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Whit Dickey Quartet: Astral Long Form: Staircase in Space (TAO Forms)

A review of the drummer-led group's release

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Whit Dickey Quartet: Astral Long Form: Staircase in Space (TAO Forms)
The cover of Astral Long Form: Staircase in Space by Whit Dickey Quartet

Improvised music like jazz requires creative listening. Avant-garde jazz requires the most creative listening of all. The music of Whit Dickey’s quartet (Dickey, drums; Rob Brown, alto saxophone; Mat Maneri, viola; Brandon Lopez, bass) has no beginning, middle, or end. You hear elements like melody, harmony and rhythm differently because they are not there to move a single storyline forward, but as events in themselves whose contributions to a larger purpose are revealed only gradually, and only to imaginative listeners.

Amid all the silences and wide-open spaces of Dickey’s sonic landscape, instruments stand out in stark relief. It is especially fascinating to focus on Dickey’s drums. Every gesture and nuance of his percussive pronunciation is telling. Dickey and Lopez function separately from any customary concept of time, but they surround Brown and Maneri with a vast context of energy that is intense even when it is hushed. The lines that Brown and Maneri play might suddenly cross and make a strange chord, or together they might snatch a startling song from free air.

This music requires not only creativity but patience and faith on the part of the listener. A piece like “Staircase in Space” gathers itself so slowly that it sometimes feels static. The players themselves are similarly challenging, Maneri most of all: His glaring colors and abrasive dissonances often dominate the ensemble. But his searches can discover previously hidden concentrations of lyricism, as on “The Pendulum Turns.” Brown is an improviser of remarkable moment-to-moment inventiveness. He rarely lets a lull last for long before his inspiration sweeps him into surges of novel melody.      

Engineer Jim Clouse could be considered a fifth member of Dickey’s band. His recorded sound, which vividly arrays four musicians across a wide sound stage, is essential to the unique beauty of this album.


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Whit Dickey on the Path to Wisdom

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.