First 9/10 of the year folks, three legends keeping it straightforward with 48 spotless minutes of music.
“Vessel in Orbit,” the latest album from the great AUM Fidelity Records, features three greats doing what they do best in a neat, 48-minute package. In terms of background, Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri, and Whit Dickey are all names that most fans of improvisation are familiar with. Last year, Shipp was featured on a re-release of sorts of old concert duets between him and the late-great David S. Ware. Perhaps this combined with his biting “Cactus” album from the fall with Bobby Kapp puts him on a bit of a winning streak—of course it’s hard to say he’s ever NOT been on a winning streak. For Dickey, this is a little bit of a return to the studio, although he also laid down some work with the freaky cornet player Kirk Knuffke last year, and violist Maneri has been active as ever, playing on Ches Smith’s “The Bell” in 2016.
From beginning to end, the album pulses with life. These musicians hold blues and swing in everything they do, but they sound ridiculously fresh, unique, and in the moment at all times. Dickey is a painter at the drums. He never lays down the rhythm too obviously, yet the allusions to swing can always be heard. “Space Walk” reads as barren and contrasts the slightly more consistent rhythmic drive of the first track. Dickey is all over his toms on the track, but he also taps at the ride cymbal with the swell of each miniature musical phrase.
Also, the project is quite digestible. Most of the songs run around five or six minutes, making them packed with activity and still, Shipp keeps his bashing bass sounds and freckled high notes contained. Of course, these musicians aren’t compromising artistry or pandering to a mainstream audience, but this album might be a bit more applicable to any music fan with a pulse than their more stretched out, no-holds material.
Each track also maintains an individual identity. With its bass pedal foundation and brief stints into bashing improvisation and reserved lyrical playing, opener “Spaceship 9” frames the project nicely without putting all the player’s cards on the table. Longest track “Galaxy 9” features a great change in direction, first playing around with a squirrely little motive, before the spaced-out bridge leads into pulsing, brooding ending. “To a Lost Comrade” might showcase the band at their highest commitment to delicacy, a term I’m using very lightly considering the rather big swell at the center of the tune. Still, Shipp places a little bit of a sweetened emotional tone in the work and the ideas from all three remain a bit more lyrical than the mix on the other parts of the project.
Maneri and Shipp’s chemistry is truly uncanny. Both of Shipp’s hands continuously deliver melodic ideas and Maneri also somewhat subscribes to that ideology. As both hands spill over the bar lines on “Turbulence,” Maneri adds his own pecks and lines to the mix, the middle of the track crafting a mad house of melodic ideas before the ending also features charismatic back-and-forth tossing from the two.
Perhaps the trio isn’t carving out an entirely new aesthetic space—the acoustic, piano trio is fairly commonplace in 2017—however, some band outfits are never to die and certain musicians are gifted enough to remain fresh with each passing year. “Vessel in Orbit” bleeds greatness from three tried and true veterans.