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Monday, April 25, 2022

Whit Dickey Quartet - Astral Long Forms: Staircase in Space (TAO Forms, 2022)

Drummer Whit Dickey emerged on the Avant Garde, free jazz scene in the early 1990’s, and kept busy playing behind David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Ivo Perelman, and Rob Brown. He began recording as a leader at the end of that decade. Two years ago he launched a new label: TAO Forms. One of the recordings issued by that label is James Brandon Lewis’ Jesup Wagon, reviewed here by yours truly . The Quartet includes Rob Brown on alto sax, Matt Manieri on viola, and Brandon Lopez on bass.

Much free jazz achieves maximum intensity by increasing the speed, volume, and density of the sound. That is no criticism, but it is not the only way to do it. On Astral Long Forms, Dickey and crew begin from a slow or even mournful pace. This allows them to achieve intensity without losing the articulation and texture of the various instruments. If you are looking for an abstract presentation that retains all the emotional tone of good jazz, this is a place to start.

The first and longest cut, “Blue Circuit” begins with a hollow drum beat and then bowed strings gradually cut in. Brown’s horn enters center stage with the drum justifying the text on the left channel and the strings on the right. The horns create a wave function like sound and then Lopez’s bass gets more percussive while viola and sax create parallel lines. Toward the middle, we get a nice four-way dialogue with some high, plucked strings. At about 13 minutes, the intensity I mentioned presents: power without any loss of individuality. The drumming is exquisite.

The second cut “Space Quadrants” opens with a string duet, both producing viscous surfaces. If stringed instruments could do no more than that in jazz (hint: they can) it would justify their inclusion. I like that feel, as of a washboard under a thin layer of velvet. Brown’s sax now deftly touches the music here and there, eventually producing short lines of color.

“The Pendulum Turns” begin with a nice minute and a half drum solo. The sound is muted, as if the drum is just upstairs, but articulate. Lovely horn playing follows, and then the viola plays over drums and bass, both of them providing punctuation. It is Brown next who gets to provide percussion. Is the title a mixed metaphor? Not for this music.

“Staircase in Space” is the most muted in both pace and sound, which makes the slow burn of horn and strings all the more searing.

The last cut, “Signify” is hymn to the manipulation of signal. Brown, for one, really cuts loose on the range of chirps and scrapes that his horn can produce.

This is fine free jazz. If you want more genius from the strings of Brandon Lopez’s bass, I suggest the trio’s debut recording Expanding Light (Dickey, Brown, and Lopez) and especially the second cut “Desert Flower.” You can find a beautiful review right here .

For something rather different from the trio, check out the double issue Whit Dickey Tao Quartets . “Peace Planet” joins Dickey and Brown with Matthew Shipp and William Parker. “Box of Light” has Dickey and Brown joined by Steve Swell on Trombone and Michael Bisio on bass. The above are available on Bandcamp (may its name be praised!) and you can read a review here at The Free Jazz Collective (may its praise be named!).

Finally, for a more classical feel, try Dickey’s work with Shipp and Ivo Perelman. I can recommend The Clairvoyant and The Art of Perelman-Shipp. Both are featured on Amazon Prime Music.