Robert Dick, Flutist

Virtuoso Paves New Musical Paths

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Robert Dick, Flutist

While jazz critics and listeners have elevated such flutists as Nicole Mitchell and Hubert Laws to the top of their polls, virtuoso Robert Dick has flown somewhat under the radar while doing nothing less than reinventing the sonic potential of the instrument. The New York City–bred composer, improviser, author, teacher, and inventor has been on a revolutionary musical road since the late 1960s. A recent spate of recordings—on a variety of independent labels and with an array of collaborators—confirms that the 69-year-old musician is an unfettered force of creative self-expression on more than a half dozen different flutes. 

Dick keeps homes in both the Bronx and Kassel, Germany, and not surprisingly works with an international cast of diverse instrumentalists. On two 2019 releases—Solar Wind (Not Two) and The Damn Think (Chant Records)—he recorded, respectively, with French contrabassist Joëlle Léandre and Japanese American koto player Miya Masaoka, and Brooklyn-based acoustic and electric guitarist Adam Caine. On 2018’s Raise the River (Rogue Art), he performs duets with San Francisco–raised, New York–based percussionist Tiffany Chang, involving seven different flutes, piccolo, drums, and thumb piano. Albums from 2016 and 2017 include Dick/Kieckbusch/Zimmerlin (Unit Records), a trio with German pianist Uli Johannes Kieckbusch and Swiss cellist Alfred Zimmerlin; Are There? (Mulatta Records), a duo concert with German flutist Ulrike Lentz; and The Galilean Moons (NEMU Records) with German pianist Ursel Schlicht.

“It’s all about intuition and finding human connections,” Dick says about his musical collaborations. “I met Joëlle in Buffalo in 1977 when we were members of the Creative Associates, a contemporary music group. We’ve both long ago left playing other composers’ notated works behind. Miya and I have known each other for a long time too. It was Miya’s great idea that we play as a trio. Adam Caine came to a concert during my residency at The Stone and asked me if I’d like to do a session. We’ve expanded to a trio with drummer Michael TA Thompson. And sometimes I’ll hear someone and ask them if they’d like to collaborate. That’s how the duo with Tiffany Weitien Chang came about.” 

Dick picked up the piccolo as a child, inspired by the bird-like trilling on the 1957 hit “Rockin’ Robin.” In his formal flute studies in high school, Dick aimed to be an orchestral player. He eventually outgrew that aspiration. “My own inner creativity was emerging,” he explains, “and just playing other people’s notes while following someone waving a stick became untenable.”

In 1968, the 18-year-old Dick was again affected by rock. This time it was Jimi Hendrix. “The sense that all potential could be realized was in the air,” Dick recalls. “Hendrix’s emotional intensity, like Janis Joplin’s, was absolutely compelling. And I wanted to create a new sound world for the flute, just as Hendrix had done, in his way, for the electric guitar.” (Thirty years later, Dick recorded Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” with the Soldier String Quartet on the 1998 album Jazz Standards on Mars.) Using the flute as a giant set of tuned drums was part of that potential. “Ginger Baker was my favorite rock drummer, and I was inspired by him and later, even more deeply, by African drumming.”

While earning his BA and his MA at Yale, Dick delved into improvisation and studied composition and electronic music. “Electronic music was very influential in how I formed my ideas about sound,” Dick says. “The idea of continuous transformation of sound has always been important to me.” Also while at Yale, Dick wrote his first book, The Other Flute: A Performance Manual of Contemporary Techniques.

Over the subsequent 46 years, Dick continued to write, instruct, develop his extended techniques, explore timbre, and move deeper into pure improvisation. He also came up with a mechanical innovation, the Glissando Headjoint, inspired by the electric guitar whammy bar, which gives the flute “a flexible, liquid approach to pitch.” 

Dick’s discoveries and his restless probing of the possible can be heard in different ways on his recent recordings. He is especially fascinating to listen to in duo and trio settings, but a fine starting point for an uninitiated listener is 2016’s Our Cells Know (on John Zorn’s Tzadik label), an often contemplative collection of six solo performances on the contrabass flute, including Dick’s composition “Afterimage, Before” (for Ginger Baker). Texture feels paramount to Dick’s approach, and it ranges from the lush sonority of Our Cells Know, to the energizing and morphing contrasts of koto, double bass, percussion, abstract vocals, and four different flutes on Solar Wind, and the now grungy and growling, now delicate and airy guitar-flutes interactions on The Damn Think.

Time is equally important in these Dick recordings: It cannot be measured by any external device because its expanding and contracting, hurtling and pulsating flow, is determined from within the imagination(s) bringing the music to life. The radically unpredictable outcomes of these approaches to texture and time take Dick beyond any usual definitions of jazz, and it’s time more people gain access to his forests, oceans, and solar flares of sound.