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.

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.

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.

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?

AAJ: Well, you work a lot, anyway, and with a lot of different people, good people. I just checked your schedule: you did gigs with over eight different bands in June alone. Do you ever have trouble keeping the various repertoires straight in your mind at the gigs?

DG: Oh, yeah [laughing]. I just basically show up like a blank slate and wait for something to happen and hopefully I'll remember what I'm supposed to do! It is a little bit much, I know, but they're all musicians I truly enjoy playing with. So I'm not really doing it for the money; it's because I enjoy it, all those people, and they all feed me artistically. I do need to find a way to balance it just so I can spend a little more time working on my own thing, which is something I'd like to do.

AAJ: Somehow I had assumed that your albums came out infrequently—one in 1998, one in 2001, and one now—because you only got a group together when you were really ready, when you've got something to say. So there is also the matter of finding time between sidework?

DG: Yeah, I guess it all works together. I do a project when I have something to say. But frankly, a lot of times I'm just exhausted from doing whatever, so when I get home and it's time to get that thing together, it just—goes. But I intend to ratchet up the activity level a little bit. I just received a grant from Chamber Music America to write, so that'll be motivation to finish the next group of things I'm working on and do something else. And I have a European tour coming up next January as well, so that's further motivation to try to have some music written to do a record after that. You know, just trying to think ahead a little more.

AAJ: What do you think you're accentuating musically in your music that isn't happening in all the bands you're in as a sideman?

DG: As far as the playing goes, I think my approach is just exactly the same, which is to allow the environment to inform my choices. Totally. And just react. But I think the obvious answer is that we're playing my compositions. I don't even feel like it's necessarily a way to present me, the improviser. It's more just about my identity as a composer, and I guess that means just music the way I hear it—I mean, one of the ways that I hear it. To me, it's about trying to capture the improvisational me and freeze it—preserve it in formaldehyde—and try to have that happen night after night, but in a flexible way.

Visit Drew Gress on the web.

Photo Credits
First two photos: Jimmy Katz
Final photo: Barry Quick

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