Whether journeymen or singular voices on their instrument, drummer-leaders are often afforded a unique opportunity for "stepping out." Sunny Murray was the percussionist who one thought might just disappear behind Ayler and Cecil in the '60s, yet as a leader he exemplified a relentless sonic force both instrumentally and compositionally. Ronnie Scott gave Tony Oxley his first sideman recordings, but it was not long after that his extraordinarily vanguard ensemble concepts and altered percussive technique graced his sides as a leader-something that the British jazz cognoscenti probably didn't know what to make of. Whit Dickey, heir to Murray and Rashied Ali, propulsion for David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp in the '90s, and a formidable bandleader in his own right, is one of the percussionists to fill the shoes of such heavy company.
On Coalescence, Dickey's third album as a leader (the first was recorded six years ago for AUM Fidelity), the percussionist is joined by altoist/flutist Rob Brown, who also contributed to that first session, trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., and bassist Joe Morris (whose guitar now seems to be the moonlight gig). Dickey is not, with this ensemble, presenting a dramatic new concept in improvised music, as his compositional style runs the gamut from driving free-bop to pastoral tone poems. But following an honest course is certainly not a precursor to the doldrums: Brown and Campbell complement one another perfectly, the altoist's dry, ebullient lyricism and biting tone in concert with the trumpeter's punchy bravura. Dickey's percussive style (especially on the slower numbers) makes heavy use of cymbals, a pulse created through the combination of sonic washes and hi-hat rhythms, not unlike Murray but possibly more akin to distant cousins like Hüseyin Ertunç.
"Mojo Rising" is a driving free bop number somewhere between Ornette and Ayler that wouldn't sound out of place on Noah Howard's first record; here Dickey shows himself here to be a formidable drummer "in-time," however tenuous that metric relationship might be. Morris, too, sets an insistent pulse, and his constant thrum is perhaps what keeps the tune from becoming a maelstrom. "Coalescence," which comes in two different forms on the second and fourth tracks, is certainly more directly conversational and dissonant than the opener, a defined pulse from Dickey becoming ever more broken even as singsong phrases from Brown suggest "time," only to hack it to pieces a few measures later. Sounding uncannily as though he were playing a shakuhachi, Brown switches to flute for "Steam," as agitated a ballad as one could possibly hope for.
It is comforting to know that Whit Dickey, as low-profile as he sometimes is, steams ahead in the world of free jazz. With cohorts Brown, Campbell and Morris, the preservation of a purposeful and poetic creative music appears fundamental. In a climate where gimmick and noisy throwback vie equally for the throne of freedom, we can only hope that, whatever the aggregation, such voices as these continue to be heard.