Friday, February 28, 2014
DFSBP archives: Whit Dickey
During my interview with Andrew Hock, we talked quite a bit about the guitarist Joe Morris. I hadn't spun a Morris record in a while, so I pulled out a few old favorites in the days that followed, and this listening excursion led me to the latest in a neverending series of drumcentric soundchasing jags—this one focused on Whit Dickey, a frequent Morris collaborator for two-plus decades.
I've always felt that Dickey was a seriously underrated artist, even among free-jazz heads. I first heard him right as I began to explore the downtown NYC scene in the early aughts. I have a distinct memory of seeing him play at the Mercury Lounge, of all places, as part of an improv round robin organized by the Vision Festival crew. I think it was at that show that I approached him to see if he'd be interested in appearing on air with me, for an episode of WKCR's Musician's Show. (DFSBP readers might recall the Grachan Moncur III interview, another installment of the same program.) You can stream—via the blue Streampad bar at the bottom of the page—or download that three-hour program below, split into four segments:
Whit Dickey - WKCR Musician's Show - 5/2/01, pt. 1
Whit Dickey - WKCR Musician's Show - 5/2/01, pt. 2
Whit Dickey - WKCR Musician's Show - 5/2/01, pt. 3
Whit Dickey - WKCR Musician's Show - 5/2/01, pt. 4
I was, and still am, a huge fan of Transonic, Dickey's 1998 debut as a leader—a trio date with saxist Rob Brown and bassist Chris Lightcap. I reviewed it for AllMusic.com way back when. I know I wouldn't frame my impression now the way I did then—"One does not normally look to a drummer-led jazz session for innovative compositions…" (groan)—but I'm still struck by what a strong concept Dickey puts forth on this record. It's not just his writing, which is punchy, concise and memorable; it's the way he drives a band with palpable yet slippery force. Much like the great Sunny Murray, whom Dickey really sounds very little like, his playing acts as a sort of vortex, drawing the music toward it, sometimes very subtly. I feel the same sort of confidence, the same entrancement when I listen to both players, the sense that they're helping to lend a sort of elemental weight to whatever setting they appear in, without having to assert themselves in bombastic ways. This kind of sorcery, or cultivation-of-vibe, if you will—heard in everyone from Motian to Oxley to Graves—is my number-one aesthetic priority when it comes to improv-driven percussion, and Whit Dickey's playing oozes that quality. In the WKCR interview, Dickey talks quite a bit about environmental vibration, and how he seeks to translate what he hears around him into his playing; that might sound like mumbo-jumbo, but if you listen to enough of his work, you'll understand exactly what he means. (On the other hand, he also discusses his studies at New England Conservatory, so there's more than intuition at work in what he does.)
I actually know what are probably the best-known Dickey records—his collaborations with David S. Ware—the least well. I reserve a special place in my jazz pantheon for his leader dates: Transonic; its follow-ups, Big Top and Life Cycle (credited to the Nommonsemble); the extraordinary and hard-to-find Prophet Moon (by Trio Ahxoloxha, i.e., Dickey/Brown/Morris, the same trio heard on the earlier Youniverse); the more recent Coalescence (with Brown, Morris [on bass here] and the late Roy Campbell Jr.) and Emergence (with Daniel Carter and Eri Yamamoto); and, a record I've just discovered, Understory, a super-earthy/emotive 2013 collaboration with Sabir Mateen and Michael Bisio under the Blood Trio moniker. (I haven't yet spent good time with the handful of recent Ivo Perelman records on the Leo label that feature Dickey, but those are definitely on my list.) These albums could all be considered part of the free-jazz continuum, stretching from the ’60s ESP cats up through the ’90s Aum Fidelity / Vision Festival cohort and beyond, but thanks in large part to Dickey's presence, they embody a special kind of sonic poetry. He's among a select group of improvisers whose affiliation with a given session makes the record in question an instant must-hear for me.
The Aum Fidelity website identifies Dickey as a "somewhat mysterious figure." As you'll hear, he was perfectly friendly and forthcoming in the interview setting, but I understand what that description was getting at. Dickey's never been much for self-promotion; to this day, he doesn't have a real Web presence, and I always seem to hear about his releases and gigs after they occur. (It's worth noting too that there don't seem to be any other interviews with him online.) It's been a good while since I've seen him live—I caught a great show by Matthew Shipp's trio, which includes Dickey and Bisio, at the Stone probably four or five years back—and I hope to remedy that soon. In the meantime, there's a substantial body of recorded work to savor. You'll hear a nice sampling from both Transonic and Big Top in the WKCR program—as well as Dickey-curated selections from his favorite drummers, including Steve McCall, Freddie Waits and Milford Graves. To complement that, here's a good chunk of Whit Dickey on Spotify: