Whit Dickey

August 1, 2022

Astral Long form: Staircase in Space
Tao Forms TAO 09

Ensemble VÅR
Confront Recordings CORE 24

A more categorial definition of what separates Free Jazz, especially the North American variation, from European Free Music than these two quartet sessions probably doesn’t exist. So while New York drummer Whit Dickey’s Astral Long form: Staircase in Space and Stockholm’s Ensemble VÅR’s eponymously titled disc were recorded within a month of one another and each feature a fiddle player and saxophonist, the only superficial resemblance is like how a zebra and a palomino are both part of the Equidae family.

Paired with long-time associates, bassist Brandon Lopez, alto saxophonist Rob Brown and especially violist Matt Maneri, the drummer’s five composition epitomize contemporary acoustic creative music. Featuring well-known experimental multi-reedist Mats Gustafsson as well as fellow Swedes violinist Anna Lindal, who has played with the Fire! Orchestra; Joachim Nordwall who uses analog synthesizer, effects and tapes and has worked with Christine Abdelnour; and live-electronics experimenter Mats Lindström’s effects and sampler; VÅR operates as hydra-headed sound source, thoroughly committed to wave form synthesis and concatenation.

Avoiding the spotlight for sympathetic percussion backing throughout, Dickey’s most assertive outpouring occurs on “The Pendulum Turns” where his rim shots and nerve beats set up Brown’s slow-moving slurs and Maneri’s multi-string stops and extensions. Tellingly, the two string players double and triple stopping climax in a form of linear swing. That’s another difference between the two discs. No matter how stretched, strained and pressurized Top of Form

the band’s extended techniques become in polyphonic narratives an undercurrent of horizontal syncopation remains. Double counterpoint from Lopez and Maneri, rim shot pacing or miniature cymbal pings and descriptive reed tones, unencumbered with flattement or doits figure into this.

That doesn’t prevent the four from exploding into intense timbral stretches elsewhere, assertively emphasizing tonal varieties. This high energy is best expressed on “Blue Circuit”, the more than 19½-minute first track. Defining the album’s parameters from the top, well-balanced percussion raps and bowed bass thrusts set up strained reed split tones that intersect with glissandi digs from the violist. As strings rebound and cymbals clash Brown and Maneri follow designated paths to brighten, animate and deconstruct the exposition. Upwards snarls and squeaks from the saxist plus spiccato sweeps and string pinches from the violist evolve in  double counterpoint at the same time as responsive double bass thumps and shattering cymbal pings maintain a horizontal feel. By the conclusion Maneri’s juddering strokes turn to warm slides that when affiliated with Brown’s turn to saxophone story telling affirm the dual paths quartet members pursue for ther rest of the session.

Almost never displaying the timbral separation advanced by ther Dickey four, Ensemble VÅR members also set up their sonic paradigm during “Konsert”, the even more extended – nearly 29 minute – first track. While the brief tracks following the first confirm with reed slurs and whines that Gustafsson’s horns are present, the fluctuating wave forms which characterize the first mostly cover up individual instrument identification. Shaking synthesized beats and computer whooshes propel and splinter the exposition at the same time. So among the voltage echoes and splatters the most prominent tones are Lindal’s dedicated arco plucking and string sawing. Her interjections continue throughout, with single wispy cries bisecting the oscillating electronics that can’t properly be attributed to reed or string. While the complete session is consecrated to the textures that can be sourced from abrasive items scrapping against immovable objects, sudden video-game-like noise projections, voltage splutters, col lego violin strokes and squeezes and abrupt field recording voices and turbulence, add a linear protrusion to the exposition. The concluding mesh of frog-struck string crunches and electronic judders confirms the quartet strategy. Listening to the entity as a whole confirms how the program was realized.

Besides defining the sonic differences between them, each disc provides a distinctive listening experience. The choice as to whether to follow Free Jazz or Free Music is yours.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Staircase: 1. Blue Circuit Top of Form 2. Space Quadrant 3. The Pendulum Turns 4. Staircase in Space 5. Signify

Personnel: Staircase: Rob Brown (alto saxophone); Mat Maneri (viola); Brandon Lopez (bass) and Whit Dickey (drums)

Track Listing: VÅR: 1. Konsert 2. Klang 3. Lågdynamik

Personnel: VÅR: Mats Gustafsson (baritone saxophone, flute); Anna Lindal (violin); Mats Lindström (electronics, effects, sampler) and Joachim Nordwall (analog synthesizer, effects and tapes)