One of the most challenging periods in the development of any musician is known as "the plateau." It's when the musician's initial approach to his instrument leads to a dead end, a dearth of inspiration and progression that can be extremely frustrating. Some musicians get so fed up during the plateau that they completely give up on music. It's a confusing, seemingly arbitrary betrayal. To get past the plateau a musician must rely on determination, instinct, and, above all, creativity.
Dallas-based guitarist Gregg Prickett has not only advanced far beyond the limitations imposed by the plateau, but he has re-evaluated his approach to his instrument, and his music as a whole, many times over. His intrepid spirit is why he is one of Dallas' most uncompromising and exciting musicians, and certainly the city's most talented and adventurous guitarist.
You might not know Prickett by name, but if you're an avid follower of Dallas music you've definitely heard his guitar playing. Over a period of two decades he's worked with so many groups and musicians that it would be an exercise in patience to name, let alone read, them all: Unconscious Collective, Ronald Shannon Jackson, the Buena Vistas, the Black Dotz, Monks of Saturnalia and Dead to a Dying World are just a few.
Even in this condensed list, the span of genres Prickett has touched on is daunting. He's put his stamp on everything from free jazz to surf rock to metal. The connection between all of these acts is Prickett's nimble and technically challenging, albeit tasteful, playing.
Unlike a lot of musicians that delve into the outer fringes of music, Prickett began by learning the fundamentals. He built a foundation of understanding by mastering scales, modes and music theory. He played in more traditional groups for years. Prickett explains the value in this approach by quoting legendary Soultex Records owner, producer and musician Roger Boykin: "You can't build a building from the fifth floor up. You got to understand the sublime before you get to the ridiculous."
Oddly enough, Prickett's experience playing bass in the unabashedly traditional jazz/lounge music act Mr. Pink is what began his new musical education. He forged a strong relationship with the band's guitarist, Bill Longhorse, and credits him with precipitating a change in his approach towards music.
"Most of my education came from Bill and playing in bands with him -- a lot of what to do and what not to do, but musically a lot of interesting ideas. That opened me up working with him," Pricket explains. "Playing bass is what taught me to listen as a guitar player. I was on upright bass -- I don't even own a bass guitar -- and the thing was I was so terrible at it. I couldn't get around on the thing, my expression was limited, and I had to listen. That was the thing that turned my ears on was playing in that group."
By the mid 2000s, Prickett had grown disenchanted with the world of jazz, or at least what we commonly think of as jazz in the 21st century: Staid, relatively benign background noise, far removed from the groundbreaking, world-shaking revolutionary music of the 1950s and '60s. "I'm not knocking technical ability, but this polite approach of 'I'm going to solo, you're going to solo' [doesn't appeal to me]," he asserts. "You can play, I get that, but as a meaningful statement, there's no meaning there at all for me. There's artistry in it, but it's not art."
Instead, Prickett found that meaningful statement, one that began his transition towards "free" playing, in the music of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Two albums of his in particular, Ascension and Om, really struck a chord with Prickett. "It's like 38 minutes of saxophone feedback. That's what I heard, because I grew up loving Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath, stuff like that," he recalls. "I didn't understand it; how do you understand it? It's free playing, pure sound."
Also around this time he met brothers Aaron and Stefan González, mainstays of Dallas' jazz and punk scenes since their early teens. "I met them at a Melt Banana show. Playing with those guys really clued me into that whole idea [of "free" playing]. That was the first time I played with a group that just wanted to do THAT."
The trio began playing as Unconscious Collective in the late 2000s. "Heavy" is the best way to describe the band's music: Not in the most common sense of the word (distortion, bluster, heavy metal), but in the anguish and sense of dread expressed for the plight of the natural world. "The ethos of Unconscious Collective has something to do with it - this tragedy, this situation, is so huge you can't get your head around it," Prickett elaborates. "'Pachydermis Funeralis' [a track from their first, self-titled album] is because elephants grieve for their dead. The tragedy of the interface between humans and animals -- we're human beings. The lack of understanding on our part blows my mind."
Prickett harbors a wealth of knowledge on the subjects behind Unconscious Collective's aesthetic: The die-off of the Penateka Comanches, Colony Collapse Disorder and pesticides are all touched upon in the group's song titles. The emotional weight behind these topics informs the harrowing, apocalyptic atmosphere of Pleistocene Moon, the group's recently released sophomore album. "It's all about cycles. It's outside of culture, it's outside of politics; it's outside of human endeavor, really. It's this huge cycle," Prickett notes. "That's what Pleistocene Moon is all about."
Prickett's new project They Say the Wind Made Them Crazy takes the howling, primal despair behind Unconscious Collective even further. A duo with vocalist (and frequent Unconscious Collective collaborator) Sarah Ruth Alexander, Prickett's guitar work in this group is a master class in emotive, understated, textural playing. He adheres to the idea that music, the pure sonics of it, can fundamentally change our perception of the world.
"Music is a weird thing," says Prickett. "There's a Coltrane video, and they've got [avant-garde composer and musician] La Monte Young on it. He's talking about the universe being made of vibrations. I really do believe that certain patterns affect how you look at certain things and how you feel."
And that's the true value of Prickett's guitar playing: his ability to use the tools at his disposal (a wealth of creativity, technical flair, and an understanding of the emotional power of the instrument) to create an all-encompassing, immersive musical world. "It's about purity, really, at the end of the day," says Prickett. "It has to be pure."
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