Mike Dillon and some Rosewood

August 6, 2020
Anne Njoroge

Mike Dillon / photo: John Brant

“I’m a billy goat.”

That’s how Mike Dillon answered when asked what his musical personality was, and it makes a lot of sense. Goats are smart, agile, and hard to keep in one place…much like the multi-instrumentalist’s career.

Dillon holed himself up in a beautiful art studio in Missouri, converted from what used to be an old church building – it’s soul still there, pulling out the vibraphonists’s emotions. Along with his instruments, Dillon worked out his latest journey in life, and the songs come tumbling out, turning into his orchestral percussion compilation, Rosewood.

Developed over the course of about a year and a half, the album’s creation spawned from two very different locales: the place of his old love – the city of New Orleans – and the home of his new love, Dillon’s wife.

The musician now calls Kansas home. Being in a new city in the midst of a global pandemic – and finding ways to work on projects with musicians around the country – has certainly created unique challenges. Dillon states, simply, that he’s “still finding ways to get inspired.”

It’s clear he found the proper inspiration, and on Rosewood, Dillon managed to bake in an underlying layer of New Orleans, an undeniable result of Dillon’s 14 years spent there.

“In New Orleans, I got to play with a lot of musicians, from 2006 to 2020. It’s a very diverse culture and a lot of musicians are more inclusive,” he explains. “It’s one of the best things I did for my career.”

Perhaps, though, the time away from New Orleans had an unexpected effect on Dillon’s creative process, though: Rosewood is more planned out than his past projects. Dillon explains it “was more conceptual, it was more written out, not as chaotic. Just not as much as my usual free for all.”

He also seemed to draw inspiration from the church itself.

“It felt like the soul of the church wrote many of the beginning tracks,” Dillon said. “My wife told me that when I played, people there who could hear me would cry. It was beautiful music and I needed to go into the studio.”

Mike Dillon / photo: John Brant
photo: John Brant

On Rosewood, Dillon states that every song has a concept, reflections of the awe-inspiring places he finds inspiration. It is very much the opposite of live music, and the spontaneously deep, rich musical tradition of Mardi Gras. Dillon left behind an ancient spirit of collaboration for something new and deep in his soul. 

The first track, “Tiki Bird Whistle,” has a hurried pace, as if it were trying to go somewhere or find something. The song sets the tone for the rest of the album – listeners start in one place, and follow the music through its adventure till the end.

Dillon only uses a vibraphone and percussion instruments – about 20 in all – on Rosewood, which is quite a feat…not many musicians are as versatile instrumentally. From what Dillon calls his, “sonically sacred space,” he crafts a new side to his extensive musical history. On Rosewood, though, the music is all his own, with two exceptions: past partners drummer Earl Harvin (who came over land and sea from Berlin) and recording engineer Chad Meise. They helped hold up their friend as he underwent this transformation in his life: a symphony of percussion, a musical creation, and an opportunity to progress.

Change can be bittersweet; we welcome it, but cautiously. That wariness comes out in his rendition of the great song “Hurt.” Originally by Nine Inch Nails and then reinvigorated by Johnny Cash, the “ Hurt” torch is now passed to Dillon as his interpretation – simple and without words – fills listeners’ ears. It’s different, but fits into the theme of the album. It is optimistic for a second, changes moods, and leaves you with this curious and slightly uneasy feeling. You’ll want to listen to it again, immediately.

Photo: Tom Dellinger

Around this point of the album, the vibe picks up a little bit. “Rhumba for Peregrine” gets your shoulders moving, but only for a moment. Then we shift into a more funky tone of the album. The instruments Dillon uses adds these accents of sound that pique your ears’ curiosity, like on the track “Bonobo” – it’s fun and lovely. 

As we enjoy the music something happens: we begin to move along with the sounds it’s making… reminding us we are on an adventure going somewhere we haven’t reached just yet. You can feel that in the track “Tony Allen at the Music Box.” The rhythm is trance like…spiritual, even.

It clearly hit the mark of what Dillon intended when the project began.

“With Rosewood, I wanted to take a more melodic approach,” he says. “As opposed to my more ‘Bezerko’ approach.”

The approach worked. Listeners eventually arrive at their destination. “Can’t Make a Sound” begins somberly, but grows into an uplifting field of sound. We arrive at the end of the musical journey, but very much at the beginning of an adventure conducted by Mike Dillon and inspired by his vibraphone orchestra.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: