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Drew Gress: Where My Ear Leads Me

By Published: July 22, 2005
AAJ: I think my favorite tune on the new CD is "Low Slung/High Strung, which is a very dense piece of music. I'm fascinated with its theme, which is introduced on piano, then alto, then trumpet. I guess it's a round, really.

DG: Yes, it is, exactly. Especially the alto and trumpet parts are the exact same material offset by a sixteenth note. I wanted to try an extreme ping-pong effect from something that was really spacious to, like you said, a round or a canon that's so tightly wound that you almost can't breathe at all. It was interesting, the effect was different when I heard the horns play it than I had imagined, but I also really enjoyed it: it was almost like modern New Orleans polyphony. So after hearing that, I went to try to discover some kind of bass part that would go with that. So really, the melody on that is in the bass part; everything else is, you know, baroque filigree around it.

AAJ: I like how when it all knots together, the whole band becomes one sort of strange lumbering beast. I ended up just enjoying it because I can't even tell if everyone is playing in the same time signature, or in different times—and Rainey's drumming is pretty polyrhythmic on its own anyway. Tell me what's going on.

DG: Well, the melody kind of gradually just devolves. We're all playing over that grid up to the point where we all drop out and it's just Craig and Tom. But that's all in 4/4. I mean, at the very end of it everyone's just layering, doing their polyrhythmic thing over the top of it. But we're keeping the form all the way to the very end, you know, where the time kind of blows apart in a really obvious way. But I think it all holds together.

AAJ: I like the latter section too, with Taborn's piano interlude. It's really nice.

DG: I was happy with it. It was kind of a mountain to climb, the conception of the piece as a whole. But Craig delivered the goods as usual.

AAJ: Your melodic gifts really come to the fore in your, for want of a better term, ballads. "Wing & Prayer from 7 Black Butterflies is one, and just as good—and just as melodic—is "Away from your first CD, Heyday. I think these songs are pretty, which is not to say they're patronizing or pandering—they're just beautiful. Are songs like these easier for you to write? Or more challenging?

DG: Well, I enjoy writing that type of thing and I could do it ad nauseam—some part of me likes to go to that place. But there's a part of me—I want to create something beautiful, but like you say, I'm afraid of it being precious or cloying or something like that. So I'm looking for a way to keep it interesting and sometimes that means counterlines or countermelodies. But I think musicians sometimes tend to stay away from just writing something that's out-and-out beautiful and sometimes the obvious thing is the right thing to play or to write. So I'm trying to, really, just pursue what I'm hearing and to come up with something that's meaningful to me—and I hope that somebody else will pick up on it as well. But I do enjoy writing them.

AAJ: Well, you don't want to write nothing but stuff people would consider pretty, but you can't refuse to write something because it seems too easy to you, or insufficiently challenging.

DG: Exactly. I'm into putting myself in circumstances and seeing what I hear, and that's why I like to play with a wide variety of musicians stylistically, too, because it's a way to reinvent yourself over and over again. Your playing just gets constantly refreshed by the input. I'm just trying to follow where my ear leads me and not leave anything out.

AAJ: You also have written some tunes that are just brutally swinging. In a sense, these are the most traditionally "jazz of all your work. One of these would be "Blue on One Side from the new CD; another would be "Disappearing, Act 1 from Spin & Drift. I love how you and Tom Rainey and Caine or Taborn just eat this stuff alive; that's especially impressive on "Blue on One Side with all its time changes. That one's got to be hard to play. Was it difficult to record?

DG: Well, it has some angularities to it. Sometimes the horn players, Tim and Ralph, will tell me how singularly left-handed the things I come up with to play are on their instruments. But that comes from virtually total ignorance of the fingering difficulties of those instruments. But it really is what I'm hearing intervallically, so they've done the best they can to humor me. But yeah, that tune just became a little more complex as it went along from its original idea. I kept hearing a kind of twentieth-century bebop thing.

AAJ: It's got a bop flavor. There's a bop flavor to "Bright Idea, too, but it you heard either one on the radio—which I guess you probably wouldn't—you wouldn't think you were hearing the Jazz Messengers or Charlie Parker. It's referring to that music, but it isn't stock bebop or hard bop.

DG: Well, it's a different language. It's kind of my reaction, actually, to the Steve Coleman language, which took it someplace pretty alien, although it was really hip and I loved the sound of it. It's very specific. I'm trying to do, maybe, what he did with it, but in a very different way. I think it's less—hmmm, I don't know what the right word is. Systematic.

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