Whit Dickey is a veteran free jazz drummer who first made his mark in David S. Ware’s band in the 90s and led on some well-regarded albums around the turn of the millennium. Since then he’s mostly kept his profile raised as a member (until 2015) of Matthew Shipp’s revered trio and appearing in many of Ivo Perelman’s recent cascade of full-improv rides. In fact, Dickey’s upcoming, first new album in more than a decade sprung from a conversation Dickey had with Shipp while recording with Perelman; the good vibe they got from that session led to them working together again but under Dickey’s leadership. Even better, viola master Mat Maneri joined them at Shipp’s suggestion.
That makes Vessel In Orbit (March 24, 2017, AUM Fidelity) a reunion of sorts, since it carries over the same lineup from Dickey’s Life Cycle (also on AUM) from sixteen years earlier, less alto saxophonist Rob Brown. It’s all group improvisations, because, well, that’s how the finest from NYC’s downtown scene roll.
Thusly, the success of this music rests on telepathy, and these guys know each other so well. The symmetry of two old cohorts Dickey and Shipp comes to the fore with “Spaceship 9,” with Shipp setting the pulse with a single, repeating note, freeing up Dickey to flutter around it, and Maneri seizes upon his role of flushing out most of the harmony parts. Shipp’s piano opens up melodically on “Space Walk,” interacting with Maneri’s viola while Dickey rustles below, underscoring the uneasiness lying beneath the prettiness. Shipp largely tests the lower end of his register on “Dark Matter,” Dickey with him every step along the way on Shipp’s journey over peaks and valleys.
Maneri and Shipp do a delicate dance around each other on “Galaxy 9,” Dickey adding punctuation; viola and piano layer on more density (especially when Shipp goes into full chord mode) and with that, tension. Maneri’s viola, sweetly sorrowful “To A Lost Comrade,” gets empathetic support from Shipp and Dickey. Dickey’s drums here show a very patient approach, processing inputs from Maneri and letting that guide his path. Dickey tees up “Space Strut” with fastidious cymbal and rim work, setting into motion a fully developed spontaneous composition.
Conceived as it was played, Vessel In Orbit is unpredictable, melodic and has form built around emotion not formal structures. When it’s done by such elastic artists like Whit Dickey along with Matthew Shipp and Mat Maneri, it all comes together beautifully.
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