On the surface, nothing about Whit Dickey’s decision to start his new record label, Tao Forms, makes much sense. It’s the drummer’s first time leading such a venture, and he’s doing so in his mid-60s, right around the time most impresarios are looking toward retirement. Too, he’s using Tao Forms as outlet for free jazz, the unbound subgenre that Dickey has spent four decades devoting his career to. Not the soundest of commercial moves—especially amid a global pandemic—but that has never seemed to be his concern.
Alongside his attempts to find new rhythmic vibrations as a member of the David S. Ware Quartet and Matthew Shipp’s longtime trio, Dickey has been a serious patron of the arts. He has continued to help fund the Vision Festival, an annual celebration of experimental music and dance that has been a fixture of the New York arts calendar since 1996. Funding recording sessions and the production of new CDs as he’s doing for Tao Forms feels like the next logical step for Dickey. As he said in a statement announcing the label’s first releases, “Cecil Taylor said about free jazz that ‘each is their own academy.’ I want this label to represent a diversity of ‘academies’ in the free jazz community.”
The first two releases on Tao Forms are crystal clear reflections of that ethos. Matthew Shipp’s The Piano Equation continues his work pulling apart the elements of traditional stride and bop playing and plucking out the best fragments to make a colorful collage with. And Expanding Light is the first recording of Dickey’s new trio with bassist Brandon Lopez and saxophonist Rob Brown, which burbles, rumbles, and pops like a thick soup mid-boil.
Dickey spent some time on the phone with Aquarium Drunkard recently, attempting to explain his vibrational theories of music and how, even at age 66, he’s still going through periods of rebirth and serious spiritual growth. interview/words/r ham
Aquarium Drunkard: How are you handling things creatively during this time? Are you able to get any work done?
Whit Dickey: No. It’s very difficult to work with other people because of the distance and not knowing whether someone has the virus or not. You just don’t know so you can’t do it. You can’t break the rules. So I’m not working. I don’t work a lot anyway to be honest.
AD: Why is that?
Whit Dickey: I had a job working with Matt Shipp and his trio. I left the job and now I’m doing my own thing, and it’s much harder to get work doing my own thing.
AD: Steve at AUM Fidelity told me that he considers the last album you released as The Tao Quartets and these new releases to be a “creative rebirth” for you. Is that how you see it as well?
Whit Dickey: I do, totally. I was sick for about seven months or something, and I’ve come back from that. That’s what’s happened. It’s been a rebirth from the past and it’s been growing as time goes on. So I’m still growing at 66.
AD: Steve also said that your new label is part of your embrace of the tao. What does that word mean to you?
Whit Dickey: It’s very difficult to say. It’s very instinctual, spiritual. The feeling of being moved by visions that are vibrations. I think I wrote in my press release that the vibration that came to me was listening to Coltrane. I was listening a lot to Crescent back in the mid-‘00s. There was one tune that I really latched on to, called “Wise One.” I just found this vibration listening to it, but not knowing how it fit into any kind of system that I was using. I discarded it and then came back to it later on. It’s evolved so basically you have a system identifying the vibration of the music.
When I listen to music, I identify it by the vibration. The one vibration that I heard is kind of faster. I had to extrapolate a slower one from the faster one and it began to fit. The slower one is more often used than the faster one, but I run on high octane so I tend to go for the faster things. I began to see that there was a kind of identifying vibration, then there was a darker vibration. And it really worked for me. That’s why I began to see it as a kind of yin and a yang. I call it a hybrid vibration. I began to come into all the tunes that I practice and really hit on the melodies much easier and more naturally. It’s definitely something that I use in free jazz. I’m listening to somebody and I can just come in on it.
AD: The way you talk about it sounds like a form of synesthesia.
Whit Dickey: There is definitely a color. There’s a light blue and a darker black. The yin which I call something like “light identity mathematics Coltrane Crescent.” The yang is darkness. Black holes. Big bang. Visceral. Instinctual. Just going back to the Tao Quartets, [Box of Light] seemed to be taking more control of things and wanting to go to places that I didn’t know. Peace Planet was being in the flow. They were really different. They fit together in that way so I put them together. Now I’m doing it in one album. This is when the hybrid comes in, trying to unify the two.
AD: The musicians that make up the Tao Quartets are musicians that you have played with for a number of years. Is it easy to fall into a kind of comfort zone with people that you have known and collaborated with for so long? Do you have to be aware so you don’t fall into familiar patterns with them?
Whit Dickey: I definitely am an individual player so I don’t worry about that. I just stick to what I do and try to use the vibrations that I’m using at the time to fit in. I’m definitely a person that naturally likes to fit in and express myself. Free jazz is what I do. I don’t do straight ahead music. Getting these people together… I didn’t feel like there was any worry about stepping on people. It just felt easy.
These are people I’ve worked with for years. And Rob [Brown] and Steve Swell, they work together a lot so they responded to my playing and were able to do some really nice interweaving lines on Box of Light. Then Matt and Rob and William [Parker] and myself did an album way back in the day called Points. This was something that I wanted to do again. It was really different. I have to take my hat off to everybody in that particular band and the other record because they’re just amazing players. People that I look up to tremendously.
AD: You said that these recordings helped inspire you to want to start your own label. Was that ever something you wanted to do in the past?
Whit Dickey: Matthew and I both talked about it. Starting it seemed like something I could do as far as curating people. Matthew and I started working together in that way. And putting together bands where I play. I play in a lot of the stuff that’s going to be coming out. I just seemed natural at the time. I am lucky enough to be able to finance a lot of the stuff that comes out. I have to say it’s not a vanity label because I do have other bands. I think it’s really progressing even during this horrible period that we’re in. Matthew’s first record The Piano Equation has been receiving a lot of positive reviews. My album that’s going to becoming out later is really a continuation of what I did with Tao Quartets.
AD: On that new album, Expanding Light, it’s you and Rob Brown playing together again but you brought in a younger musician Brandon Lopez who you haven’t played with much. How did that trio come together?
Whit Dickey: I’ve always admired Brandon’s playing. I think he has tremendous breadth for somebody that age. I saw him play when I was doing a gig and I really liked his playing. And he’s a nice guy. The thing I really liked about it was that he put everything he had into what he did. Like Matthew and myself. Everybody that I work with has that. But Brandon has a visceral way of playing. I wanted to find someone that complemented my playing and I think he does. I described it as a kind of blind faith grabbing on to something. It was Brandon that really influenced me in that way. It’s a different record from what I’ve done in the past.
AD: What about Matthew Shipp’s album? Was that something you had in mind from the beginning—to have one of his albums on the label? And was it a situation where you trusted him enough to do what he wanted to do and not direct him very much?
Whit Dickey: Oh yeah. He pretty much told me that he was ready to go in and there’s no way I could tell him what to do. At the genesis of this label, Steven and I thought that it would be really nice to have him be the initial contribution. I knew that it would sell and that I trusted him. I listen to [Shipp’s 2018 album] Zero a lot and I listen to Piano Equation a lot. I really love it. He’s put out a lot of solo material, but I really feel that this is one of his best.
AD: Looking back on your career, it feels like these bigger creative leaps that you’ve taken tend to come after a number of years. You didn’t put out Transonic, your first album as a bandleader until 1998 and by that point you had been playing and recording for a number of years. Is that typical for you—a slow build toward these big transition points?
Whit Dickey: It’s a growth period and a rebirth period. I am not someone who just plays. I have to admit I definitely like to have a vibration or a concept of some kind that I work off of when I do a record and when I play with other people. I feel I can lose my mind if I use my mind.
AD: Early on in your career, you studied with Milford Graves. What was that experience like?
Whit Dickey: He grew up in Queens where there was a lot of Latin music, and he played a lot of different hand drums. But when he gets on the trap set, he just lets go and uses everything he learned form playing in Latin bands. I think because of that, he wasn’t a jazz player really. I think he was very motivated to be a different player and I really respond to that. I really responded to his teachings. The patterns that he gave me were largely 12/8. He gave me a lot of patterns that worked against the 5/4 foot. It was a freeing experience. Now, during this rebirth, I feel really influenced by him. But I haven’t told him anything because I don’t communicate with him that much. I a very shy person. But I definitely feel a tremendous gratitude to have been working and studying with somebody like that.