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Walt Dickerson Reviews

Here are reviews of six early Walt Dickerson LPs. If you're interested in Dickerson's early recordings, look up the short interview/article by Don DeMichael in the October 25, 1962 issue of Downbeat. In it DeMichael writes

...I took [This is Walt Dickerson] home to review, not so much because I was interested in Walt Dickerson but because I'm a vibraharp nut... To say that Walt's work on the album impressed me is an understatement. It led me to believe he could -- mind you, could -- be the most important vibraharpist since Milt Jackson.

His playing was electrifying. Cascades of notes -- Walt is well equipped technically -- fused into blocks of sound. That effect John Coltrane gets at times on tenor. Big blocks of sound moving rapidly over the rhythm section, blocks filled with squirming lines, strong lines. Lots of notes. No wasted notes.

I'd never heard vibes playing like this. (p. 19)

And for some insights into Dickerson's later recordings, check out Chris Sheridan's excellent liner notes on several of Dickerson's SteepleChase records. Together they amount to a very nice introduction to Walt Dickerson and his music.

THIS IS WALT DICKERSON (Prestige/New Jazz 8254): Time; Elizabeth; The Cry; Death and Taxes; Evelyn; Infinite You.

Personnel: Dickerson, vibraharp; Austin Crowe, piano; Bob Lewis, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

Rating: * * * * 1/2

Dickerson's vibraharp is unique. Expect no warmed-over Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, or Milt Jackson from this man; his approach is his own. I was especially intrigued by the metallic sound he achieved by the use of seconds on several of the tracks. Many vibraharpists seem to have forgotten, if indeed they ever thought about it, that the instrument is made of metal, not velvet or sponge or rubber. And Dickerson plays the whole instrument, not just part of it.

But more important than his approach to the instrument is Dickerson's approach to music. The challenge he throws at himself and the listener outweighs other considerations one might have, such as the lack of leavening or lightness in this sometimes-severe collection. In most cases he succeeds in meeting his own challenges, which are exacting.

His solos keep the spirit of his writing (Dickerson authored all the compositions), at times spiralling asymmetrically in tangled, biting swirls of notes flying like sparks from a pinwheel, as in Time, Cry, and Taxes. On the ballads, Elizabeth and Evelyn, he softens his jaggedness but never becomes saccharine or melodramatic. His work, no matter the tempo or mood, is strong and masculine, progressing in logical, though not necessarily expected, from from beginning to conclusion.

This is not to say that Dickerson comes to us fully developed; I don't think he is. Nor do I feel he has found exactly what he wants (there is a slight hint of indecision from time to time), but what he offers in this album is far above the usual.

The men Dickerson has gathered about him for his first album sustain, in varying degrees, his musical ideas. Though the liner notes make mention of the contrast between Dickerson's playing and that of pianist Crowe, who, according to the notes, uses blues tonality more than the vibraharpist, I found the two musicians more complementary than contrasting. Crowe is excellent in his solos, though at times he appears to be uncertain which way to go.

This album is experience-giving and provocative.

Don DeMichael, Downbeat, September 28, 1961

A SENSE OF DIRECTION (Prestige/New Jazz 8268): Sense of Direction; Ode to Boy; Togetherness; What's New?; Good Earth; Why?; You Go to My Head; If I Should Lose You.

Personnel: Dickerson, vibraharp; Austin Crowe, piano; Edgar Bateman, bass; Eustis Guillemet, Jr., drums. [The sleeve notes reverse Bateman and Guillemet, and this error is repeated by the reviewer.]

Rating: * * * * 1/2

This is new-star vibraharpist Dickerson's second album, and if it is only slightly less adventurous than his initial recording, it is still an ardent collection -- primarily of ballads -- treated with unflagging invention and restraint.

Dickerson's attack is extraordinarily fluid, feather-light, and cleanly incisive, with each note fully articulated, no matter what its position in the long lines he spins with ease. His ingratiating solos have a supple grace and a limpidity of construction that impart to them the stamp of inevitability. They move forward with a rush of logic, yet to dominant note of his improvisations (and his rounded sound too) is their affecting emotional intensity and the depth of feeling they reveal, as witness the impassioned beauty of his work on Boy, New, and You, as well as the other ballads.

One of the most distinctive qualities of his playing, however, resides in its thoughtful deliberateness. It is not a studied or indecisive feeling, but rather that his solos are always controlled with a sure sense of direction, and in this the collection is more than aptly titled. Intellect properly channels, but never restricts, emotion.

This collection does not possess to the same degree the quality of daring originality that characterized Dickerson's work in his first album. Here the Milt Jackson influence is more overt, perhaps because of the predominance of ballads. But even in the up-tempo Dickerson original Togetherness (built on the harmonic structure of I Got Rhythm), there is extensive borrowing from Jackson; in fact, the line and countours of the composition are particularly Jacksonian, and the whole piece, but only this one, bears the impress of the Modern Jazz Quartet in approach. But the greatest difference between Dickerson and Jackson is in harmonic approach: Dickerson's is more daring and open.

The title piece has a modal quality to it and is rooted in a repeated motive built around but three notes; Why? is characterized by a sensitive use of dissonance and unusual intervals; Good Earth is a strikingly original multi-themed jazz waltz. It is Dickerson's unfettered imagination and original harmonic sense that energize each of these compositions.

The rhythm section members, while relatively unknown, furnish more than capable support, and pianist Crowe's imaginative powers lie in the same direction as do the vibraharpist's. A fine rapport is developed.

Were it not for the slight conventionality of some of the numbers, the rating would have been five stars.

Pete Welding, Downbeat, August 30, 1962

RELATIVITY -- New Jazz 8275: Relativity; It Ain't Necessarily So; I Can't Get Started; Stepping Out; The Unknown; Sugar Lump; Autumn in New York.

Personnel: Dickerson, vibraharp; Austin Crowe, piano; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

Rating: * * * *

This third Dickerson album, like the first two, offers excitement, emotional experience, and music of high quality.

Dickerson's work can be spellbinding in its intensity and emotional wallop, with sparks flying as if from a whirling firewheel. Though his construction of solos is jagged, there is a flow, a springiness, to his work that makes it quite appealing, something best heard on Lump.

He also evidently has a penchant for dissonance and introduces it often into his solos and compositions (he wrote all the originals).

His vibes work is very good on Relativity, Ain't Necessarily, Lump, and Started, twisting into surprising, well-conceived contours.

Crowe, an increasingly impressive pianist, has a sharp-angled, jabbing solo on Relativity and a tightly constructed one on Ain't Necessarily. His best work, however, is on Autumn.

Unknown is played by Dickerson and Malik only. According to the notes, Dickerson said he sets up a "tonal basis" for Malik to explore the unknown. It's a rather interesting experiment and contains some very fine arco work by the bassist, but there is a disquieting aura of "artiness" about it.

As much as I like most of this record, there are other disquieting aspects about it.

I have little doubt that Dickerson is an important musician and that he will be of influence on his instrument. I have no doubt that he is perhaps the most cliche-free vibraharpist I've heard. But on the other hand, I feel he may be treading near a point that most musical individualists at some time come to -- the point where they meet themselves coming round a corner, where phrases that were in the beginning "unorthodox" and "fresh" are played more often, becoming, by repetition, the expected and predictable.

Dickerson is not at that point yet, but there are aspects of his playing on this album that could lead him there soon. One device he uses on most tracks is a series of short, swirling phrases that build a taut tension that he relieves with longer, more loose passages. It is quite effective, but for all that, it is done a bit too much for comfort. Another characteristic of his playing that is quite fetching is his manner of thickening parts of his solos with those short swirls, as he does so well on Started. But the same criticism can be made; is it becoming something to depend on, to fall back on? Only Dickerson can answer, and I would be hypercritical to go into all this if I didn't believe in him.

Still, this is a very good album and is heartily recommended for the sometime electrifying emotion Dickerson is able to generate.

Don DeMichael, Downbeat, February 14, 1963

TO MY QUEEN -- New Jazz 8283: To My Queen; How Deep is the Ocean?; God Bless the Child.

Personnel: Dickerson, vibraharp; Andrew Hill, piano; George Tucker, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

Rating: * * * * *

Mrs. Walt Dickerson must be a gas if she can inspire music like To My Queen. This tribute from Dickerson to his wife constitutes some of the finest jazz I have heard this year. It is necessary listening not only to those interested in the forward march of Walt Dickerson, but to those interested in the forward march of jazz. They are, of course, the same thing. The story of any advance in any art is the story of the artists who made it possible.

It would be gratuitous here to rehearse the compelling hallmarks of Dickerson's style; since he appeared on the scene, critics have been drumming them into the public ear. However, it may not be amiss to mention two that are infrequently emphasized: Dickerson's control of extended material and his skill at relating the material he has in mind to the men and instruments that will bring it into musical being.

As to the first: Queen is a 20-minute work that includes not one second of boredom. There are few musicians who can sustain a piece of such length withough becoming weary or uninspired at some point and then slipping into cliche. Dickerson doesn't.

Queen, for all its length, is economically constructed. There is no waste. Dickerson enters first, solos, and then is followed by Hill and Tucker. Each comments on the general theme in his own voice, yet each sustains the mood and integrity of the whole. The transitions are natural and almost unnoticeable. There is no machinery creaking in the background; instead, there is Cyrille, who contributes some excellent brush and stick work.

None of the men falls into comping "anonymity," either, while they are not in the solo spotlight. Each is a prominent supporter of and commentator on the man who is doing the main talking at the moment. Such rapport is rare.

This brings me to my second point: Dickerson evidently has a very clear idea of how he wants the material to be treated and how he wants it to progress.

He attains this goal not by hiring musicians who would slavishly follow his directions but by employing those whom he thinks will most harmoniously fit in with what he has in mind yet who will retain their individuality in the telling of his story. In other words, he conceives the material not only in terms of himself but of the other musicians who will play it. I do not know, but I feel sure he plotted the sequences of Queen with great care, the various players and instruments in mind all the while. If he did not, then the production is all the more remarkable.

The second side, with Ocean and Child, may be slightly less auspicious and ambitious, but it provides both fine entertainment and food for thought.

Dickerson has been compared to Milt Jackson before, and on the first part of Ocean the resemblance is more than passing. Furthermore, Hill's comping here is reminiscent of John Lewis', which may lead some to comparisons with the Modern Jazz Quartet. The similarity, however, is only surface.

Judged from any musical standpoint -- conception, phrasing, dynamics, technical execution, time, what have you -- these four men must be voted laurels for one of the choice performances of the year.

Don Nelson, Downbeat, December 19, 1963

JAZZ IMPRESSIONS OF "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA" -- Dauntless 4313: Theme from "Lawrence of Arabia"; That is the Desert; Motif from Overture, Pt. I; Motif from Overture, Pt. II; Arrival at Auda's Camp; Nefud Mirage, Pt. I; Nefud Mirage, Pt. II; The Voice of the Guns.

Personnel: Dickerson, vibraharp; Austin Crowe, piano; Henry Grimes or Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

Rating: * * * 1/2

Many jazz versions of movie soundtracks are weighed down with uninteresting material, but this album is better than most others partly because it has passable thematic material. Dickerson's arranging is eclectic.

Theme opens with Semitic chanting by an unidentified vocalist. Desert uses a repeated bass figure to establish an exotic mood, and the group seems to be looking in the direction of the Modern Jazz Quartet in the ensemble sections of Auda's Camp and Mirage, Pt. 1.

Whether or not Dickerson will become the next big vibraharp influence, as some seem to think, remains to be seen. He is an original stylist, but he doesn't seem -- on the basis of this record -- to be an important innovator as yet.

His individuality stems, rather, from his synthesizing of several approaches: Milt Jackson's influence on him is apparent, I think, on Overture Pt II; at times, Dickerson plays multinoted passages akin to John Coltrane's "sheets of sound," though he certainly doesn't ape Coltrane's phrases; in his Theme solo a Monkish figure pops up.

Most of Dickerson's solos here have interesting moments, though some (Auda's Camp) lack continuity. He plays well on Desert, contrasting simple and complex phrases. His Overture Pt. I solo contains some nice double timing. Dickerson is at his most inventive on Mirage Pt. I -- despite Crowe's tasteless comping.

But Crowe is a hard-driving soloist who plays capably in a neo-bop vein. On some titles (Desert) he shows a romantic tendency. The sonority he achieves is bright and penetrating.

Harvey Pekar, Downbeat, July 4, 1963

WALT DICKERSON PLAYS UNITY -- Audio Fidelity 6131: Unity; High Moon.

Personnel: Dickerson, vibraharp; Walter Davis, Jr., piano; George Tucker, bass; Edgar Bateman and Andrew Cyrille, drums.

Rating: * * *

J.A.T., Downbeat, January 28, 1965

Probably the most brilliant of the younger vibraharpists, Dickerson is heard here with a pianist, bassist, and two drummers in a brace of efforts each of which is much too long -- 16 and 17 minutes, respectively -- in terms of the end achieved.

Unity is mystically linked in the liner notes to the civil-rights movement and to other things, vide: "Perhaps Walt Dickerson can unify what T.E. Lawrence really set out to do." Unite the Arabs?

In any event, Unity is a brooding, darkly moody excursion into tonal and rhythmic (both drummers play simultaneously) impressionism. The trouble is that it never gets beyond the immediate impressionistic moment into a larger design above and beyond the performances. There are overlong solos played on a series of minor chords shaped in simple repetitive rhythmic pattern. The intention may not have been the induction of monotony and ultimate boredom in the listener; unfortunately, this is how it affected me. All musicans, notably Dickerson, play very well indeed (which accounts for the rating); I can but wish that the conception and material at hand justified the skill of execution.

High Moon (Full Moon and Empty Arms or, if you like, Rachmaninoff) is given a too-long but conventionally swinging treatment at medium tempo. The improvisational deficiencies of the pianist stand out rather clearly toward the close of his solo (banal quotes and the like) revealing him as an unoriginal thinker. Tucker's bass playing is superlative and the drumming is what it should be in regard to time-keeping; the long, long solo on drums, however, fails to sustain interest.

Dickerson more than rises to his growing reputation with a breathtaking solo concluding with sputters of staccato phrases.

J.A.T., Downbeat, January 28, 1965

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