Well-established as one of the foremost virtuoso contrabassists on the face of the planet, Mark Dresser
has turned his attention to a variety of other projects over the past few years. The former member of Anthony Braxton
's "classic" quartet with drummer Gerry Hemingway
and pianist Marilyn Crispell
, Dresser's best known recent work has been with drummer Matt Wilson
and pianist Myra Melford
in Trio M
. He's also recorded numerous albums- usually as a soloist or a member of small co-operative groups-for top-rank labels such as Clean Feed, Tzadik, and Cryptogramophone. A full Professor at the University of California, San Diego since 2004, Dresser's an active researcher and performer in the field of telematic music; which, in his own words "explores the musical, technical, and social dimensions of live performance between multiple locations through high speed Internet." A true multi-media artist, Dresser also counts filmmakers, animators, sculptors, and chefs-yes, chefs-among his regular collaborators. Nourishments
is a bit of a departure for Dresser, who typically works in solo, duo, and trio settings. This quintet, essentially a band of leaders, is certainly one of the most gifted assemblages around today. Hyper-pianist Denman Maroney
has been working and recording with Dresser since the early 90s. For those wondering what hyper-piano is; it's not just a very excited, possibly over- caffeinated, piano. Rather, it's an approach somewhat akin to John Cage
's prepared piano, only the damper bar is removed and the sound- altering implements placed on the piano harp are slid, scraped, strummed, and bowed to bend notes and produce unusual timbres, overtones and harmonics. In practice, Maroney's technique sounds a bit like Satoko Fujii
's inside-the-piano playing. Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa
needs practically no introduction. One of the most gifted improvisors and composers working today, Mahanthappa's unmistakable voice on alto saxophone is matched by Michael Dessen
's remarkably agile trombone to form a truly dangerous front line. Drummers Michael Sarin
and Tom Rainey
share roughly half of the album, and both demonstrate an admirably complete grasp of Dresser's complicated but incredibly tuneful compositions.
The music here is a seamless blend of modernistic M-Base- inspired groove jazz, post-Braxton compositional strategies, and the sorts of things one might hear on any number of forward-looking Blue Note or ECM sessions from the late 20th Century. Many of the compositions on this album explore compounded odd-time signatures that are much more difficult to think about than they are to feel. Chalk the latter up to Dresser, Sarin, and Rainey who coast effortlessly over these fractally complex rhythmic terrains. In his liner notes, Dresser attests to his own musical grounding in the jazz tradition and song form. He's not just paying lip-service; the music on Nourishments
has the immediate and visceral appeal of the very best modern jazz with an unmistakable extra something that is all Dresser's own.
Blending complex funk rhythms with keening exotic harmonies, "Not Withstanding" was co-written by Mahanthappa and sounds quite a bit like the alto saxophonist's very impressive recent work with his own quartet. "Rasaman" expands on similar middle-eastern tonalities in a more languorous fashion, with Dessen and Mahanthappa sparring over a variety of asymmetric rhythmic structures. "Canales Rose" evolved out of a 12-tone row that Dresser wrote after finishing a meal prepared by chef, club owner ("Duende" in San Francisco) and collaborator Paul Canales
. Initially explored as one of Dresser's telematic pieces, this version precedes the lengthy theme with a gentle bass / trombone / hyper-piano trio improvisation. The piece gathers density and momentum over Maroney's fascinating hyper- piano solo. The energy peaks during Mahanthappa's solo before breaking up into a second and much darker bass / trombone / hyper- piano trio. Here, the interplay between Dessen's slippery glissing trombone, Dresser's extended voodoo bass, and Maroney's ghostly piano manipulations is absolutely spellbinding. Mahanthappa really lights up the album's closer, "Telemojo," which Dresser describes as being sort of a blowing tune, albeit a multi-sectioned one that takes a few unexpected twists and turns. Maroney gets the spotlight on "Para Waltz," and demonstrates remarkable agility and focus in his seamless alternations between the hyper- and conventional piano approaches. The piece itself is a gorgeous, hushed ballad that nevertheless has some very sophisticated rhythmic activity going on behind the melody. The album's title track spirals and increases in density until it breaks for Dresser's remarkably lush solo over Maroney's somber chords. The following section seems to be a meditation on Thelonious Monk
's "Misterioso" which ever-so-slowly attenuates and dissembles after solos by Mahanthappa, Dessen and Sarin.
As brainy as it all may seem, Dresser and his quintet supply lots of brawn to chew on. This is music that truly engages the head and the heart. It's no stretch to say that Nourishments
may well be the most accessible and palatable slice of avant-garde jazz to come down the pike in many years.