It started as a three-week vacation to New York City in 1975, but turned into two years. Despite his car's rear-window being smashed the first day, bassist Mark Dresser knew the city was the place for him. "There's no reason to go back to San Diego," he remembers thinking, "there's stuff happening here."
But now there is a reason. After making a home in NYC and contributing enormously to the jazz and new music scene for close to 20 years, Dresser is returning to the west coast. Stepping in for his retired mentor, bassist Bertram Turetzky, he will assume a full professorship at his alma mater, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD).
The move marks another stage in the evolution of Dresser's already storied career. From his early days with the San Diego Symphony and his role in the development of the Downtown jazz scene (playing alongside the likes of saxophonists Tim Berne, John Zorn and many others) to his compositions for classic silent films and his personal lexicon for the bass, Dresser has made an indelible mark on modern music. Appearing on more than 100 recordings, he still strives creatively to advance the music.
"I was committed to playing 'new music', whatever that meant," Dresser says. "My understanding was you were to create your own sound, your own music, and define yourself - in the tradition of the innovators." Now 51, the Los Angeles native began playing bass when he was 10, after starting piano at five. He explored diverse musical situations including classical, rock and even folk.
But he was drawn to the experimental, including the music of innovators like guitarist Jimi Hendrix and bassists Charles Mingus, Wilbur Ware and Ray Brown. In his early 20s, while in the symphony, Dresser was gigging with now-critic Stanley Crouch's Black Music Infinity, which included flutist James Newton, saxophonists David Murray and Arthur Blythe and veteran cornetist Bobby Bradford, the group's "mentor".
During that first fateful trip to NYC, Dresser met trombonist Ray Anderson, drummer Gerry Hemingway, flutist Robert Dick and bassist Mark Helias, all of whom would become important musical partners through the years. "You're attracted to like minds, and in a place like New York you will find those people," he says.
After two years, Dresser left for school, studied with Turetzky and was exposed to contemporary composition. He later earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Italy with visionary bassist Franco Petracchi. In Rome, Dresser was called in to finish a European tour with the incomparable Anthony Braxton. Soon after, he joined the quartet, Braxton's longest-running ensemble. After completing his Master's degree and earning the Braxton gig, Dresser settled in NYC in 1986.
He reconnected with Anderson and others in the burgeoning Downtown scene, and formed two collectives: Tambastics with Hemingway, Dick, and pianist Denman Maroney; and Arcado with violinist Mark Feldman and cellist Hank Roberts (later Ernst Reijseger). Arcado gained notoriety, toured extensively and produced four recordings together, plus a fifth that paired them with the Trio du Clarinettes. Dresser was also in demand as a sideman, performing with an array of artists interested in pushing the boundaries of jazz and modern music.
Dresser earned a reputation as an exceptional and original performer capable of pulling a spectrum of sounds from the bass, playing both pizzicato and arco, using extended techniques, and detuning the instrument. Despite his high level of achievement, Dresser found it difficult to tour with his new group, Force Green. "It was quite challenging to get a profile as a leader, especially with a quintet," he says.
It wasn't until he decided to score the classic silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with trumpeter Dave Douglas and Maroney that Dresser found an outlet for touring. Compositionally, the project sparked his interest in incorporating narrative structures and ideas into his music. He explored the ideas further on Eye'll Be Seeing You (Knitting Factory 1998), composing music for the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou.
But Dresser also wanted to work with living artists. He got his chance when video artist Tom Leeser approached him about producing a video for his solo piece "Subtonium". The project grew into a trilogy; the second part features Dresser's trio with flutist Matthias Ziegler and Maroney, and the third part is in development. Dresser also worked with animator Sarah Jane Lapp, creating solo bass music for her story and images. "I think collaboration is one of the aspects of music that I really enjoy the most," he says.
Beyond film, Dresser was commissioned by sculptor Robert Taplin to score his work "The Five Outer Planets", a conception of the Greek Titans as middle-aged dudes. A version of this music is featured on Nine Songs Together (CIMP, 2004) with Anderson. Taplin was attracted to Dresser's sonic textures.