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Whit Dickey on the Path to Wisdom

It involves persistence, as the drummer—and now label head— can tell you

Whit Dickey (photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen)
Whit Dickey (photo: R.I. Sutherland-Cohen)

As a freshman at the University of Montana in Missoula, drummer Whit Dickey had an instructor who seemed like a mystic and offered him a sage bit of advice: “If you stick with one thing long enough and keep doing it and doing it, you could be called a fool, but you’ll gain wisdom.” Dickey mentions this halfway through a phone conversation reflecting on a musical career that has grown slowly but steadily over several decades. “It turned out to be true,” he says of his teacher’s words.

Dickey is known as much for his associations with pianist Matthew Shipp and saxophonist Ivo Perelman as for his own work as a leader. But the last 16 months have seen the release of three albums under his own name, all containing some absorbing free improvisation. Two were double CDs; the third, The Expanding Light, is the second release on his own label, Tao Forms. When asked if he feels like he’s on a creative roll or simply making up for lost time, Dickey, 66, relates to both sentiments. “I feel like I’m coming into the core of what I’ve always wanted to do. Everything is coming together—all the pieces of my past,” he says.

At Bennington College, where Dickey enrolled in 1982, he studied with drummer Milford Graves, already a veteran of the ’60s New York free-jazz scene. Self-taught up to that point, Dickey found Graves’ approach revelatory. “There was the exercise he gave me that I practiced and practiced and practiced—using the left foot in 5/4 and the right hand in 12/8,” he remembers. “You got a sound on the cymbal of being 12/8 and the hi-hat sort of supporting it. I wouldn’t say it was jazz. I would say it was African.”

Dickey went on to earn a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory, studying the compositions of Thelonious Monk. A mutual friend there introduced him to Matthew Shipp, who had already graduated. The two hit it off and when Dickey moved to New York in 1987, they began playing together. “I didn’t want a drummer that drove me, per se. I wanted somebody who had a nice touch and who was actually really involved,” Shipp says. Dickey “didn’t sound like Elvin Jones. He didn’t sound like Sunny Murray. He really liked those drummers a lot but there was nothing derivative [in his playing].”

Shipp’s early-’90s albums Circular Temple and Prism featured Dickey, whose playing caught the ear of tenor saxophonist and frequent Shipp collaborator David S. Ware. Liking what he heard, Ware brought Dickey into his powerful quartet; the four years he spent there yielded three albums and opened Dickey’s mind to deeper influences, though they didn’t always come easily. Ware “was using lines that intersected with each other. He wanted me to play the melody on the drum set. It was incalculable, the effect he had on me, because his whole thing was the melody. I began to understand that’s what jazz is all about,” Dickey says. “I started getting into his whole idea of meditation and began to develop my own mantras that helped me concentrate on melody.”

These mantras form a crucial part of a performance for Dickey, who typically plays with his eyes closed. “I’m looking at colors. I see colors a lot and it guides me,” he says, “When I hear something, it’s always in rows of five. I guess that was from working with Milford. But I don’t concentrate on the five. I concentrate on the mantra itself.”

Although Dickey no longer plays in Shipp’s trio, they continue to work together under the drummer’s leadership. The prolific pianist was the first artist to have an album released on Tao Forms, which Dickey launched this year, and he appears on half of last year’s Peace Planet/Box of Light (AUM Fidelity). That set also features alto saxophonist Rob Brown, a longtime friend who has appeared on several Dickey sessions, starting with Transonic, the drummer’s 1988 debut as a leader. On Morph (ESP-Disk’), the two pals take part in a series of pensive improvisations for one disc, with trumpeter Nate Wooley adding a deeper dimension on the second.

Expanding Light, a session with Brown and bassist Brandon Lopez, is purely improvised, but the group’s intuitive movement often sounds like they’re touching on composed passages between free excursions. Even though Dickey is credited as the leader on all three albums, the music is less a result of who leads the band and more about interactions with his fellow musicians. “Everything is melody,” he says. “The most important thing of the whole composition is the first thing that’s played because that’s what keys you into what is going to happen next.”

Nothing foolish about that.

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.