Review of the Our Cells Know, by Robert Dick, flutist, composer, improviser ©2018 Daniel Asia
If you have never heard Robert Dick, flutist/composer/improviser, then you have never heard anything like what he does. In his new disc, Our Cells Know, out on John Zorn’s Tzaddik label, you will hear him at his amazing best.
Straight out of the chute with Mitochondiral Ballet, you are confronted with a new language performed on‐ as are all the works‐ the contrabass flute. The sound is an experience in itself, and as Dick plays in a counterpoint of pitch and rhythm, this not your mother’s flute. This is one defined by Dick’s almost fifty years of study, experimentation, codification, and exploration. It is his own, but tinged with influences of Jimi Hendrix, Indian drumming, Parker and Coltrane, contemporary classical music, electro‐acoustic music, and the drive of Heavy Metal. This first piece is relentless, brimming over with energy. Dick has the physical agility of a 25 year‐old but the mind and creativity of one just a bit older, whose lifetime of experience shines through. it is a tour de force. I have been tracking this guy for almost a half century and this new album reaches a new level even for him. This music is all improvised, which is to say it is conjured up in the moment and is music of the moment. Most of the works come in between five and eight minutes, with one being considerably more extensive at twelve minutes.
Whereas Mitochondrial Ballet explores the upper range of the instrument in conjunction with those low drums, Aura Aurora and Efflorescence explore the deep and sonorous registers of the instrument in a slow, wandering way. But they also find their way to upper registers, or a combination of the two, as Dick frequently sings and plays in octaves.. This is a flute version of the great jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, who also loved to play in octaves, or the flutist Ian Anderson of the rock group Jethro Tull. These works are hesitant and soulful, and explore rich timbral possibilities, like a guitarist using a wa‐wa pedal, other timbral shift pedals, or feedback (like Hendrix’s The Star‐Spangled Banner at Woodstock). Afterimage, Before is a true percussion piece, something akin to Cage’s prepared piano, in that with Cage the piano does not sound like a piano at all, but rather a percussion ensemble. So it is with the flute in this composition. This is like an extended percussion solo in a jazz context, employing drums, cymbals, and even a tambourine! It is unbelievably virtuosic, simply unprecedented.
On the Restless Seas of Time is the most extended, open‐ended, and generous with idea of all the works on this disc. Its library of sonic imaging and gesture is the widest of all. One is treated to percussion and many variants of colored noise (like a whisper) that are rich in content. Tunes flow in and out of the swirling ether. The polyphonic imagination is detailed and presents textures of bewildering and magical complexity. The stream of creativity is unending. This is impetuous music, almost nakedly emotional, but with clear shape and form that holds its contents congenially. Whether orgiastic or cosmic, it flows with dream‐like unconscious connections.
Our Souls Know demonstrates Dick’s keen interest in the blues and music from other cultures, particularly the flute traditions of India and Japan. This piece provides warmth, a bit of familiarity, and a sweet sense of closure—albeit not definitively so—as one hears the possibilities of further rushes of inspiration in the silent echoes after the piece and the disc conclude.
Go grab this disc and take a listen, maybe with a glass of wine or a good whiskey. This music to be listened to, not placed in the background. It will take you places you have never been, and you will know that you are in the presence of a conjurer of the spirit‐‐‐‐like no other.