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When drummer Whit Dickey founded his record company TAO Forms in the early months of the pandemic, one of his first releases was the excellent Expanding Light, an album spotlighting his mercurial compositions performed by a trio featuring himself, bassist Brandon Lopez and saxophonist Rob Brown. A sequel of sorts, Astral Long Form: Staircase in Space adds violist Mat Maneri to the equation to make the band a quartet that takes on a new set of Dickey tunes.
The loosely linked quintet of songs explore space, as indicated by the title, but it’s not just the cosmic variety. “Space Quadrant” and “Staircase in Space” send the musicians into the space between notes, the space parallel to phrases, and the space occupied by harmonies that arise when four master improvisers use song structure as a guideline, rather than a rule. Though it sounds like a set-up for chaos, it emphatically isn’t. The way Brown and Maneri intertwine their countermelodies, Lopez’s method of grounding the tracks with deep plucked and arco tones, and Dickey’s attention to detail as he pushes molecules around the open air – space, again – combine to make music that, while not easily accessible, reveals its logic the more you listen to it. The leader gives his soldiers the biggest leeway he could, but it feels clear that he always has a plan in mind – cf. opening cut “Blue Circuit,” the longest and most compelling piece present. Astral Long Forms is free jazz, but not in the sense of instant compositions. Instead, it’s a record that shows that sometimes the greatest freedom comes from the steadiest focus.
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