Whit Dickey's 'Tao Quartets' Pose Key Questions About Improvised Music
Veteran drummer from New York's creative music scene, Whit Dickey combines two quartets that pose so many of the key questions about purely improvised music.
5 July 2019
In creative music today—that category of art music we used to call "jazz" in that it comes largely from an African-American tradition and is suffused with blues tonality, swing rhythms, and improvisation—there is a rich tradition of music that is spontaneously composed. With no preconceived melody or structure, musicians dive into group improvisation, developing performance in the moment. The new set of recordings from drummer Whit Dickey is this kind of improvised music. Tao Quartets features two bands that navigate without composed themes, both quartets featuring the alto saxophone voice of Rob Brown.
For listeners who are wary of music that hasn't been organized ahead of time by a composer determining key, tempo, melodic elements, structure, harmonic boundaries, and other elements—and that would probably be almost every listener whose favorite music is classical, pop, rock, show tunes, or jazz before about 1960—this kind of music presents some real barriers to entry. "Where is the tune?" my mother would sometimes ask me when I was listening to music she was unfamiliar with.
But rather than dismiss this attitude as narrow, it seems fair to use Tao Quartets to explore the question of what makes music work when it is entirely composed in the moment.
One of the stock claims about the strength of jazz is that there is a thrilling interplay between composition and improvisation. Duke Ellington's melodies were fabulous, of course. But the real art was in how he integrated his arrangements of the composition with both the individual sounds of his bandmates and with the expressive improvisational styles of those players. A more modern artist such as Wayne Shorter used fewer compositional elements, and his arrangements were less elaborate. But we still celebrate Shorter's ability to conceive ingenious harmonic and melodic themes that served to inspire his bands to exceptionally creative improvisation. The integration of brilliant composing and breathtaking improvisation is what places Ellington and Shorter in the top rank of artists. Their compositions nurtured improvisation symbiotically.
What happens when one of those elements is removed by design? That ought not to be a question that hip critics brush aside as if it were simply from my mom, demanding her catchy tune.
In his Tao Quartets, Dickey has assembled two bands of musicians with vast experience in free improvisation. "Box of Light" uses two horns in Brown and trombonist Steve Swell along with bassist Michael Bisio, assembling a band that raucously interacts without a chording instrument to corral things harmonically. "Peace Planet" features pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker in addition to Brown, making possible music that has more pliant swing (Parker being a player who creates a rhythmic fluency at will) and harmonic direction (Shipp being a player with an exceptional gift for generating powerful harmonic content that avoids cliche). The contrast of the two bands, off the bat, demonstrates one element of this kind of music: the collection of musicians alone suggests a kind of composition. The band leader has placed a group of personalities in the same performing space, "composing" the sound of the resulting music.
The music created by the "Box of Light" band is riskier. Bassist Bisio is more likely to be playing a third independent melody line than most bass players, and so the music often consists of three voices (Brown's saxophone, Swell's trombone, and the bass) that, by definition, cannot play unison or harmonized parallel lines without pre-existing composition. The result is music that is always conversational and contrapuntal: one line winding around another and generating consonance and dissonance in largely equal measure. It's rare that any of the voices in the quartet is acting in true accompaniment. So the dynamic of performance such as "Box of Light" (the track that gives the band its name) is one of swirling tension. Brown and Swell dominate the conversation, perhaps, but Bisio complicates it as well, with Dickey pulsing freely and getting in his elements of talk too. I'm not saying that the "conversation" is always in metaphorical disagreement. But the aesthetic is inevitably one of greater darkness or edge than if the musicians have agreed ahead of time on how to find consonance. The pleasures of this music are those of discovery and excitement rather than standard "beauty".
"Box of Light" also demonstrates how spontaneously-improvised music often generates structure from episodic shifts in instrumentation, focus, tempo, and tone. The initial episode is a conversation in a minor mode at a moderate tempo, the voices interweaving laconically. Though the tempo stays largely the same on this track, there is a duet section for bass and drums, which leads into a more bracing section for the horns' reentry. Dickey gets a solo section, after which Bisio enters playing with his bow in the bass' upper register, leading to a section in which the full quartet plays together in a busy, squiggling dissonance, more texture than melody. It is an ending that will be thrilling for listeners who enjoy the kinds of busy, crazy places that free improvisation can take you. For others, well, this ending could be proof that "free" playing just means something closer to noise.
The argument for this purely improvised style might have a marketing phrase: there is magic in the moment. More magic, this approach suggests, than if the band worked and improvised from existing compositions. Most "jazz", of course, combines these approaches to varying degrees: Miles Davis's "So What" is a composition hardly as elaborate as "Harlem Air Shaft", with the improvised sections dominating the recording, but the formal and harmonic structure still creates restrictions that define it. Dickey's Tao Quartets tells the listener that structures generated spontaneously are an equally valid way of organizing music. It argues, if you will, that this approach can be better. Why else jettison composition entirely?
The "Peace Planet" band presents a different kind of winning formula for freedom. To my ears, the rhythm section of Dickey, Parker's bass, and Shipp's piano is as close to genius in finding power in the moment. "Seventh Sun" may be a pure improvisation that evolves from a set of small gestures among the players at the start. But it starts swinging so hard about a minute in, with Brown taking off like an eagle on the wind of the rhythm section, that it feels like it finds a plan in the moment's inspiration. Part of this, of course, is that Shipp "comps" for Brown in a manner that creates a tonality for performance. They settle around a tonal center without being fully committed to it, and the chords and clusters that Shipp uses to goose Brown's melody line are more clearly supportive of a single "soloist" than the contrasting melodic lines we hear on the "Box of Light" sides. Parker, similarly, falls into a supportive groove, walking his bass insistently as Dickey swings as purely as Max Roach in the 1950s. Shipp takes his turn at a solo with Brown laying out, which further makes this track mimic a more traditional "jazz" performance.
Is that why it sounds more accessible to my ears, even without a written composition?
Which is not to say that "Peace Planet" is traditional. "Blossom Time", a mood piece at ballad tempo, features dark chords from Shipp with Parker playing repeated-note throbs and Dickey coloring and rumbling as much as keeping time. But the collective of this band still tends to lay a groundwork for Brown that sets him up to find interesting and logical places to go as the primary melody instrument. He solos for the first half of the performance with a sure ability to find a connection to Shipp's harmonic suggestions. And, again, this gives way to a section for just the piano/bass/drums trio. It's a format that works exceedingly well here, sounding less "free" than intuitive, each move by Parker being heard and connecting to Shipp. It sounds as much like the Ellington/Mingus/Roach Money Jungle recording as it does like some kind of wild avant-garde. Or, well, close anyway. And when Brown re-enters in clear declamatory held notes, where is an elegant clarity to what the track is all about.
Even this quartet, however, can seem to be struggling with freedom when inspiration doesn't connect most of the dots. "Ancient Monument" has some striking moments of harmonic beauty in its middle section, but it is not consistently a discovery. "Suite for DSW" lurches for quite a while until the players run upon a staccato section during which the dialogue truly takes off, running it into an aggressive swing that delights. For fans of freely improvised music, these periods of searching before the sunlight breaks through are part of a remarkable process. Other folks may ask, well, why not begin with a great idea already lined up? A composition.
There is no correct answer, of course. My ears struggle a bit, for example, with the randomness of Box of Light's "Jungle Suite", with the way the several sections of the performance seem to show up rather than evolve from what precedes them. But "Eclipse: Passage Through", improvised by the same band, holds my attention, with its lively conversation across a consistent lurching groove, the horn players never seeming to run out of ideas.
Maybe all taste in music is subjective. What is a great melody, anyway? And maybe criticism of largely (or completely) improvised music is particularly subjective, with the critic not only flailing at the meaning of an abstraction but also somehow judging how remarkable its invention in the moment truly was. Another thought is that, somehow, this music makes more sense in person, as the listeners shares in the air of the moment, a moment of invention that can't be repeated over and over and, therefore, shouldn't sound as good on a recording. The moment, possibly, is the thing, period.
Whit Dickey gives an open-eared listener plenty to think about with Tao Quartets. He is a veteran creative player in a scene with much to offer if you are up for an adventure. When the great moments arrive, his bands do seize them.