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 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:

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Heavy Metal Be-Bop #11: Andrew Hock

The 11th installment of Heavy Metal Be-Bop is live. This time around, the subject is Andrew Hock, best known for his starring role in Castevet and costarring role in Psalm Zero, who are about to release one of the best records of 2014 so far. HMB moves to a new home yet again: Noisey, which hosts an excerpt from the Q&A, as well an exclusive audio clip of Hock improvising with pianist Leo Svirsky; you'll also find a related Spotify playlist there. As always, the director's-cut version lives at

Andrew is an interesting case when it comes to the jazz/metal overlap, because unlike some of the subjects so far—who look at each of these styles as discrete disciplines—he's worked concertedly for years to find a way to reconcile the two traditions. I'm not sure I've met too many other musicians who spent time in college transcribing Eric Dolphy solos and playing them on distorted electric guitar. Also, Andrew is young enough to have been influenced at a formative age by musicians such as Mick Barr, Weasel Walter and Mary Halvorson, all key members of the current NYC vanguard, in which jazz, metal, improv, noise, etc. have started to look like different facets of a single polyglot aesthetic.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Flesh on bone: Stanley Crouch's animation of Bird

Yesterday, while hanging around at home, I listened about as closely and joyfully as I ever have to the early work of Count Basie. Classic jazz, undoubtedly, but as is often the case—at least for me—it was also jazz under glass. Unlike with, say, Blanton-Webster-era Ellington, I'd never really gotten up close with this music, inhaled it firsthand, rather than say digested its importance as a matter of received knowledge.

I have Stanley Crouch to thank for this. His new Charlie Parker early-years bio, Kansas City Lightning, is as readable, fun and info-packed a music book as I've read. It gets you close to Bird indeed, often uncomfortably so, but it also gets you close to his musical milieu, the sonic air he breathed as an insatiably curious up-and-comer. For the first time, here, I understood how 1930s jazz might have sounded, felt to a young fan growing up at that time, how Parker and his contemporaries obsessed over Chu Berry and Buster Smith in much the same way my friends and I—growing up in the very same city in the early ’90s—geeked out over Ian MacKaye or Glenn Danzig. Crouch's writing, and his portrayal of the gladiatorial bent of the jazz scene at the time, the way you had to step onto the bandstand with total command or risk being sent home with, as Parker associate and Crouch interviewee Gene Ramey puts it in the book, your "asshole blown out," has the effect of animating a period that can sometimes seem impossibly distant.

Crouch traces Parker through his various apprenticeships, obsessions, physical journeys in search of the elusive authority and dignity he craves. And he discusses the sociological stacked deck, resulting from segregation and racism, with which the saxophonist and all his contemporaries were forced to play. We learn about Kansas City swing, and how its flavor—just like that of the city's barbecue, highly acclaimed by Jay McShann in one unforgettable Kansas City Lightning passage: "…that wood-burning smell mixed up with that meat would hit you and you knew good and damn well you was in the right place. No mistake had been made. None."—differed from that of its New Orleans, Chicago and NYC counterparts. We learn about how the Bennie Moten and Walter Page bands gave rise to the great Basie organization, and about the improvisational heroes—both household-name (Lester Young, Roy Eldridge) and largely unsung (Berry, Smith)—of the day. We learn of Bird's obsessive fandom and thirst for knowledge, the way he'd find a record he loved, or a willing practice partner, and wring every last drop of useful information out of the source in question.

But what makes this a truly special book, and not just a particularly vivid origin story, is the way Crouch juxtaposes his gripping artistic coming-of-age tale with a much darker shadow narrative: Parker's early descent into addiction, and the catastrophic effect it had on his first marriage, narrated with the help of Parker's then-wife, Rebecca Ruffin, whom Crouch interviewed in the early ’80s. We've always known that Charlie Parker was a "complex" character. But there are scenes here that will chill your blood. Crouch doesn't take sides, and in the end, this is much more a musical biography than a character study. But in spending as much time as he does on Parker's personal shortcomings, he forces us to reckon with the totality of his subject, to grapple with the emotional toll of his rise to genius.

When I first heard about Kansas City Lightning, I was turned off by the idea that the book only covered Parker's prefame years. I tend to grow impatient with the early pages of biographies, the accounts of childhood, schooling and the like. But Crouch draws you in by opening with Parker's first major career milestone, a blockbuster appearance with Jay McShann's band in NYC, and then looping back to the beginning. We know that we're working toward a shining moment, and we can't wait to learn how Parker got there. Read this book, and you'll come away with a step-by-step understanding, technical at times but mostly lay-friendly, of how Parker developed into the master and revolutionary, the architect of a new jazz language, that he became. It's a perspiration story more than an inspiration one—to hear Crouch tell it, Parker got where he got because he simply wanted it more than any of his peers. And the book's greatest achievement, aside from its witty, musical and generally outstanding prose feel—part insidery raconteur's tale, part sweeping, research-dense history—swift pacing and artful digression, is how intensely it makes you feel that wanting, that burning desire to improve, to achieve and to be recognized for it, that it so central to the Charlie Parker origin story.

Kansas City Lightning conveys the feeling of bebop, and swing before it, as something that had to be fought for, step by agonizing step, through obstacles both aesthetic and societal. And how, at least in Parker's case, that fight wasn't some noble, romantic climb to the top but rather a particularly harrowing and even repulsive evolution, an almost literal shedding of skin that took an extreme toll on the young musician and everyone around him. We hear about this idea of "warts and all"; that's what Kansas City Lightning is: a 360-degree view, as well as a high-powered X-ray, not just of the subject, but of the culture (1930s America) and subculture (Swing Era jazz) that birthed him. I feel ’30s and ’40s jazz in a new way thanks to this book, as something I can bite into rather than simply respect. Crouch's book fulfills the chief criterion of a great, general-readership biography: It puts flesh on its subject's bones.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Soundchasing: Sunny Murray

In various writings on Milford Graves, I've mentioned the idea of chasing a sound. I'm not sure what it is about this certain species of drummer—Graves, Paul Motian, Sunny Murray, Elvin Jones—but sometimes I get it into my head that I just can't listen to anything else other than the sound of one of these players. It's like a craving for a certain kind of food that overcomes me, sticks around and then gradually departs. And I'm finding that it's cyclical. My pantheon is taking concrete shape, in other words. I'm open to new information, but I think the names mentioned above will always be a part of the rotation; these strong desires to hear them, and only them, will come back around.

Lately, the sound I'm chasing is Sunny Murray's. As with Milford Graves's, Murray's sound can be a hard one to really locate. It's been ages since I've seen the man perform, and that was not a positive experience. So I've been been busy sifting through what's there to sift through on record. Again, as with Milford Graves, I defy the museum-ification of artists like this, the holding up of their
"legendary" early recordings—often the ones on ESP or BYG, or the ones with some similar kind of first-wave cachet—as the best place (other than live) to hear them. Recent examples aren't as numerous as I'd like them to be, but both Graves and Murray have been extremely well-served by state-of-the-art modern recording technology.

Right now, I'm listening to Tiresias, a 2011 release under Louie Belogenis's name. As Clifford Allen—a serious Murray scholar—points out in the liner notes, we should treasure this opportunity to hear Murray in such gorgeous studio fidelity. (Beyond Quantum, a 2008 Tzadik set featuring William Parker and Anthony Braxton, is probably the closest equivalent in the Milford Graves discography.) So I've got this record on, and I just want to dive deep down in it. The crisp rattle of the snare, the lavish boom of the toms and bass drums—a sublimated thunder, as though Murray could shake the walls if he wanted to, but is content to flutter around wraithlike. And then gradually swelling the cymbals, rustling and conjuring, behind Belogenis. It's such a loving curtain of sound that Murray drapes over this session. He was obviously onto something similiar as early as Spiritual Unity, but I think he's a better listener, a better drummer, a better musician now.

The sound quality on I Stepped Onto a Bee, recorded in 2010 with Murray's current working-triomates Tony Bevan and John Edwards, isn't quite as stellar as what you hear on Tiresias—there's a certain brittleness to the sound, kind to the high end, but less so to the Elvin-y low end that's so crucial to Murray's overall delivery—but this one's also essential for the devoted Sunny Murray soundchaser.

There's a prevailing sense that Murray's approach to drumming is a sort of a default: He couldn't swing back in the day, so he had to resort to this. There aren't enough good vintage examples of Murray trying to "swing" for us to really make that call. I think Murray's dangerously easy to underestimate, though. Certainly, unlike Milford Graves—at least in my experience of seeing him play, Graves has never seemed anything less than scarily poised—there are times (such as the 2003 Tonic gig I caught) where Murray has appeared on the bandstand in a less-than-ideal headspace. You listen to these recent records, though, and you hear Murray's voice as clearly as if he were speaking; he's not doing this thing because he can't do that thing. He's doing this thing because it's the thing he's chosen and perfected.

This signature Murray style isn't the only style he's capable of delivering, by any means. There are plenty of obscure recent sessions—such as this very strange and not quite satisfying Archie Shepp record with Richard Davis, and an astounding bootleg I grabbed off Soulseek years ago of a 1998 Sonny Simmons / Sonny Murray duo gig in Cambridge—where you can hear Sunny Murray capably swinging in a relatively traditional vein, and sounding utterly like himself at the same time. But at his best, such as on I Stepped Onto a Bee, the idea of whether or not he's technically swinging is irrelevant. The point is that he controls the pace and the sensation of the music completely, decides whether it will be a ghostly dirge-blues, or this sort of surging free shout. And while the Murray sound is enveloping, especially that patented irregular cymbal swell, which carries you along like a mist at your back, what's most impressive is the blend, the way he occupies certain frequencies, fills up all the sound around his collaborators, so that he's buffeting them rather than drowning him out. (It would seem from this great Paris Transatlantic interview with Murray that there's more science to this—i.e., that very special way in which Murray inhabits and sort of plasticizes musical space—than many have thought. "I wanted to get more from the beat than just the beat," as he puts it.)

On Dawn of a New Vibration, Murray's tough-to-find 2000 duo session with the late Arthur Doyle (see also: Burning Ambulance), the drummer gets so much more from the beat than just the beat. One of the tracks here is titled "Elephant Dreams," and that's exactly how I think of Murray's sound on this record. The shaggy, loping weight of the sound coming off his kit here is just extraordinary. More and more, this is what I look for in a drum sound. It's Bonham; it's Elvin; it's Milford; it's Motian; it's prime Sunny Murray. It's that sense of dragging sound and rhythm, hauling it around like a sack of potatoes. It's not mutually exclusive with a certain kind of nimbleness, but the principal imperative is the earth-ness of the sound, the way that it rumbles through the ground and the air. Dawn of a new vibration, indeed.

During times like these, I need nothing more than that thwack, that thump and shimmer, that unmistakable sonic signature. It's not something you can capture. You need to be in the room with it, really. But recent, top-quality studio recordings can get you about halfway there, which is saying a lot. Right now, I'm breathing it in like oxygen.


In terms of sheer distinctiveness of voice, I've also been deep into both Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace and Stanley Crouch's Kansas City Lightning. Such a pleasure to hear these men speaking, as Sunny Murray does, with such authority and idiosyncrasy—being themselves at such a simultaneously refined and unapologetically raw level, in other words. That is what we mean by author, artist.

And since hearing this wonderful news, I've also been chasing the sound of Slint drummer Britt Walford, another player who's got a secure spot in my aforementioned percussive pantheon. When it comes to boomy, wide-open girth of sound, and a gorgeously loose feel, he is one of our contemporary masters. Such a shame that his discography is so tiny—really just three Slint releases and one relatively unrepresentative LP apiece by the Breeders and Evergreen, as well as various odds and ends, including this crucial pre-Slint rarity by Maurice. Even Graves's and Murray's relatively scant recorded works dwarf Walford's. I did find this enticing tidbit from last year, though. By the way, all fans of Britt Walford specifically and Slint in general need to read Scott Tennent's 33 1/3 book on Spiderland. The coming Lance Bangs doc ought to be a revelation, but until then, Scott's volume represents the deepest knowledge base we have on this insular band/scene.