Drew Gress: Where My Ear Leads Me

Paul Olson By

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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.


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