a nice blend with a synth background and a minimum drum part. The original 1992 recording didn’t have a trumpet part…just electric piano as the primary soloist. Most of this recording, except for the trumpet part and a re-recording of the electric piano solos, is from the 1992 original Korg sequence.
  3. Ramsey
    I have to credit my dad for introducing me to the music of jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis. He bought me a vinyl record of Lewis’ 1979 Ramsey album. I later bought an 8-track tape of his Tequila Mockingbird album from 1977 and played both albums relentlessly during my early teenage years. I wasn’t trying to be a jazz pianist…I just enjoyed his style of playing and the overall musicality. While my “Ramsey” track on this album may not mimic his style of playing, it is more of a dedication to him as an influence. Starting with a held back piano solo with a little acoustic bass mixed in, it blossoms into a fairly peppy contemporary jazz-flavored piano piece. The electronic strings and drum parts were kept from the original 1992 recording, but I re-recorded the bass and piano parts in 2020. Sampled piano and bass sounds on the Korg were pretty good for its day, but not nearly as good as today’s instruments.
  4. Lee
    Named after jazz guitar great Lee Ritenour, this track obviously features the electric guitar as soloist. In my mind, one of the best jazz guitarists is Lee. While early on I wasn’t an avid listener of Lee’s music compared to Ramsey Lewis and others, I really got hooked after listening to his efforts as part of the contemporary jazz group Four Play he founded with keyboardist Bob James in 1991. While he left that group in 1998, it opened the door for me to discover his music outside of Four Play…and what a massive discography that is. So this track is a tribute to Lee. I’m no guitar player. It’s the one instrument I have yet to properly learn to play. But I know the instrument’s abilities as a composer, so as I performed the guitar part on a keytar, I made sure it was something a real guitarist could play. The original recording needed quite a bit of work, as the guitar sample at the time was quite poor and the drum part lacked a lot of originality. So in all actuality, the only part to survive the 1992 recording was the background strings! Everything else was re-recorded in 2020.
  5. Jay
    This is the slowest track on the album. It’s a ballad of sorts and features the saxophone as the primary solo instrument (a guitar solo is featured at the midpoint). The inspiration and namesake? Jay Beckenstein, saxophonist and co-fonder of Spyro Gyra. Similar to the timing of my exposure to Ramsey Lewis’ music, I discovered the music of Spyro Gyra in the late 1970s when I bought the album Morning Dance. It was a big hit for the group, and its music stuck with me for a long time. Of course, the saxophone was an extremely popular solo instrument in 80s pop music, and it was always in the forefront of Spyro Gyra’s recordings. So it was natural that Jay was the inspiration for this track. Swimming in electric piano and synths, as some of their music would use later, I conjured up a little vibe from Spyro Grya in creating this track. The drums, synth, bass, and percussion parts are all from the original 1992 recording. The solo sax and guitar parts were re-recorded in 2020.
  6. Herbie
    I must say, this is my favorite track. The 6/8 time signature, nimble synth solos, its warm pad synth underneath, and ever-building drum kit complexities just keep me hooked over its 4 minutes. This track was inspired by the jazz great Herbie Hancock, who often experiments in his music and dabbles with merging genres. I got hooked on his music after wearing out the cassette of his 1983 hip-hop influenced album Future Shock. As with the others, my “Herbie” track was originally recorded on the Korg 01/W, but with a vastly understated drum part and simplistic synth solo. So in the 2020 version, I re-recorded the drum and percussion parts, the synth solo and bass part. The background synths were kept from the 1992 recording.
  7. Lionel
    No doubt who comes to mind when I think of jazz and the vibraphone: Lionel Hampton (he was also quite a drummer and pianist too!). I never got to see him perform live, but we have a treasure trove of his recordings to enjoy forever. For “Lionel”, which is somewhat of a jazz standard in form and function, it felt natural to have the vibraphone at the center. I could have called it Lionel + Chick, as both musicians actually performed together and this track includes electric piano with vibraphone, but Lionel was such a legend, he deserved top billing. In this recording, almost everything from the 1992 recording is there, with the exception of the bass part and vibraphone solo…which were re-recorded in 2020. I recall programming the drum part note-by note back in 1992 was incredibly difficult and time consuming on the Korg workstation, but it still holds up pretty well.
  8. Moon
    This is the only track that doesn’t serve as a namesake for a famous musician. It also is the only track that contains vocals and is influenced by the big band genre. It was written around the same time as the other tracks in Opus 2, and was definitely influenced by the vocal jazz performances I recorded at East Carolina University. Most of those performances were by “Jazz Ensemble A”, conducted by the great jazz bassist, Carroll V. Dashiell, Jr. Student jazz vocalists would sing these amazing standards and I wanted to give it a try. At the time, I was also engaged to my wife Tracy and wanted to somehow encapsulate a simple but meaningful song about the love I felt. So the lyrics of “Moon” are simple and short, and the musical arrangement is typically standard for big band: horns, piano, drums, bass. No doubt this sound was hard to pull off on an electronic synthesizer, but it still seems to hold up fairly well. What you hear in this track is most of the 1992 recording, although the vocals and piano part were re-recorded in 2020. The subtle background harmony vocals were also re-recorded using the exact same Digitech Vocalist DHM4 device that was used in 1992, as today’s modern harmony instruments made it feel out of place with this genre. I will note that as I’ve gotten older, my voice range has dropped since 1992. There are a couple of high notes in this recording that I severely struggled to hit (I did hit them, but it wasn’t clean) so I used a little digital magic to clean them up!
  9. James
    I started the album with funk so I wanted to end with funk. No one in my mind comes close to James Brown when it comes to funk. The syncopated horn section, driving drums, and riffing gospel organ all channeled James Brown in this track. In the 1992 recording, most of the sampled instruments sounded like they came from 1992 (that’s not always a good thing). So while I kept the drum and bass parts, I re-recorded everything else.