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Whit Dickey: The Tao Quartets (AUM Fidelity)

A review of the two-CD set from the veteran drummer/composer

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Whit Dickey, The Tao Quartets
The cover of The Tao Quartets on Whit Dickey

There’s always the potential conundrum, when listening to jazz that doesn’t adhere to the usual bop or postbop terrain, that the music will slide off into oblivion, evading both fan and newcomer. But this remarkable two-CD set from veteran drummer/composer Whit Dickey takes the opposite course. Consisting of two quartet performances—one “yin,” in Dickey’s description, the other “yang”—The Tao Quartets offers two sides of an elastic coin.

Disc one, Peace Planet—performed by Matthew Shipp on piano, Rob Brown on alto saxophone, William Parker on bass, and Dickey—is a celebration of gentle improvisations and longtime partnerships. Dickey’s pulsing hi-hat propels the title track with jabbing figures, to which Shipp responds with his fluttering logic. “Seventh Sun” increases the tempo, Parker and Dickey holding down a classic eighth-note-driven bass-and-drums pulse, around which Brown and Shipp dart like aggressive butterflies. “Suite for DSW” begins as a duo for drums and alto, Dickey’s drub-drub drops and cluttered chatter mirroring Brown’s scattershot declarations. Shipp’s entrance changes the mood dramatically, followed by Parker’s low, buzzing howl.

The second disc, Box of Light, rejoins Brown and Dickey and introduces Steve Swell on trombone and Michael Bisio on bass. The “yang” embodiment of the two groups, Box of Light charges harder, sounds drier and more frenetic, yet with a greater feeling of liftoff and freedom. Rather than quaver below, now Dickey cajoles and prods. “Ellipse – Passage Through” is a tilt-a-whirl of activity climaxing in the drummer’s dry, heaving solo, which has a bit of Paul Motian’s playfulness alloyed to a touch similar to that of Milford Graves.

To call this music “free” is both lazy and a misnomer. The Tao Quartets’ shared language is deep and grounded, its joy unceasingly present, the need to experience it repeatedly a must.


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Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.