Herb Robertson: Elaboration & Mark Dresser: Unveil


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The lower half of Manhattan is full of as much jazz history as Harlem, South Chicago or Watts, despite the fact that it is currently a bit more "upscale" than it was in the years after the Second World War. During the 1960s, it was a haven for the new movement in jazz, where Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler made their homes and where countless lofts hosted concerts by Taylor, Sunny Murray, Marion Brown, Giuseppi Logan and others.

The Loft Jazz scene in the '70s was spread out over the island, but places like Ali's Alley and The Brook were among several in that part of the City. Since that time, the term "downtown" in reference to improvised music has carried a different sort of weight with it—the frequently self-consciously arty improvisation of John Zorn and his cohorts localized around the Knitting Factory and Tonic, which has historically carried with it a degree of hipness that eclipses the music's successes and failings.

Nevertheless, "downtown" is still a location as differentiated from uptown, and is host to a number of musicians of different stripes—some of them heard to advantage on two new discs from Portuguese label Clean Feed, Herb Robertson's Elaboration and Mark Dresser's new solo recording Unveil.

Herb Robertson
Clean Feed

Trumpeter Herb Robertson has assembled a quintet of musicians associated with lower Manhattan venues for a disc by the ad hoc New York Downtown All-Stars (tongue fully in cheek), including altoist Tim Berne, bassist Mark Dresser, drummer Tom Rainey, and Swiss expatriate pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, for the reading of Robertson's piece "Elaboration, a fifty-minute suite dedicated to playwright Ken Pickering.

One of the first things that's noticeable about this music is how far it strays, despite traditional instrumentation, from Robertson's free-bop leanings, heard to advantage in his groups of the past two decades with Berne, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Joey Baron. Beginning with a foray into piercing bursts of brass and reeds, visceral glisses from Dresser's manhandled wood and strings, and Courvoisier's game of ping-pong between romantic chords and Henry Cowell-esque clusters and internal clangs, "Elaboration is off to a start that sounds more FMP than JMT.

Phrase shapes emerge, deftly muted trumpet approximating Dixon-esque slurs and bebop semiotics as piano, bass and percussion shift huge, cantankerous blocks of sound forward, Berne's creaky, repetitious alto phrases joining in the fun (and sounding for all the world like John Tchicai on Misha Mengelberg's "Tetteretet ). Somehow Berne is able to wrench a schizoid post bop solo out of the morass, vaudevillian singsongs and Jackie McLean melding in a gritty, urbane march as Rainey slugs away—until a surging tempo accrues, and the ecstatic screams begin. Dresser contributes a pizzicato solo full of double-stops and patented Jimmy Garrison thrum, choosing a traditional bass palette as Courvoisier's prepared piano skitters about, plucked strings amid metallic blocks countering knocks and scrapes, growling trumpet and alto weaving a reddened cloth beneath.

Mid-tempo, slightly dissonant thematic material emerges, only to be subsumed by a stew of multiphonics and fractured time, Berne and Dresser's unison harmonic duet broken by Rainey's blocky half-breaks and Courvoisier's roiling low-end piano chords. The latter is a serious revelation, her lexicon of otherworldly sounds ranging beyond traditional muted pings to an expanded goulash of microtonal chatter and masses of metallic sound—an extended, dense solo that recalls fellow Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer rides over a funky and dissonant, rock-like march somewhat incongruously, as Berne bites in and takes off, the sparse solos and duets replaced by orchestral weight.

That is, until the group breaks apart again into plucks and clinks, an ebbing tide of event and mass. The range of colors, emotions and possibilities engendered by this quintet is astounding—a complexity and freedom that is not often found in the rigorous structures of some of their compatriots.

Mark Dresser
Clean Feed

The latest among several solo bass recordings by Mark Dresser, Unveil finds the bassist's palette with its usual array of tools, plus an array of pickups built into the fingerboard of the bass, allowing for an even greater wealth of sounds to be made audible in both recorded and performance situations (one can assume that the bass he uses in these settings differs from that used on Elaboration and in similar settings).

Granted, the use of contact mikes is nothing new in solo bass music—Italian virtuoso Fernando Grillo in the '70s and Joelle Leandre's work from the '80s on—but Dresser's vocabulary seems to pick up where those players left off, into tighter rhythmic structures more microcosmic than the symphonies sounded by the former two. The title track is a movement from thick bowed harmonics to gutsy, roiling masses (bowed with a ribbed stick to simulate throat-singing), to a trio of overdubbed high, low and massed lines. The tautness of Dresser's yanked strings is picked up perfectly, as are the traces of overtones resounding in studio air.

"Clavuus is an intensely rhythmic vamp with one prepared string that mimics a mouth-harp in duet with the bass; "Undula a chamber of droning arcos, the resonance adding further underpinning to the trio or quartet. Most of the pieces here are improvised snippets and extrapolations from basic ideas that become ever more layered, though the icy echoes of "Pluto and the masterful, Ornette-like sorrows of "Bacahaonne are compositions—the former commissioned by sculptor Robert Taplin for an exhibition of planetary pieces, the latter a notated piece based on Bach's second violin partita.

What ties these recent works of Dresser and Robertson together is an ability to create orchestral weight out of a very few pieces, and a scope that ranges from delicately sparse to sonic whirlwind in a very short space of time. Dresser has even found ways to create a language of self-interaction, or of the bass with itself in addition to its player. To these ears, there appears to be more to "downtown" of late than structural gimmickry and overpriced beer.


Track: Elaboration.

Personnel: Herb Robertson: trumpet, cornet, megaphone; Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Sylvie Courvoisier: piano, prepared piano; Mark Dresser: bass; Tom Rainey: drums.


Tracks: Lureal; Unveil; Clavuus; Undula; Kathrom; Cabalaba; Entwined; Pluto; For Scodanibbio; Lomus; Bacahaonne.

Personnel: Mark Dresser: bass.


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