Drummer Whit Dickey (who was on the BA podcast one year ago) has long been a musician in high regard within the free jazz scene, and in recent years he has reasserted himself as a bandleader and composer as well. This new trio recording, featuring frequent collaborator Rob Brown on alto saxophone and the younger but no less impressive Brandon Lopez on double bass, is an excellent follow up to Dickey’s The Tao Quartets, released last year.
Dickey’s musical vision has been inspired by the Taoist conception of Yin and Yang as of late. While The Tao Quartets focused on the marriage of opposites, this trio recording leans more heavily into the “Yang” conception, conceptually focusing on the freedom to be guided by the purest inspiration in the moment. If there is a more-structured “Yin” element at play here, it is the breadth of the musicians’ talents and experiences in wrangling each free-form piece into a coherent whole.
In many ways, the trio’s composition reflects the philosophical concepts, the instrumentation providing a sense of sparseness and openness, but the playing off reveling in density, particularly on the first piece, “The Outer Edge.” Dickey’s performance is powerful, oscillating between free jazz thunder and more conventional groove-oriented playing while Lopez’s bass often anchors with walking-style lines. Brown’s sax work is rigorous, interrogating melodic phrases for all they are worth.
“Desert Flower” and “Plateau” are both a bit more measured in approach, if only relative to what came before. Both titles evoke a sense of wandering, and these pieces revel in that freedom. Despite lacking a concrete meter, both possess powerful internal momentum and despite the free flow of musical ideas, neither come across as aimless.
The title track begins with Brown playing a bit more melodically, but Dickey and Lopez remain busy underneath. He soon finds himself rising to match his bandmates’ intensity, all three members now pressing against the boundaries of the piece’s inherently amorphous structure. In some ways Expanding Light mostly strongly evokes the sense of all the more structured jazz that has informed these players throughout their lives. The ghost of bop informs both Brown’s playing and Lopez’s almost traditional walking lines. Dickey’s drumming is abstract, but he doesn’t hesitate when he finds a pocket and lets his playing take on a more traditional feel, even if only briefly.
The final two tracks, “Mobius” and “The Opening,” while as dense as those that preceded them, do seem to take a slightly different approach. Dickey and Lopez seem to create a more nebulous atmosphere while Brown’s saxophone darts in and out. The feel is not unlike a thunderstorm rolling across a wide plain, the saxophone erupting like lightning within the clouded architecture. The bass is bowed throughout much of both tracks, but everything does feel more amped up for “The Opening.” Perhaps “Mobius” is the approaching storm, and “The Opening” is the tempest directly overhead.
Whit Dickey has been a towering figure in the jazz and improv scene for decades (and not just because of his imposing height), but he’s been on a real tear lately. Perhaps it’s his contemplation of the Yin/Yang philosophy, or just a sudden burst of inspiration, but ever since 2017’s Vessel in Orbit, his work as a leader has been astounding. Who knows at this point what the future holds, but this kind of work is what we need right now. The music is complex and bears repeated listening, but is also infused with a spiritual depth that can only prove soothing in these challenging times.