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Whit Dickey: Vessel in Orbit

Don Phipps By

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From the first chord struck on "Spaceship 9" by pianist Matthew Shipp, Vessel in Orbit demonstrates the epitome of seasoned and extremely talented musicians improvising together. This trio, led by drummer Whit Dickey, provides musical compositions and improvisations that are at once eerie, dark, foreboding, yet hauntingly beautiful.

The recording (engineered admirably by Jim Clouse) offers up a fascinating portrait of Dickey's colorful prowess across the trap set, violist Mat Maneri's abstract lyricism, and Shipp's constant accents, plucks, and chords—all woven together to produce a tapestry of imaginative playing.

Take "Space Strut," with its bluesy swing bop jotting back and forth like a pinball whirling from one hammer to the next. Or "Turbulence," with its free style that manages to sound both chaotic and formal—at the same time. Or how about 'Dark Matter?" Here the artist interplay is at its most pronounced—stark and jagged edges followed by train-like rhythms. Or "Galaxy 9," with its passionate and moving viola solo.

"Space Walk" offers another interesting juxtaposition. Dickey's spatial yet deliberate poly-rhythm contrasts with Maneri's improvised abstractions. And Shipp offers up his own abstract melodies. What really stands out is Dickey's use of the bass drum to add not only emphasis but melody to the repartee. And at one point, cymbal meets viola legato. Think about it.

"Spaceship 9" begins with Shipp's clocklike piano dirge. Dickey and Maneri quickly join the party, but not in unison with Shipp. Instead they provide odd-metered improvisations with syncopated rhythms that play off one another. At the halfway point, Maneri tears into his instrument in violent spams. The effect is eerie—like a Hitchcock vertigo—a sense of falling but never landing. The music spins sideways even as it moves forward.

Perhaps the most intimate composition is "To a Lost Comrade." The piece suggests a requiem with sprinkles of light. Shipp's piano offers up somber inventive notes and chords while Maneri's viola provides dark exposition. What feels like a multi-dimensional musical laddering virtually dies out midway through the piece. Shipp drops out, leaving Maneri and Dickey the opportunity to contrast drum and viola against each other.

All of the tracks are attributed to the three musicians and it's hard to think otherwise. This is cerebral music at its best. But it doesn't stop there. Vessel in Orbit offers performances by master musicians and strong compositions defined by formal processes that produce emotions, abstract lyricism and sublime beauty. Highly recommended.

Track Listing: Spaceship 9; Space Walk; Dark Matter; Galaxy; Turbulence; To a Lost Comrade; Space Strut; Hyperspatial.

Personnel: Whit Dickey: drums; Mat Maneri: viola; Matthew Shipp: piano.

Title: Vessel in Orbit | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: AUM Fidelity

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