Whit Dickey is a uniquely gifted avant and free jazz drummer, composer, and bandleader. During the resurgence of American free jazz in the early to mid-'90s, he held memberships in the groups of David S. Ware, Joe Morris, and Matthew Shipp (with whom he continues to play). In the 21st century, he's worked extensively with saxophonist Ivo Perelman as well as making his own recordings. Throughout his career, the drummer has most often worked with a small but distinguished group of composers, leaders, and improvisers who include Rob Brown, Michael Bisio, and Mat Maneri. Dickey provided the trap-set foundation's pulse and flow to many now-classic sides including Ware's Third Ear Recitation and Earthquation, Shipp's Prism and Flow of X, and Morris' Elsewhere. He initially stepped into the spotlight as a leader with the release of his Transonic album for Aum Fidelity in 1998. Dickey, though readily accessible to fans and musicians, has been press-shy throughout his career. He has virtually no web presence, grants few interviews, and does no promotion outside of releasing records. He prefers to let his sound — influenced by drummers ranging from Paul Motian and Billy Higgins to Tony Oxley and Milford Graves — speak for him. In 2001 he co-founded a collective with Maneri and Shipp called Nommonsemble. Their album Life Cycle included half-a-dozen of his compositions. In 2013 he formed Blood Trio with Sabir Mateen and Michael Bisio. They issued the album Understory for Not Two. In 2019, he recorded a double-length offering leading two different groups, the Taos Quartet(s), on Peace Planet/Box of Light for Aum Fidelity
Dickey was born in New York City in 1954 and raised in Bennington, Vermont. He began playing drums in his twenties, inspired by Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire, as well as the free sounds of Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He participated in workshops at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock and later studied with Milford Graves and Bill Dixon at Bennington College and at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he transcribed solos by Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk. He made his recording debut with Matthew Shipp's quartet in 1990 on the album Points for Sweden's Silkheart; with saxophonist Rob Brown and guitarist Joe Morris on Youniverse in 1992, and as a member of Shipp's trio for Circular Temple the same year. In 1993, he claimed the drum chair in David S. Ware's group, appearing on the saxophonist's DIW debut Third Ear Recitation. He remained with Ware until 1996, playing on a handful albums including Earthquation, Cryptology, and Dao. Also in 1996, he joined Morris' group for Elsewhere, while continuing his work with Shipp.
Dickey took a year-long sabbatical in 1997, which he spent reinventing his playing style, meditating, and composing. He re-merged with his leader debut Transonic in 1998 for AUM Fidelity, with Brown on sax and flute, and bassist Chris Lightcap. He composed or co-composed each of the album's eight tracks. Big Top, for Wobbly Rail, was released two years later in a quartet setting with Morris on electric guitar. The album included two originals and covers of Eric Dolphy's "The Prophet" and Thelonious Monk's "Skippy." In 2001, Dickey recorded half-a-dozen of his compositions with Mat Maneri, Shipp, and Brown under the name Nommonsemble, which released Life Cycle via AUM Fidelity. A year later, he recorded as a member of the collective Trio Ahxoloxha on Prophet Moon with Morris and Brown. In 2004, he and bassist Dominic Duval played in saxophonist James Finn's trio for Opening the Gates, released by Cadence Jazz.
Dickey expanded his trio to a quartet with trumpeter Roy Campbell for a handful of albums, including 2004's Coalescence, 2005's In a Heartbeat, and 2006's Sacred Ground. Also in 2006 he returned to play with Shipp's trio on Piano Vortex after a decade apart. Two years later he joined Morris and Brown in a collective and released Right Hemisphere for France's Rogueart label.
In 2009, he teamed with multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and pianist Eri Yamamoto for the universally acclaimed Emergence on Not Two. He played exclusively in Shipp's groups for the next two years on a series of albums that included the pianist's most acclaimed outing, Art of the Improviser. Also around this time, he met saxist Ivo Perelman through Shipp and the pair made their debut with The Clairvoyant for Leo Records; it marked the beginning of a periodic partnership that would result in a dozen albums. A year later the pair issued the duo set Tenorhood. In 2014, Dickey appeared with Shipp on the unnecessarily controversial Duke Ellington homage To Duke. Dickey and cornetist Kirke Knuffke issued the duo album Fierce Silence for Portugal's Clean Feed, all the while recording and performing in Perelman's various groups and Shipp's trio. In 2017, Dickey once again reunited with Shipp and Maneri for the trio session Vessel in Orbit on AUM Fidelity, and joined the pianist's quartet with Michael Bisio, and either Daniel Carter (Not Bound, For Tune, 2017) or Polish emigre Mat Walerian (Sonic Fiction, ESP-Disk, 2018) on saxophones and winds.
Dickey released his most expansive outing to date in July of 2019. Leading two groups of players called the Tao Quartets, he issued the double-disc offering Peace Planet/Box of Light on AUM Fidelity. The former group included Shipp, Brown, and bassist William Parker, while the latter featured sidemen Brown, Bisio, and trombonist Steve Swell. Recorded in Brooklyn during the winter of 2018 and 2019, it housed 11 compositions by the drummer that showcased his aesthetic ideas and playing strategies regarding the evolution of harmony, texture, and dynamic force. ~ Thom Jurek