If anyone can prepare a care package of Indianapolis music to send to the world, Rob Dixon can.
Known as the “Musical Mayor of Indianapolis,” saxophone player Dixon serves as artistic director of Indy Jazz Fest and he’s artist in residence at the Center for Africana Studies & Culture in the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI.
For the upcoming debut album by his collective known as From the 317, Dixon is assembling top-tier Indianapolis musicians and seeking recognition far and wide. The recording includes specialists in jazz, blues, rock, R&B and hip-hop.
“I wanted to put out a series of songs that showcases the talent of Indianapolis and focuses on original compositions in their various genres,” Dixon said. “The creative, original sound of Indianapolis gets overlooked a lot of times. The goal is not to only promote locally but to promote the songs and the artists nationally.”
Dixon is aiming for an early March release for “Deluxe,” the 12-song recording by From the 317 that will be followed by sequels, he said. The first volume features more than 25 musicians, including guitarist Charlie Ballantine, drummer Richard “Sleepy” Floyd, rapper Rusty Redenbacher and vocalist Josh Kaufman—winner of televised talent search “The Voice” in 2014.
From the 317, which borrows its name from the local area code, is an ambitious attempt to raise the profile of Indianapolis artists, Dixon said.
But it’s not necessarily a new idea. Dixon said he’s heard musicians talk about Indianapolis jazz guitar icon Wes Montgomery and possible plans to establish a recording label here if he hadn’t suffered a fatal heart attack at age 45 in 1968. Although Indianapolis native Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds launched chart-topping label LaFace Records in Atlanta with Antonio “L.A.” Reid in 1989, it just as easily could have happened in Indianapolis, Dixon said.
“They knew how the talent was here in Indianapolis,” Dixon said. “I was thinking, ‘All right, if we can’t do it from the top down, maybe we can do it from the bottom up. It’s always great when you have somebody the stature of Wes or the stature of Babyface come in and, ‘Boom,’ put their stamp on it. But it can be done the other way, too. It can be done from within.”
Dixon isn’t an Indianapolis native. He grew up in Atlanta and moved to the Midwest to study jazz at Indiana University in Bloomington.
He lived and worked in New York City in the late 1990s, playing straight-ahead jazz in one of the world’s entertainment capitals. Straight-ahead jazz continues to be one of Dixon’s strengths. On Feb. 1, he will issue an album titled “Standards Deluxe” credited to the Rob Dixon/Steve Allee Quintet featuring Amanda King and Derrick Gardner.
Looking back to his New York days, Dixon said he learned the value of expanding his artistic horizons.
“I realized that doing other kinds of gigs was also financially rewarding,” he said. “And I needed to eat. People offered me blues gigs and gigs to play horns for a rock band. I thought, ‘OK, this is cool.’ It kind of opened my eyes to all the possibilities.”
Dixon said the enjoyment of working with musicians in other styles influenced the concept of From the 317. He and drummer Floyd are the only musicians to appear on all 12 songs of the album.
“Fresh Air,” featuring guitarist Steve Weakley, is a breezy instrumental in the style of Montgomery’s late-career work. “Let’s Take Our Time” is an intense soul ballad featuring vocalists Tad Robinson and Sarah Scharbrough McLaughlin. Redenbacher and fellow rapper FoxD’Legnd rhyme about perseverance on a song titled “Can You Feel It.”
And instrumental “74,” named for the song’s 7/4 time signature, soars thanks to accessible grooves provided by Dixon and guitarist Dave Donahoe.
“There is such a thing as familiar refrain,” Dixon said. “There are certain chord progressions and hooky things with pentatonics that people just naturally gravitate toward. … Some of those things were definitely intentional. We said, ‘We want to create an earworm that won’t get out of your head.’ ”