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Thursday, October 3, 2019

Whit Dickey/The Tao Quartets - Box of Light & Peace Planet (AUM Fidelity, 2019) ****1⁄2

By Lee Rice Epstein

Drummer and master improviser Whit Dickey has spent the past three decades working in various settings with Matthew Shipp, Ivo Perelman, David S. Ware, Mat Maneri, Rob Brown, Michael Bisio, Steve Swell, and William Parker. And for several years in the early 2000s, Dickey led a brilliant pianoless quartet with Brown, Joe Morris, and the late Roy Campbell, Jr. on trumpet. We’ve long been supporters and fans of Dickey’s art, covering dozens of albums and live performances . After a lengthy break from the role of bandleader and composer, Dickey returned with 2017’s Vessel In Orbit, an outstanding trio date with Maneri and Shipp . On this double album from AUM Fidelity, Dickey convenes two new quartets for some of the most ecstatic music of his long career.

Both sets are credited to what Dickey calls his Tao Quartets, a nod to the universalism at the heart of this music. There has always been a strong, spiritual center to his music. Now, nearly a decade after his previous albums, with an audible gap in the world of free improvisation left by Ware and Campbell’s ascensions, it’s clear just how vital a presence Dickey’s compositional voice is, when he takes on the role of bandleader. Much like Perelman and Shipp, with whom he’s never stopped collaborating, Dickey’s leadership is somewhat suggestive: each song has an overall shape and general destination, but the six performers collectively guide the music. The themes of lightness, darkness, inaction, growth, ascendance, and potential, all swirl around an almost mystical center, made tangible by the threads connecting the players to one another. The result is something close to a spiritual free jazz session.

A warm heartbeat in both quartets is the shared presence of Brown, one of the great free improvising alto saxophonists. Where players often adopt a particular style, Brown (much like Dickey) has developed a voice that seems more grounded in an overall aesthetic interpretation, as opposed to something signified by motifs or certain tonal ranges. Over the past couple of decades, I’ve come to think of Shipp in a similar fashion. And on the first set, Peace Planet, Brown and Shipp often play in a unified timbral space, giving the impression of composed unison lines. Dickey and Parker’s rhythms produce an esoteric space, where time floats apart and reassembles in new configurations, amoeba-like, signaling a cosmic gestation through which Brown and Shipp perform a cyclical harmonic rebirth. Four of the five songs—“Peace Planet,” “Seventh Sun,” “Ancient Monument,” and “Blossom Time”—are each about 10 minutes, with “Suite for DSW” running nearly 15. As a clear centerpiece, it highlights Brown, in particular, as he plays tribute to Ware in spectacular fashion. His performance sometimes evokes Ware himself, but Brown mostly conjures a deep longing and powerful testament to the love and respect they all share for each other.

The second Tao Quartet swaps in Swell for Shipp and Bisio for Parker. On their album, Box of Light, the group is slightly more hard-driving. This is passionate music, fire music in Archie Shepp’s parlance—just don’t expect a throwback feel. Despite the historical precedents for a pianoless quartet, as with Dickey’s early 2000s albums, this is definitely a 21st Century album. Just like Brown, Swell is among the finest improvising players. His trombone sound is fearless, and he and Brown bounce off each other excitedly. Bisio and Dickey demonstrate their empathic connection with a vibrant, buoyant feel. Dickey pushes the group into a slightly brighter sonic space, reflecting the title and themes of the set. The first three tracks, “Eye Opener,” “Ellipse : Passage Through,” and “Ethereality,” form a nice suite-like combination. “Eye Opener” appropriately leaps off the starting block, with crisp, bold playing from everyone. “Ethereality” slides into “Box of Light,” which kicks off the second half with a lengthy, excellent improvisation. Dickey’s drumming is dynamic and percussive, and the group’s coda is a high point both quartets’ sets. “Jungle Suite” teases a bit of swing at the start, but quickly gives way to a riot of ideas. There are some folkish elements on display, echoing Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and the group ends at the tonal deep end, with staccato statements from Swell’s trombone and Dickey’s toms, before Bisio puts a final punctuation mark.

In the press for Peace Planet & Box of Light, the set was described this way:
A united pair of albums created this past Winter, the two works represent the Yin and the Yang respectively. Dickey chose Tao Quartets as the name of the groups for this work as the Tao wholly incorporates an understanding of this elemental dynamic of life, and that same understanding is here to be heard.
This is most definitely audible in the music, and I, for one, celebrate Dickey’s return to band-leading and the deep and meaningful artistic creations he inspires. AUM has promised there is more to come soon. I very highly recommend this and cannot wait to hear what’s next.

The double-album is available in a limited-edition two-CD set, as well as digital formats.

Order direct from AUM Fidelity.
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Colin Green said...

Agreed, Lee – two inspired and inspiring quartets and one of the best releases this year.