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Walt Dickerson : A Promise Postponed

Like any rich tradition, jazz lore is brimming with anecdote and fable. Stories behind the music are often as fascinating as the sounds themselves. One such archetype that seems to be repeated time and again is that of the jazz musician who soldiers on in the face of public and critical indifference or hostility until finally and inexorably succumbing to the pressures and disappearing from the landscape. This cycle of attrition seems particularly prevalent among musicians who gravitate toward freer forms of improvisation, as the biographies of Dolphy, Ayler, and a host of others seem to bear out. While Walt Dickerson doesn't completely fit into this framework there are aspects of his career that sadly mirror the symptoms. After a prodigious beginning at the dawn of the 1960s with a quartet of albums for the forward-thinking Prestige subsidiary label New Jazz and except for a flourish of activity during the 70s, Dickerson's recorded legacy remains a checkered enterprise. The reasons behind his continued evanescence remain a mystery, but his absence is made all the more regrettable when one delves into the beautiful string of dates he recorded in his youth.

Before Dickerson's initial ascent approaches to the vibraphone in jazz were dominated by the popular rubrics of Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson, both of whom forged their techniques out of a highly structured melodic invention. The only recorded precursor to Dickerson's unique style seems to be Earl Griffith, an exciting postmodernist player who recorded a single date with Cecil Taylor and then promptly dropped out of sight (see Taylor's Looking Ahead on the Contemporary label). Bobby Hutcherson, who would again revolutionize the instrument over the course of his work for Blue Note, was still several years away from making his entrance. The absence of competition made the playing field ripe for Dickerson's brilliant debut.

Dickerson's methodology on his instrument was largely unprecedented. Several aspects of his style and approach described in the original liner notes to his first recording for New Jazz contributed to his atypical sound. Rather than employing felt mallets like his peers Dickerson preferred rubber ones. In addition he chose to grip his sticks much closer to the heads and made only sparing use of the vibraphone's motor. Each of these eccentricities resulted in far less vibrato and sustain and a more metallic sound in his playing. Armed with these signature attributes he set about taking his adopted home of New York City by storm. This Is Walt Dickerson! emphatically announced his arrival.

Dickerson brought with him two players from his native Philadelphia for this inaugural date, Austin Crowe and Bob Lewis. Andrew Cyrille, who would later join the ranks of Cecil Taylor's various units, rounded out the promising quartet. Boldly opting for a program comprised solely of his own compositions, Dickerson diligently set about making history. "Time" is a relaxed, almost drowsy opening, but Dickerson's loquacious solo that centers the piece is brimming with quietly communicated ideas. Crowe's playing is frequently the flipside of his darkly dulcet malletwork. "Elizabeth" moves the group into tender ballad territory as Dickerson and Crowe saunter along atop conciliatory brushes and throbbing bass. Clever rhythmic stops and starts playfully keep the players on their toes on "The Cry", the disc's most intricately conceived piece on a structural level. Cyrille's drums are the paragon of polyrhythmic ingenuity in complete communion with Lewis' pulsing bass vamp. "Death and Taxes" works off a repeated bass line signifying the certainty of the elements of the title. Dickerson and Crowe solo beautifully against this symbolic monotony devising creative statements that directly contradict the supremacy of life's constraining constants. "Evelyn" is saturated in a mood of leisurely motion thanks mainly to Dickerson's luminous lines and the coils of rhythmic coloring that unravel from Cyrille's brushes. "Infinite You" serves as a fitting summation of this groundbreaking album and points the way to the future with an assured finger. The piece finds Dickerson at his most outwardly vociferous and features one of Crowe's most cogent solos.

Recorded three months later, A Sense of Direction finds Crowe as the only returning sideman. The quartet is completed by two of Dickerson's long-standing associates, though the sleeve notes erroneously confuse the instruments of Edgar Bateman and Eustis Guillemet, Jr. Three standards creep into the repertoire and the overarching impressions are much more lyrical on this sophomore effort. Bateman's drums are less overtly expressive than Cyrille's but he still keeps agile time and works in creative fills.

The beginning title piece benefits from a linear immediacy that reflects the players' confidence. "Ode to Boy" is a gradual ballad piece dedicated to Dickerson's deceased brother that spreads in temperate waves, but terminates in a wash of doleful melancholy. Switching gears again Dickerson and Crowe engage in a complimentary dialogue of separate lines during the brisk frolic of "Togetherness" which sets a sagacious stage for the euphonious reading of "What's New". "Good Earth" works from an oscillating waltz structure and Dickerson's wordless vocal accompaniment to his melodic improvisations are particularly audible and enthusiastic. "Why" is inquisitive both in name and design, but suffers some from Bateman's lock-step rhythmic accompaniment. The quartet takes their sweet time on "You Go To My Head" massaging the familiar melody with genial hands and in the process constructing an edifice of enduring beauty. Dickerson's elongated solo here opens the ideal aperture into his creative process. Over its course he investigates an astonishing array of thematic variants. The disc closes with an arrangement of "If I Should Lose You" built around a subtle Bossa beat that benefits significantly from Bateman's light stick work and frequent accents on the rims of his cymbals and snares. Crowe's contributions are also instrumental to the easy allure of the piece and make it a fitting finale.

Jump ahead seven months to the inception of 1962. Dickerson's reappearance at the Van Gelder Studios to record Relativity was an auspicious one in the company of his strongest group to date. Cyrille's return to the fold marked an even more advanced rhythmic sense than he demonstrated on Dickerson's debut. Malik's earlier tenure with Monk at the Five Spot made him an infallible choice to round out the rhythm section. This third recording also marks Dickerson's full-fledged embrace of the restless experimental side of his character that fueled his earliest session.

Cyrille's drums initiate the title piece at a modest, but undulating pace before his free form cymbal accents push the group forward in a surge of momentum. Malik's busy walking bass quickens the tempo while Dickerson and Crowe make full use of the expansive rhythmic undercurrent to build intuitive solos. Cyrille's brief, but bold turn echoes the direction he would take his drums during his term as sideman with Cecil Taylor. An adventurous rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So" swiftly becomes a feature for Dickerson's adroit mallets though Malik has a fleeting opening to spotlight the tensile strength of his fingers in a superlative solo of his own. Placid timbres prevail on "I Can't Get Started" making the piece a fitting follow-up to the energized precocity of the earlier numbers. The reverie is short-lived however. Dickerson's "Steppin' Out" is an accelerated tour-de-force that rockets along under the power of Cyrille's rapid-fire rimshots. "Unknown" presents something altogether different again. An ominous duet between Dickerson and Malik, it is easily the most dissonant piece on the disc. The pair's querulous conversation becomes a study in contrasts. Malik makes striking use of his bow whether cleaving off dense craggy lines or bouncing it percussively against his strings while Dickerson's vibes set up a vaporous tonal backdrop for his improvisations. Perhaps in an effort to temper the seriousness of the piece, the proceeding "Sugar Lump" celebrates the youthful swagger and confidence that each of players seems to gain artistic sustenance from. As an epilogue the quartet's version of "Autumn in New York" ties up the loose ends of the disc in a luxurious exposition of balladic prowess.

Nine months later Dickerson returned once again to the studio. In the interim between dates Down Beat had seen fit to award him as a 'New Star' on his vibraphone in their 1962 critics poll. On the occasion of his fourth recording session he was to document what many of those familiar with his work consider to be his magnum opus To My Queen, which included a dedicatory suite to his wife Elizabeth that effectively encapsulates his approach and resolve on his instrument. In attendance for this seminal outing is a trio of sidemen of a caliber that Dickerson would not recreate for the remainder of his career. Andrew Hill was over a year away from his legendary stay at Blue Note, but the emancipating imagination that characterized his work with that label is already on display here. Cyrille again holds down the drum duties and testifies to his continuing aspiration toward rhythmic liberation. George Tucker's presence as anchor is perhaps the most important and his voice on strings is a unifying element, particularly on the title piece.

In listening to "To My Queen" it's easy to become lost in the piece's persisting flow of imagery. Dickerson sits out for almost half of its duration and Hill and Tucker are both afforded a liberal amount of space to solo. Attention can be directed toward the contributions of each of the players, but the suite seems to work on a deeper level than these individual parts. The feeling conveyed by the composition is one of heart-felt and lasting love, which surpasses the musical structures that form its foundation. The rendition of "How Deep Is the Ocean" is similarly protracted and in this standard setting the solos of the players are invested with less interdependence. An odd aspect inherent in the recording is an audible clicking noise that accompanies Dickerson's numerous solo choruses. The closing reworking of "God Bless the Child" as a duet recalls "Unknown" both in instrumentation and approach. Though Tucker's earthen bow is less trenchant than Malik's favoring a brooding resonance over swiftly deployed harmonic structures.

Sadly this disc would be Dickerson's last for New Jazz. The remainder of the 60s saw him record only twice more and produce offerings that quickly went out of print. A similarly sporadic schedule marked his work in the 70s though he did find some solace and nurturing sustenance with the Dutch Steeplechase label recording a string of titles which are now also out of circulation. By the early 80s he had ceased recording altogether. His whereabouts and activities since have been unconfirmed and contested. The factors that precipitated his continuing hiatus are debatable. What endures as far less nebulous is the promise he demonstrated on his early work for New Jazz; a body of music that stands in strongest support of his place as one of the most innovative stylists ever on his instrument.