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Drew Gress: Where My Ear Leads Me

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WIDTH=200 HEIGHT=270>Bassist Drew Gress isn't the busiest bassist ever ("I don't think so, man. What about Ron Carter?, he asked me), but he's probably playing somewhere tonight. He's played as a sideman with Don Byron, Tim Berne, Marc Copland, John Hollenbeck and Uri Caine. But his three albums under his own name—Heyday (Soul Note, 1998), Spin & Drift (Premonition, 2001) and his fantastic new Premonition CD 7 Black Butterflies—are ample evidence that Gress' own compositions and bands are as remarkable as those of the aforementioned heavyweights. 7 Black Butterflies is an especially great record, coupling Gress' unique melodic and compositional gifts with a particularly sympathetic group and the fascinating and at times otherworldly production of David Torn. There's really nothing like it on today's jazz landscape. I spoke with Gress about the new CD, his compositional methods, Béla Bartók, the importance of finding time to do his own music, and the Beach Boys.

All About Jazz: There's something really interesting about your new album 7 Black Butterflies. You produced the previous one, Spin & Drift, yourself. You also wrote its tunes and arranged it, so that one was completely your creation. But the new one is produced and mixed by David Torn and his postproduction really created something new out of the performances in the way different instruments are emphasized and altered in the mix and the overall ambience of the tracks. It's great, but it must have taken some willingness and some courage on your part to turn your music over to him and let him do what he wanted. Why'd you take this route?

Drew Gress: Well, I think I was feeling confident enough about the performances that I had on tape and I think the music itself is somewhat of a different animal. So I was willing to relinquish the standard way that jazz instruments are recorded. Because, in a way, this instrumentation is standard jazz quintet format. So having come up with what I think are performances that are quite different, I was willing to relinquish control over the sound of the project to someone else—somebody that I consider to be a great musician with a great set of ears and sensibilities—and really, just let him improvise with the sound. So in a way, I'm adopting the same approach as a composer as I was to the postproduction, which was write what you think is some strong material and let everybody go to work on it. Once I had that on tape, I figured I would turn it over to David and let him follow his own ears.

AAJ: Were you surprised by the final sound of the CD?

DG: Not really, no. I was hoping for something different and I think David sensed my own love of, like, early Weather Report and that sort of thing. Maybe it's implicit in the music and I think that his reaction sonically was to bring that out in a way. So it's its own animal, I think, on the whole, but the fact that everybody has really strong sounds on their instruments—I was really confident that, whatever he would come up with, I would dig. He played the first mix after he had largely completed it, just so I could hear the direction he was headed in. I was blown away and just said, "do the rest and mail it to me when you're done —which he did. The next time I heard it, it was completed.

AAJ: It's got a great sound. I hadn't thought of the Weather Report analogy, but it does make sense when you mention it.

DG: Well, it's just been dawning on me myself what an influence that group had on me. Somebody mentioned it after a concert somewhere and I hadn't really thought of it myself, but the more I thought about it—I guess it seeped in there much more than I realized. I have to give that listener credit, whoever and wherever they are—I can't remember.

AAJ: Sonically there's just a vivid, distinct quality to the instruments; everything is very palpable. Especially your bass: for an acoustic bass, it's positively window-rattling.

DG: [Laughing] I know! I sent a preliminary copy to [drummer] Tom Rainey and his speakers almost fell off the shelf.

AAJ: That's pretty satisfying. And I think it's appropriate, because I think the bass has a role in this music that is unique; it's a sort of fulcrum. This is the same group you had on Spin & Drift, except that you have Craig Taborn instead of Uri Caine on piano. I wouldn't waste time worrying about who's better, but I do think that Taborn is another factor on 7 Black Butterflies besides David Torn's production that makes this an eerier-sounding album than Spin & Drift.

DG: Oh, absolutely. But also, on the previous recording, the piano itself was not a great instrument. I kind of made the wrong call in the studio as far as that goes. That has an amazing effect on how you perceive the music as well. But Craig has a different set of influences and he's into all sorts of things on the borderlands. So he brings that to the music and yeah, he definitely has a huge impact on what you're hearing. His mind, how he approaches setting up sonically what's going on—it's another wild card, in a way, from night to night. Which is what I want, really, with everyone in the group; it's to try to get to the point playing live where we can play these pieces drastically differently from night to night. That's something I have to get to.

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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