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Michael Dessen / Cosmologic: Between Shadow and Space / Eyes in the Back of My Head


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Somehow it's not at all surprising to read in Michael Dessen's bio that he studied with trombonist George Lewis and pianist Anthony Davis, two of this music's most well known academes. Dessen is a trombonist, composer-improviser and scholar who explores new media arts, the internet and cross-cultural migration through sound. Improvised music has a hard time fitting in with the academy, and can often feel bereft of something once it does enter even the most wide-open of academic contexts. However, attaching Dessen's resume as a writer and teacher to a pair of projects that are quite simply about "doing" rectifies much of that.

Michael Dessen Trio
Between Shadow and Space
Clean Feed

Between Shadow and Space is the debut of Dessen's trio with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Chris Tordini—a format he's explored since 2005, though this is the trio's first recording. If one is expecting bravura a la Roswell Rudd or BassDrumBone, the shuffle here is at a low boil, pensive tone and a limber hush in the opening bars of the title track as the rhythm section sets up a fractured gallop. Dessen states in the notes that the trio is an exploration of the push-pull between groove and texture, an idea that seems like an afterthought to the very fact that his playing is based on this approach.

Dessen's improvisations are unhurried but very exacting, seemingly behind the beat and teasing the tempo—a plastic pair like Sorey and Tordini is quite essential. The sparse "Chocolate Geometry" introduces laptop-generated sounds alongside mallets, bass harmonics and brass gurgle, tracking like a fuzzy needle through its long tones. Bends, waves, plucks and pings fill in the spaces between group flurry, canvassing the ground before Dessen's trombone re-enters.

The introduction of electronics does attune one's ears differently, towards hearing more than may actually be there. Tordini's introduction to "Anthesis," with its plucked glisses and slippery finger-work, seems fleshed out by phantom digital blurts, Dessen's near-swagger hitting a puckered phrase that's altered and Sorey's cymbal wash taking on the blur of samples. It's a quality of orchestration, but not by means one traditionally thinks about—altering one's way of hearing the instruments themselves, so that one almost pre-hears them. Suffice it to say Michael Dessen is doing a lot with a little.

Eyes in the Back of My Head

Cosmologic is Dessen's most long-running project, with four albums in nearly a decade of existence; the lineup has been stable throughout, and features tenor man Jason Robinson, bassist Scott Walton and drummer Nathan Hubbard. Eyes in the Back of My Head is the cooperative's latest and their first for Cuneiform, and it's a far cry from Dessen's trio.

"The Rumpus" is martial free-bop with a knotty tripartite theme, Robinson tracing burnished lines and frantic squeals atop an insistent beat. As Dessen enters with a chortling mouthful, rhythmic knots are briefly untied into strands of gongs and bass tug, the foursome then building a rousing unity a la Rudd and saxophonist Archie Shepp towards the final bars. Perhaps spurred on by Robinson's earthiness, Dessen is a bit more extroverted here, or at least they complement one another well as a front line, as Walton and Hubbard knit a web of constant metric subversion around them.

The disc's first fourteen minutes are rather busy, and it isn't until the last few of the title track (the album's second) that Cosmologic lets up with a little breathing room in a balladesque, measured walk that lets the group unfurl languidly until building back up to a frantic closing match. Fragments of "Lonely Woman" enter into the theme of Robinson's "Dreams of an Alternate Future/Remembering the Past," a bottom-heavy rubato that recalls reverent fire music tone poems, soft front-line prods with a nimble slink underneath.

The line between the written and collective "arrival" at the material is fairly blurry, though Eyes in the Back of My Head isn't necessarily a modular suite. Clearly, time spent in a regularly working unit—rare these days—has served the writing and the playing of Cosmologic and its members very well.

Tracks and Personnel

Between Shadow and Space

Tracks: Between Shadow and Space; Chocolate Geometry; Restless Years; Duo Improvisation; Anthesis; Granulorum; Water Seeks.

Personnel: Michael Dessen: trombone and computer; Christopher Tordini: bass; Tyshawn Sorey: drums.

Eyes in the Back of My Head

Tracks: The Rumpus; Eyes in the Back of My Head; Dreams of an Alternate Future/Remembering the Past; Face in the Crowd; Code View; Theme for Darfur; The Apex is Whole; We Kiss in a Shadow on the Other Side of This.

Personnel: Michael Dessen: trombone; Jason Robinson: tenor saxophone; Scott Walton: bass; Nathan Hubbard: drums.

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