John Geggie & Mark Dresser at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa

John Kelman By

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John Geggie/Mark Dresser
National Arts Centre
Ottawa, Canada
May 14, 2005

To close out this year's season of Five Shades of Geggie—five performances that continue to demonstrate local bassist John Geggie's breadth of style and ability to recruit a remarkable variety of collaborators, this year including pianist Myra Melford and saxophonist Donny McCaslin—Geggie brought in master bassist Mark Dresser for an intimate series of bass duets that ranged from pensive to exuberant, from dark and brooding to bright and buoyant. There were a lot of bass players to be found in the capacity crowd at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage, home to John's various series over the past few years, and there was clearly a lot to learn from watching two bassists demonstrate the full range and possibility of an instrument erroneously considered, by many, to be strictly a rhythm section instrument..

Dresser is, of course, an incredibly adventurous player who, over the course of his career, has worked with far-reaching artists including saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom, Anthony Braxton and Tim Berne, as well as drummer Gerry Hemingway, trumpeter Dave Douglas and guitarist Nels Cline. On his own recordings, including the soon-to-be-released Time Changes with "hyperpianist" Denman Maroney, Dresser has combined curious structural constructs with freer interplay and an exploration of microtones that approaches the realm of contemporary classical composition.

Dresser's composition "Tonation," which featured both bassists playing long, droning arcos often a mere quarter-tone apart, was an example of through-composition that created a foreboding ambience, and a sound that proved to be much bigger than the sum of its individual parts.

Geggie is the generally softer, more reserved Yin to Dresser's more visceral Yang. Dresser is an incredibly physical player, with a strong attack and all manner of bass techniques that either send other bassists running for cover or for a pen and paper. He's as likely to do two-handed tapping as he is more conventional pizzicato, as apt to draw sharp edges as he is smooth surfaces. At one point he alternated arco phrases with whipping his bow through the air; there appear to be no conventions that Dresser not only knows, but is unafraid to break as the spirit moves him.

Geggie may be the less assertive player, but in a solo improvisation that he used to open the first of two sets, he demonstrated a broad conception, and an ability to construct a meaningful piece—with a clear start, middle and end—out of the ether. And, perhaps more so than any other concert he has put on this year, the depth of his technical facility was in full evidence as he extracted remarkable harmonics and deep, sawing sonorities. Clearly the teaming with Dresser also inspired him to take a lot of risks, and the push-and-pull, give-and-take between the two was indicative of a strong musical connection, all the more remarkable given that they had performed only once before together, the previous evening in Montreal.

Along with a number of Dresser compositions and one Geggie tune, the duo took two Bartok pieces—one originally scored for two violins ("A Wedding Song"), the other a piece for piano called "Painful Struggle"—both pieces making demands that pushed Dresser and Geggie to explore the farthest reaches of their instruments, with "A Wedding Song" being particularly beautiful.

That two bassists could come together to create a dynamically and stylistically diverse evening of music that completely captivated their audience is a testimony to the unfettered imagination and musicality both share. The evening was a fitting end to another season of adventurous collaborations put on by Geggie, and bode well for next season, which promises to be equally rich and innovative.

Visit John Geggie and Mark Dresser on the web.

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