Along with Scott Colley, Drew Gress must be the most ubiquitous bassist on the New York scene. Gress' broad stylistic reach has allowed him to support artists including pianist Fred Hersch, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and saxophonist Tim Berne since arriving on the scene in the late '80s. Capable of bringing an unerring sense of tradition to mainstream acts and a free-spirited sense of adventure to those from left of centre, Gress has also been gradually emerging as a composer of note. With his latest release, 7 Black Butterflies
, he has fashioned an album that, while as forward-looking as any, also embraces a kind of postmodern lyricism that, rather than spoon-feeding the listener, demands careful and constant attention.
By enlisting Tim Berne's Acoustic Hard Cell trioBerne, along with pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom RaineyGress has built an ensemble with an instantaneous improvisational chemistry and sense of identity. And yet, Gress' quintetwhich also features trumpeter Ralph Alessiwhile cashing in on Berne, Taborn and Rainey's evolved simpatico, doesn't sound like merely an expanded edition of Hard Cell. Gress' growing compositional prowess has its own identity, and while there are certain parallels to Berne's writing in terms of metric complexity, harmonic breadth, and open-ended improvisational liberty, it avoids the kind of mathematical idiosyncrasies that most commonly define Berne's approach.
Perhaps because he's a bassist, and perhaps because he's spent time close to the mainstream, Gress' music, for all its rich harmonies, contrapuntal depth, and fluid time changes, also has its own refined sense of swing. The tempi may change, but "Blue on One Side also retains a sense of groove throughout. Gress is also unashamed of vulnerable melodicism; the ballad "Wing & Prayer manages to be both dark and tender at the same time.
Nor is Gress afraid to tackle more through-composed music. While there's a certain air of freedom and space about the opening track, "Rhinoceros, it relies mainly on gradually unfolding repetitions, dynamic development, and time shifts to get its point across. Elsewhere, exploratory élan is the order of the day. "Bright Idea asserts a complicated, bebop-informed line over a fluid metric base before opening up to strong solos from Gress, Berne, Alessi, and Taborn. While Rainey doesn't get much solo space on the disc, his interpretive and intuitive abilities form an essential underpinning.
Also essential to the album's complexion are producer/mixer David Torn's contributions. Torn finds creative ways to expand the sound of this acoustic quintet, occasionally creating subdivisions within Gress' compositions through use of stereo panning and sound processing. Twice during Taborn's solo on "Blue on One Side, Torn grabs a short phrase and repeats it multiple times, creating an extremely effective artificial tension. 7 Black Butterflies
is the compelling result of an artist working in a multitude of contexts, soaking everything up, and then filtering it through his own personal lens to create an album that proves that modernity need not be equated with obfuscation.
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Personnel: Drew Gress (bass); Ralph Alessi (trumpet); Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Tom Rainey
(drums); Craig Taborn (piano)