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Drew Gress: Where My Ear Leads Me

By Published: July 22, 2005
AAJ: Maybe a little less mathematical. I mean, there's some math there, but—

DG: But it's more instinctive. For instance, "Bright Idea —that was one of those that comes in the shower and then you run to the tape recorder and just sing the whole thing out and then figure it out later. That's kind of a weird way to go about things, but it worked. And that's part of its "otherness, I guess, is that I'm not relying on my hands to show me what to write on the piano, instead of letting the ears totally take over.

AAJ: Let me ask a bit more about your process of composition. I'm pretty fascinated by your song "Jet Precipice from the Spin & Drift CD. It's a great tune—or it's several great tunes, since it's composed of different sections.

DG: It's weird.

AAJ: It's weird, yes. Tell me about the process of writing it.

DG: I think I actually originally started [writing] that tune for Jagged Sky, which was another quintet I had with Ben Monder and Dave Binney. And so it has kind of a thinner, singular-line-type texture to it. I guess I was listening to lots of Beach Boys at that time, so I was thinking, "what's so catchy about these things? Not only the great harmony that you associate with the Beach Boys' stuff, but they have these really simple melodies that worm their way into your brain. Like [singing a part of "Jet Precipice ], "zabba-zabba-zabba —can't get much more inane than that, but when we'd play this thing on gigs, people would actually comment on that part of that; that's what they'd remember [laughing]. It was one of those things where'd you'd just kind of go with the idea, go where your mind takes you, and not judge it. So it's definitely something—like a Siamese twin operation gone horribly wrong. I feel like things are just sewn together: foot on the end of the hand, that sort of thing.

AAJ: [Laughing] Yes, a Frankenstein monster of a song. One song's an arm, another's a toe—stitched into one piece.

DG: Exactly. It's just a weird thing. But I was hearing it at the time, I wrote it down, and then the guys seemed to like playing it. So it got played. But it's definitely a weird creature. It's almost like somebody has several children and there's the one you can't believe came out of you.

AAJ: The bad seed. You concentrate on your own compositions on your albums; the only person whose music you cover is Béla Bartók, whose "Mikrokosmos #125 and "Mikrokosmos #132 you arrange on your first CD, Heyday. This makes me think his music has some importance to you.

DG: Yeah. I think part of it is just my ancestry is Hungarian, so I got somewhat nationalistic when I was in college, checking out composers. But I'd already been attracted to Bartók anyway. Like Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta—especially that piece. I've studied his work quite a bit, trying to get a handle on the language, how it's put together, because I've gained a lot from that aesthetic as well. I think his music is also highly melodic but it's presented in a different context, so it sounds fresh, and I'm going for that same type of thing. You can't pin down even his harmonic technique because it's truly something he came to from his own path, investigating folk musics and things like that. I think there's a lot of pastiche going on in music these days, like with the klezmer thing that happened. I know it's about business and working festivals and trying to get your thing together and out there, but I don't think there's been that filtering of influences through the artists into something that's their own, so that's a reaction to that as well. That was really about playing through the microcosm of some things on piano; not having had an actual performance of those pieces on record, I was just free to imagine however this music might be performed. It's a good thing [I didn't have the recordings], because if I'd heard the recordings, I probably would never have come up with those [laughing] simple ideas that I used. But yeah, that's some important music to me.

AAJ: I think your takes on his pieces worked out fine. I think it's interesting how the arrangements absorb the music into the group sound.

DG: That was good; I think those pieces were a little bit of an exercise for me, to try to actually arrange, to find a way to use the instruments that makes it all sound bigger than it is.

AAJ: That's a cool band, too, the Jagged Sky band. It's different than the one you've used on your last two albums.

DG: I intend to get that together again. Everyone kind of got busy when that was happening. And it was difficult to book that band at the time; I wasn't as well known, so it kind of died on the vine at the time, unfortunately. But I'm hoping to get back to it, because I love all of those guys. They're willing to get back and do it again, so I hope to get to that sometime soon.

AAJ: I'm convinced that you're the busiest bassist in history—

DG: [Laughing] I don't think so, man! What about Ron Carter?

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