For Dave Wickins

“What would Dave do?”

It’s August 14th, Tuesday. It’s two days since the funeral of Dave Wickins, a day filled with moving testimonies, eloquent speeches and uplifting music.

I’ve been thinking, in these two days that have passed, about our musical time together.

Most of that was spent as members of the Bobby Wellins quartet, a band that played one Saturday month at the 606, rarely anywhere else, for fifteen years. Always the same tunes, more or less. I learnt to love standards on that gig, to dig deep enough to get to the gold. Dave’s blend of old and new, Of orthodox and progressive, refused to walk an easy path, and you had to have something to contribute in order to stay with it. It wasn’t so much holding on as swimming alongside with equal vigour, sometimes challenging, often blending, or simply engaging in a to and fro conversation. His playing was superbly unfashionable, avoiding number crunching and complexity of structure in favour of layers of sound, from which his bouncing cymbal time would emerge like dolphins from a turbulent sea.

We didn’t play enough for my liking…I found myself wondering about a host of other musical projects, wondering “what would Dave do?”

In 2002, I set some Japanese Death Poetry for an ensemble of electronics, voices and alto clarinet and drums. It was as far away from jazz as I’ve ever been, but Dave relished the challenge, grooving and clattering all over it with impeccable taste and humour to match the finely honed poems. One reviewer (the only reviewer) deemed it “a worthy if unsuccessful experiment”. I was overjoyed. We never did it again.

In 2009 we released “Brubeck”, an album that courted the punters a little more, and explored the music of one of my heroes. I wanted to find a subject close to my heart that would be popular with audiences (if not, on the whole, with musicians). The balance in this band was more in favour of orthodox structures, but as usual with Dave, his warm subversions and earthy swing carried us into some uncharted waters.

In 2013 I wrote music for that same trio (with Dave Whitford) and added Chris Batchelor and Shabaka Hutchings. I had voices of Ornette, Harry Beckett, Bill Frisell and others bouncing around my head, and wanted to hear these musicians flesh it out into their own, our own, music. (“You’re Doing That Thing Again” has a drum intro that, like his answerphone messages, gets back to the subject at hand against all odds.) Dave was the master of the “drop out”, where the swing was at full pelt….suddenly the drums would vanish, only to re emerge with a new energy. It was a proper rip in the canvas of the music.

That was always what I craved from musicians. Don’t ask me what I want, tell me what you think. Give me stuff. Dave always did that, and he inspired me to do the same. His paradoxical drumming kept me alert, awake, never just playing a style. If anyone could paint a penis on a Caravaggio and make it look like the painter had missed an opportunity, it was Dave. It sometimes felt uncomfortable and contrary, but the tapes never lied…he swung like the clappers.

He was in the tradition of Andrew Cyrille, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Oxley and others, channeling the innovations of previous generations into a maelstrom of unpredictability. It pointed towards so many forms of music and yet was a perfect fit for none. The flaws were delightful.

It’s easy to see the local appeal of musicians like Dave Wickins, we “treasure” them, they are a “well kept secret”. But I think he was a world class musician, and the fact that he was criminally under-employed worked in my favour.

This secrecy angered me, and angers me still, but it’s part of the deal. The deal we make with ourselves as musicians, to honour the art and forget about the trappings. it’s not always easy to live with that, but we were mostly happy playing with and for each other, and for whatever audience was in the room. That was what our friendship was based around (as well as some gloriously inappropriate rants on car journeys). I will miss it all, and I miss him very much.

For other musicians, I hope the question is now passed on. What would you do?

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