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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Dickey / Maneri / Shipp – Vessel in Orbit (AUM Fidelity, 2017) ****

By Rick Joines

What we hear from the new trio formed by Whit Dickey is less a conversation than a meeting of minds—a collective intelligence engaged in executing a concept. The album’s title, Vessel in Orbit, invites the listener to imagine a narrative of Spaceship 9’s small crew as they journey through the darkness of space, encountering moments of danger, confusion, and sublime beauty, often in rapid succession.

Chief engineer is Matthew Shipp on piano. Shipp’s propulsive chording, sound clusters, and occasionally ornamental melodic lines drive this vessel outward. Sometimes, due to the impulsiveness of the captain, it is Shipp’s intuitive skills that keep it all together. Whit Dickey acts as the ship’s crew, constantly monitoring conditions, keeping systems humming. Riding a cymbal, he provides a sonar ping, a signal beacon. Rumbling the toms or snapping the snare, he updates the captain about unforeseen developments in the flight plan. The somewhat manic and unpredictable captain is Mat Maneri. Maneri’s viola, bowed and plucked, sometimes sings with the lonely throatiness of a mourning human voice, sometimes with the hectic derring-do of an explorer, and sometimes thrashes about like a mind disoriented and at war with itself, but it is always compelling.

The first half of Vessel in Orbit is full of excitement. In the first song, “Spaceship 9,” we imagine the spaceship as it begins its voyage. There are chaotic moments when the ship encounters difficulties as well as moments of sparse calm. In the second song, “Space Walk,” each instrument sounds tentative. There is plenty of space between each player as they float out on their individual lines, yet they remain tethered to one another and to the ship by a constantly evolving heartbeat of a nearly-melodic line. In “Dark Matter,” there seems to be a considerable amount of physical and psychic stress. The steadiness of the orbit grows unreliable as the crew attempts to make sense of the data. Finally, in “Galaxy 9,” piano, viola, and drums drift, calmly observing uncharted space, with no need for resolution.

I find the second, slower, more reflective, half of Vessel in Orbit less engaging, yet it has plenty of beautiful moments. “Turbulence” is somewhat static compared to the previous songs, but it seems to lead into the phases of mourning portrayed in “To a Lost Comrade.” There, Shipp’s piano sounds elegiac, Dickey taps a cymbal with the sad insistence of a fife and drum corps, and Maneri’s viola sings the through the stages of grief: haunting in denial and anger, almost silent in depression and acceptance. “Space Strut” marks a rather jaunty turn and features some pretty finger rolls by Shipp and some nice pizzicato from Maneri. The final song, “Hyperspatial,” sums up the voyage. It is a deeply felt expression of the wisdom that comes through experience, which finds expression in sheets of sound.

Whit Dickey, Mat Maneri, and Matthew Shipp have played together in various combinations for decades. The length and depth of their relationship is evident on Vessel in Orbit. In this trio’s incarnation, Dickey’s compositions reign in the sometimes wildness of Maneri and Shipp, not to tame them but to focus their endless inventive energies. There is hardly a moment of silence on the album, yet even at their most cacophonous, each instrument rings clearly in communion. Rarely does any musician perform anything akin to a solo, or play in rhythm, yet their camaraderie is deep, collaborative and never contradictory. This is a rewarding and evocative album. Anyone who has been a fan of Dickey, Maneri, or Shipp will marvel at their discoveries of new ways to improvise collectively and will find much to love listening to again and again.

More info, and available at Downtown Music Gallery.