Mark Dresser makes music in a vast variety of settings and contexts, but the dauntingly prolific bassist always seeks to create space for the unpredictable play between form and freedom.
On his new album Sedimental You, he’s assembled an astonishingly creative cast that embraces the intuitive and emotionally charged nature of his improvisational imperative. Riveting, playful and often revelatory, his compositions emerge out of a shifting matrix of specific musical personalities and the often dismaying swirl of current events.
Working with a supremely gifted septet, Dresser brings together emerging talent and revered veterans from East and West Coast scenes. In many ways, Sedimental You builds directly on orchestrational concepts he’s been exploring in smaller ensembles, and relationships he’s honed via telematic connections (which enable musicians in different locations to perform live in real time via high speed/high bandwidth links.)
None of the music is programmatic, but the porous nature of the compositions means that the world’s joys and woes seep in. Mocking denunciations and ache-filled reveries flow into open-hearted evocations of beloved colleagues, both departed and still very much with us. Dresser notes that he always writes with specific musicians in mind, “and I really had Marty’s clarinet sound in my ear. I’ve had lots of groups with Michael Dessen, who’s a virtuoso trombonist and an invaluable collaborator in my groups and telematic projects. And Jim Black is a force of nature, who I worked with most often in New York and on Japanese tours as the rhythm section for Satoko Fujii.”
Dresser started working with Nicole Mitchell after she joined the faculty up the road at UC Irvine, a relationship expanded by collaboration via telematics. He’s played several high profile concerts in her ensembles, and she’s become an important part of his West Coast quintet. “She’s a wonderfully open collaborator, a great soloist, with superb musicianship and a buoyant musical spirit.” Dresser says.
San Diego pianist Joshua White is a rapidly rising star who’s toured internationally with Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls project. With a potent array of influences at his fingertips, from gospel and spirituals to free improvisation, he quickly fell in with Dresser after the bassist moved to town and discovered “an amazing talent with incredible ears and intuition,” Dresser says. “He’s a fearless improviser whose musical instincts I completely trust.”
The album’s wild card is violinist David Morales Boroff, the youngest player on the project. In a serendipitous connection, he’s the son of esteemed folk guitarist Phil Boroff, who happened to give Dresser’s mother guitar lessons back in the 1970s. “David’s got a freaky ear,” Dresser says. “I’d give him one of my tunes and he’d be at the piano reharmonizing it. He has a beautiful violin sound and a soulful lyricism that belies his age ”
The album opens with “Hobby Lobby Horse,” a tricky tune built from bass line up with a derisive hitch in the groove. The title track slyly refers to the 1932 Tommy Dorsey hit “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” Drawing on the cadences of the original, he recalibrated the harmony to evoke its sound and mood. The heart of the album is “Will Well (For Roswell Rudd),” a startlingly tender piece that Dresser conceived with the trombone legend (and frequent collaborator) in mind. He first played the tune in a trio with White and drummer Kjell Nordeson, but this extended version brings out everyone’s sumptuous lyricism, particularly when Mitchell’s throaty alto flute winds around Ehrlich’s woody bass clarinet. “It’s an incantation of sorts for Roswell,” Dresser says.
Dresser’s strikingly beautiful tribute “I Can Smell You Listening (for the late Alexandra Montano)” evokes the boundless spirit of the extraordinary mezzo-soprano who contributed memorably on the 2005 Dresser/Denman Maroney album Time Changes(Cryptogramophone). An extended melodic line that rises and falls, fades and reappears, the tune features some of Ehrlich’s most ravishing clarinet work. He offers a different kind of lament with “Newtown Char,” a piece he created in response to the unfathomable massacres in Connecticut and Charleston, SC. Structurally and emotionally, it’s the album’s centerpiece, a plaintive unfurling melody keyed to the thick, woody sound of Ehrlich’s bass clarinet. The album closes with the brief, elegiac theme “Two Handfuls of Peace (for Daniel Jackson),” a celebration of the revered San Diego tenor saxophonist who died in 2014 at 77.
Amidst a steady flow of recent albums, Sedimental You stands out as Dresser’s most ambitious work as a bandleader. April saw the release of The Moscow Improvisations by Jones Jones, a volatile collective trio with Russian percussionist Vladimir Tarasov and ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs. And in March the talent laden SLM Ensemble releasedSource (Liminal Music), a large group project co-led and conducted by Sarah Weaver featuring masters such as vocalist Jen Shyu, flutist Robert Dick, percussionist Gerry Hemmingway, and saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom and Marty Ehrlich.
Born in Los Angeles, Dresser has been a creative force since he first started gaining attention in the early ’70s with Stanley Crouch’s Black Music Infinity, a free jazz ensemble that included Bobby Bradford, Arthur Blythe, James Newton, and David Murray. He earned a BA and MA from UC San Diego studying contrabass with Bertram Turetzky. While on a Fulbright in Italy studying with maestro Franco Petracchi, Dresser was recruited by Anthony Braxton for his celebrated quartet with Gerry Hemingway and pianist Marilyn Crispell. Dresser made the move to New York in 1986 and spent a decade touring and recording with the reed visionary. A ubiquitous force on the Downtown scene, he worked widely with masters such as Ray Anderson, Tim Berne, Anthony Davis, and John Zorn.
A prolific composer and recording artist, Dresser developed many pieces for the Arcado String Trio, and Tambastics, while receiving numerous commissions and recording his original scores for several classic silent films, including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Since returning to Southern California in 2004 to join the UCSD music faculty he’s maintained creative relationships with many of his New York associates, though the move west coincided with his renewed focus on solo bass performance and telematic research. Recommitted to working with larger groups, he’s once again the catalyst for a roiling creative community, work that earned him a prestigious Doris Duke Impact Award in 2015. More than impactful, Sedimental You is music to recharge your ears, agitate your soul, and open your mind.