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Drew Gress: Where My Ear Leads Me

By Published: July 22, 2005
AAJ: Had you rehearsed this material much or played it out in public before recording it?

DG: Some of the tunes we had played with Spin & Drift. We did two European tours after we did that material, and I think one or two of the pieces were written soon after that last recording, so we played some of the pieces on tour. But I tend to micromanage sometimes, so I was always changing the form as far as the overall performance goes. So the guys weren't able to get as comfortable as they would have liked with it. But by the time we were in the studio, we had done some gigs beforehand, and rehearsed, so everybody was really comfortable with the material, I think.

AAJ: Let's talk about "New Leaf on the new album—which we could call "New New Leaf, since you did it as a brief bass solo with just piano and drums on Spin & Drift.

DG: Right, it was just a little tag.

AAJ: Exactly. This new version's obviously much more fleshed-out, although everything is still built around that one-note, six-beat phrase. What brought you back to this tune?

DG: One reason that only the vamp exists on the prior recording was that I just wasn't happy with what I had for the rest of the tune. There was something about it, not performance-wise, but—sometimes the compositional process is so drawn-out and agonizing for me. On certain pieces—other ones come really quickly—it's like, I don't know, a sculptor that has a piece of rock and he's stuck with where to go next with it, waiting for the rock to tell him what it wants to be. And that's what was happening with this tune. And so when I finally had what I wanted with it, I felt strongly that I wanted to have something like that on the recording. One of the reasons was that the improvisational zone happens on kind of a feeling that doesn't happen anywhere else on the recording; it's kind of its own thing, and I wanted to have that in there, so I wanted to record the piece again. The performance was good, and it seemed to work in the programming. That's why it's there now.

AAJ: It's got a haunting melody, and I like the precision of the playing on that tune, which is, I think, typical of the CD. It's not rigid but it's certainly not loose. It makes the improvisational parts—like Berne's alto solo—feel they're sort of struggling for freedom against parts that are more static, unyielding.

DG: Damn right. Exactly. I mean, that's the whole thing we're going for. You got it. I'm trying to control materials very tightly in the actual composition but then I'm hoping to create strong material that will withstand a lot of abuse from the improvising. In fact, that's why I have such great improvisers on hand, maybe: it's to see where this music can go, because they will stretch it as far as it can go without breaking it. I guess that's a leap of faith [laughing] on my part!

AAJ: Well, that's the nature of making music. Incidentally, I know that's Ralph Alessi's trumpet in the introduction of that song, playing with Tim Berne's alto, but it has a strange texture—it sounds almost like a soprano sax or even an English horn.

DG: He might have had a cup mute in at that point; I'm not sure. But one reason I don't have a tenor player, aside from the fact that I love Tim's playing and wanted him there, is I like the lightness of the alto and trumpet together. It's more agile in a way, I think. And I like the way they combine to play in unison, too. I guess it's like if you're a big band leader in the forties and you find the lead singer of your dreams, or something.

AAJ: I'm sure you've been asked about "Rhinoceros a few times by now. It's the first track on the new album and it's pretty remarkable. It's got a really formal sound—it builds very slowly, in a very deliberate and ominous way. There's almost a time-lapse feeling to it. And again, it has more of that improvisation struggling against static form we were just talking about. I'm not really sure what exactly is improvised here. How much of the song is through-composed and how much is improvised?

DG: Well, quite a bit is composed. In fact, the whole point of the piece was to basically create a through-composed shape and then allow the improvisation to go on on the fringes of that. What's really improvised is much of what Craig is doing—to support and fill in those gaping silences that are happening quite a bit. And Tom has a drum solo over a vamp. And that's really where the improvising is; the rest is a through-composed kind of tone thing. And then there's some horn improvising at the very end of it.

AAJ: There's also that tension of spacious and repeating parts contrasted with improvisation on Spin & Drift. I hear it in "It Was After Rain That the Angel Came.

DG: Yeah, well, I definitely love space. I think part of that is, for the instrument I play, I feel it can be heard in wide-open spaces much better. And I think of a record as a listening experience; I know there aren't many people out there that can afford the time to sit down and listen to something from front to back, but I think the ear really needs some room to stretch out after it hears something that has a lot of activity going on. So I'm trying to acknowledge that there's a human mind that's on the other end of this stuff, and I want them to have the best possible experience as they're listening. I guess I'm trying to acknowledge the listener without selling out to them, without pandering.

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