Mark Dresser: New Sounds, New Platforms

by Troy Collins


Mark Dresser                                                                                                     ©2017 Laurence Svirchev

Over the last four decades, Mark Dresser’s singular approach to the contrabass has helped expand the instrument’s sonic potential by combining advanced extended techniques with unorthodox methods of amplification. Internationally renowned for his unconventionally structured compositions and timbrally expressive improvisations, Dresser can be heard on over 140 recordings, including 30 as a bandleader or co-leader. Throughout his storied career he has performed with a wide variety of creative luminaries, ranging from jazz musicians like Dave Douglas and Jane Ira Bloom, to beyond-category composers like Anthony Davis, and classical artists such as Osvaldo Golijov and Dawn Upshaw.

An award-winning composer, Dresser has received numerous commissions, including a 2015 Doris Duke Impact Award, a 2015 Shifting Foundation Award, and one from Germany’s WDR Radio of Cologne in 1991, among others. In addition to leading myriad ensembles, Dresser has also performed and issued recordings of original scores for two archetypal silent films: Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s French surrealist masterpiece; and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene’s German expressionist classic.

Born in Los Angeles in 1952, Dresser first gained attention in the early ‘70s working with Stanley Crouch’s Black Music Infinity, while simultaneously performing with the San Diego Symphony. He earned a BA and MA from the UC San Diego studying contrabass with maestro Bertram Turetzky before moving to New York in 1986, where he became a ubiquitous presence in the burgeoning Downtown scene, working with such innovators as Tim Berne and John Zorn. He attained international exposure as a member of Anthony Braxton’s celebrated quartet with Marilyn Crispell, and Gerry Hemingway from 1985 to 1994. While living in New York, Dresser was also a member of Arcado String Trio and Tambastics.

In the fall of 2004, Dresser returned to the West Coast to join the faculty of University of California, San Diego. Since 2007 he has been performing telematic music, which explores the interactive potential of live musical performance between multiple locations through high speed internet connections. This has helped facilitate his ability to maintain both an East and West Coast Quintet, as well as participate in the collective Trio M, featuring Melford and Matt Wilson, and a new music trio with Denman Maroney and Matthias Ziegler. I interviewed Dresser in the spring of 2017, shortly after the release of Sedimental You, his second Quintet recording for Clean Feed.

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Troy Collins: Your recent Clean Feed recording, Sedimental You, and 2013’s Nourishments, both feature compositions written for mid-sized ensembles that explore core aspects of melody, harmony and rhythm, more so than small-scale projects (trios, duos, solo recitals, etc.), which seem to focus more on texture and extended techniques. There hasn’t been anything so conventionally “jazz” oriented from you as a bandleader since 1995’s Force Green (Soul Note). Considering this is not actually a new direction for you, was there anything that precipitated this current focus on more heavily arranged work?

Mark Dresser: Well, larger instrumentation requires more structuring. Once I committed to composing for a larger group which included specific musicians with whom I had a history as well as chemistry, it was about exploring this orchestration as a vehicle for my compositions. The goal was to maximize the combined potentials of my music goals and to explore the diverse improvisational potentials of these players. Of course melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and improvisation are universal parameters of jazz and I wanted to also integrate my players improvisational and timbre vocabularies into the music as well.

Solo music has been primarily about finding context for the seemingly inexhaustible sonic possibilities of the bass. With the quintet or the septet, I think about the individual musicians and try to orchestrate them as part of the composition. I also enjoy collecting titles that have potentially inspiring qualities, dedicated to individuals, like “Will Well for Roswell Rudd,” and ironic angles on current events, like “Hobby Lobby Horse” and “TrumpinPutinStoopin.” I use word driven inspiration which is in play with purely musical agendas.

TC: Speaking of ensemble writing, how did you first become involved with telematic music?

MD: My move to San Diego to accept a teaching position at UCSD from NYC in 2004 was rather sudden. It was a shock to be removed from my community of improvising collaborators. My interest with telematic music, really, was coming from the pragmatic needs of wanting to collaborate and play with those I have shared common interests, compounded by the difficulties of traveling with my bass post 9/11. My first year back in California (between 2004-2005), I traveled back to New York nearly every month to play. It was great fun but made no sense physically, economically, and ecologically my carbon footprint was ridiculous. UCSD is a research university and I soon learned that research that integrated digital technology, community building, and environmental issues was supported and encouraged. I began to speak with colleagues on campus about the potential of telematic music, not because I knew what I was doing but rather I had a need to connect and collaborate and explore. Initially I formed a research group at UCSD with visual artist Adrienne Jenek, sound designer and composer Shahrokh Yadegari, and stage designer Victoria Petrovich. At this point in 2007 I had had little telematic experience, with the exception of a single telematic concert in the mid ‘90s with bassist Bert Turetzky at the Electronic Cafe in Santa Monica, CA, and with composer/performer Bun-Ching Lam at the Kitchen in NYC. IT was an intriguing experience. There was ridiculous delay but with the case of Bert, who I knew so well personally and musically, we were able to make something musical happen.

Two people at UCSD helped me get going in telematics, Peter Otto, a music technology researcher, and expert in sound spatialization. Also, Trevor Henthorn – who is the manager of audio computing in UCSD Department of Music who has helped me in innumerable ways with all things technological. However, it was Pauline Oliveros who broke down the fundamentals of telematic music over dinner at the Guelph Festival in Ontario in 2007. She invited my research group, made up of twenty grad students and three faculty, to collaborate weekly with her group at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Chris Chafe and his research group, at Stanford. Chris’s role is very important as he is the author of Jacktrip, an open source network audio program we still use. Also, I began working closely with composer and conductor Sarah Weaver, who was Pauline’s assistant at the time. We’ve produced, composed, and performed many projects together over the past decade.

I couldn’t have sustained this work had I not been collaborating regularly with my UC colleagues, the wonderful trombonist Michael Dessen and co-producer at UC Irvine as well as flutist composer Nicole Mitchell, and the pianist and UC Berkeley Professor Myra Melford.

TC: It seems you’ve found a sympathetic group of peers to work with since relocating, but then, you’re originally from the West Coast, so perhaps that’s not so surprising. Your formative experiences as a bass player are quite varied. Can you talk about your early days, coming up in Stanley Crouch’s Black Music Infinity (with Bobby Bradford, Arthur Blythe, James Newton, and David Murray) while simultaneously performing with the San Diego Symphony and studying contrabass at UC San Diego with maestro Bertram Turetzky?

MD: I met Bert Turetzky in 1969 at the Los Angeles Bass Club Convention. After a brief conversation following his astonishing solo concert, he asked me where I was going to college as he taught at UCSD. I told him Indiana University. He sized me up quickly and said, “You won’t last there. Give me a call when you’re ready,” and he gave me his card. Literally three weeks after arriving at IU, I gave him a call and the following year I moved to San Diego to study with him. Through Bert’s holistic approach of teaching music that emphasized musicianship and artistry through all types of chamber music including Renaissance, the classical music canon, contemporary music, and jazz, I thrived. It was Bert who first introduced me to the music of Horace Tapscott and the recordings of Bobby Bradford and John Carter. Then he invited the writer and then drummer, Stanley Crouch, to give a lecture at UCSD. The following summer Bert was teaching chamber music at the Claremont Music Festival in Pomona. Stanley happened to live and teach at Pomona College. After the festival Stanley invited me to play in trio with him and Bobby Bradford. It was completely exciting. I was way over my head playing with Bobby, an established master, and hanging with Stanley who is an intellectually brilliant man. I ended up staying in Pomona for a month afterwards, playing and listening to records, and talking morning to night. Both Bert and Stanley encouraged me to self-identify with being an artist rather than an instrumentalist. The point was to develop one’s own sound, and eventually one’s own music. Stanley led a band called Black Music Infinity that included Arthur Blythe and Bobby. Soon James Newton joined the band and shortly afterwards David Murray moved down from Oakland to study at Pomona. There was also a wonderful trumpet player, Walter Lowe, who played with the band.

Without a doubt this was one of the most artistically and personally dynamic periods of growth in my life. Over those 2-1/2 years of regular rehearsal, we probably performed no more than six concerts. Though I loved studying with Bert as well as the excitement playing in Stanley’s band, and playing local gigs in San Diego, I ended up dropping out of UCSD. After a few months of floundering I briefly moved back to LA for three months to practice for an audition for the San Diego Symphony, which I won. There was some pressure by some in the band not to join the orchestra. Thankfully Bobby encouraged me to go for it. So, for the next couple of years I lived this complicated life of playing with the symphony while playing with Stanley’s band.

Stanley’s band started to dissolve as Arthur Blythe then David Murray individually moved to NY. By ‘74 I was fed up with the orchestra. I ended up going on a three-week vacation to NY in ‘75, but once I arrive in NY I saw no reason to return home and end up spending the next two years between NY and New Haven.

TC: When did you meet Anthony Braxton, and what was it like touring and recording with him for a decade, throughout the eighties and nineties?

MD: I met Anthony Braxton musically for the first time in 1978 when Ray Anderson recommended me to him for an Eric Dolphy Memorial Concert in San Jose, CA, with a wonderful quintet including master musicians Barbara Donald (trumpet), Sonny Simmons (alto), and the drummer Eddie Marshall. It was an especially moving concert for me; I was the youngest by far, and had barely documented any of my music, at the beginning of my “career.” In addition to playing with these incredible musicians, we were also playing from photocopies of Eric Dolphy’s hand written charts, brought to us by his parents. At the end of the concert Anthony was very complimentary and said if I lived on the East Coast he’d like to play together. Performing with Anthony Braxton had been a dream of mine for years but it wasn’t until 1985 while living in Rome, a year past my Fulbright Fellowship had ended, that I received a call from drummer Gerry Hemingway asking if I could join the quartet in a couple days in Ljubljana to finish out a two-week tour with the quartet. I met Anthony, Marilyn (for the first time), and Gerry 15 minutes before the first concert began and Anthony called some of the hardest tunes for an hour-long continuous set, including a fifty-page completely notated score. It was trial by fire and I was sure that I had blown the audition, but in fact it was the first of nine years with the quartet.

I can’t overstate how significant it is playing with Anthony – as a leader, as a composer, and as a person. As a leader, he empowers the members in his bands. He makes one feel that your contributions are most highly valued by him. After every concert, he thanks everyone for “their music.” He infuses the band environment with incredible positivity and trust. His music balances responsibility and freedom in a singular way. His music is on one hand some of the most rigorous I’ve ever played, yet he is not fixated with the primacy of accuracy of the notation, but rather what is between improvisation and the modular framework of his compositions, in which anyone can insert another composition from the repertoire as a solo or accompaniment. His music invites you to enter a liminal world of possibility and creativity.

As a person, he can be astonishingly kind, caring, and humble. He is also one of the most courageous artists I’ve ever known. He is completely uncompromising in his direction. Throughout his career he had been pressured to conform to certain trends for career reasons and he never flinched and changed one iota from what he believed and the music he loved. As a result, he sacrificed a lot. This kind of conviction, honesty, and dedication to being a true artist, continues to be very inspiring. He has a tremendous sense of humor, irony, and joy; both taciturnly serious and mirthful at the same time. Playing with Anthony’s quartet changed how I was perceived by the press as well as by other musicians. Working in the quartet (especially with drummer Gerry Hemingway, with whom I had had been investigating rhythm section ideas for years), I was able to develop rhythmic ideas that had been introduced to me by rhythmic theorist Ed Harkins with Gerry that we brought to Anthony’s charts, which later came to the fore in my own music. All in all, working with Anthony’s quartet for nine years was a great privilege. There were moments when I felt that the chemistry of the quartet was a perfect world, one in which there were no mistakes, just choices where one could express the totality of one’s self.

TC: You’ve known Gerry Hemingway for a long time; can you talk about your formative years playing together?

MD: I met Gerry Hemingway in 1975 in New Haven. I was 23 at the time and was on a three-week trip with a girlfriend to New York from San Diego. Due to my car being vandalized on our first day in NY, we parked it in New Haven where we had had friends. We decided to move to New Haven and ended up renting a house on Dwight St. down the block from Gerry, then 19. Also in town at that time was Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, Mark Helias, Robert Dick, Jay Hoggard, Pheeroan akLaff, Dwight Andrews, Jane Ira Bloom, Wes Brown, and Kent McLagan.

My first musical encounter with Gerry was when he invited me for a radio interview on his weekly radio broadcast at Yale, in which he played an incredibly broad array of world and improvised music. Gerry’s essentially self-taught; he never finished college but has always been a voracious listener, music collector, and reader of literature. Though he wasn’t technically a student he took advantage of all the great musicians coming through Yale as well as auditing events at Wesleyan, including studying privately with the great Carnatic drummer Ramnid V Rhagavan and the Ghanian drum master Abraham Adzenyah. He was uncommonly confident, creative, and driven. At 19 he was not only giving solo concerts but a series of four solo concerts, each one dedicated to a different drum master: Chick Webb, Max Roach, Sunny Murray, and Tony Williams. He’s been a gifted composer as long as I’ve known him. He has an uncommon ability to embrace complexity. He wrote a beautiful piece which I recorded, “Threnody for Charles Mingus” for eight basses on my first solo cassette, “Bass Excursions.” Each bass part was written in a different tuning and all the parts were in natural harmonics. It still amazes me that he had that much knowledge about the overtone series and the bass that he could create vertical harmonies in a compelling form.

We developed a musical connection based on a mutual love for Charles Mingus’ music; in particular, our shared interest in metric modulation. It became our focus as a rhythm section. Gerry had another amazing piece, “Outerbridge Crossing,” which was a study in metric modulation that we played with Ray Anderson’s quartet during his first tour in Europe, which was also my first European tour. After the tour, I returned to San Diego and decided to go back to finish my BA and begin an MA. It wasn’t until 1985 when Gerry called me to join Anthony Braxton that we began playing a lot together again. I soon moved back to the East Coast in 1986. When we first arrived, my wife and I stayed at Gerry’s apartment in Long Island City, and we started playing a lot together in different groups, including the collective Ten Ren Ren with Don Byron and Brandon Ross, and also in the collective Tambastics, with Robert Dick and Denman Maroney. I soon began to play in Gerry’s great quintet with Michael Moore, Ernst Reijseger, and Walter Wierbos in the ‘90s.

TC: Speaking of long-term associations, you’ve been working with Denman Maroney for quite some time as well. His “hyperpiano” approach to his instrument yields a similar range of timbres as your extended techniques for contrabass. Can you talk about your working relationship?

MD: I met Denman Maroney in 1986 at a Braxton Quartet concert at the old Knitting Factory in NYC. He gave me a CD of his music and months later he invited me to play an improvised duo set at PS 122. The concert was a revelation to me. Denman has developed a deeply personal and broad vocabulary of playing non-fixed preparations inside the piano, which he calls “hyperpiano.” He has so much in common with the way I hear and think about creating textures on the bass – in particular, the harmonics and bitonal harmonies of the string. As well, Denman has deep polyrhythmic abilities. It just made sense to include him in the nearly all my musical projects from the late ‘80s until the time I left NY in 2004.

Around 1988 I invited Denman to join a collective trio with the flute pioneer, Robert Dick, and Gerry Hemingway that later became Tambastics. We recorded a self-titled CD in 1992 on Music and Arts. Next I wanted to write for more musicians and formed a quintet that included Dave Douglas, Theo Bleckmann, and Phil Haynes. The process of working with these musicians involved getting together and improvising with them, becoming familiar with their personal vocabularies of sound and composing for them, in particular. We recorded Force Green on Soul Note in 1995.

My first tour as a band leader was in 1994 in trio with Denman and Dave Douglas. I had written a score for the silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the process of composing for the film I improvised with the movie, recorded, and then edited the best ideas and developed them. I also asked Denman to improvise and record with the picture, which I studied, and got ideas how to frame his vocabulary within the written leitmotifs.

I had also been commissioned to compose a work for the wonderful Swiss multi-flutist Matthias Ziegler, who similarly to Denman, had created his own sonic and rhythmic vocabularies. As well, Matthias had done a lot of research in unorthodox amplification for the flutes, especially with the low flutes, in order to musically utilize his extended techniques. It was similar to the work in amplifying the bass that I had been developing since 1983, with magnetic pick-ups located at the top of the bass and later built into the fingerboard by Kent McLagan in 2000. In short, it made sense to bring Matthias and Denman together in trio. We started performing together in 1999 and it’s gratifying that we continue to perform together to this day. We recorded one CD, Aquifer, in 2006 on Cryptogramophone.

In 2001 we made a duo CD, Duologues, on the Victo label following a concert at the Victo Festival in Victoriaville, Quebec. Though the CD is totally improvised we’d get together weekly to play, and when we stumbled upon textures that were new to us, we’d stop and ask, “what was that” and loosely identified, catalogued and developed a series of new textures. It was a process introduced to me by the brilliant saxophonist, composer, and electronic musician, Earl Howard, who first advocated keeping track and organizing one’s personal vocabulary of sounds.

In 2010, I wrote a quintet book that featured Denman with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Michael Dessen, and alternating drummers Michael Sarin and Tom Rainey. In all these projects, I’ve learned a lot about my own music through playing with Denman. He has a deeply compositional approach and brings this awareness into his improvising.

TC: Considering the longstanding working relationships you’ve had with your East Coast colleagues, I’m wondering if you see the same sort of potential developing with any of the musicians you’ve met on the West Coast since your relocation? Michael Dessen and Nicole Mitchell (to name but two), seem to be part of many of your projects as of late, for example.

MD: My musical relationships on the West Coast are similarly deep, but are different, as the individuals are different. I feel a very special chemistry and empathy with Myra Melford, which has been honed through the past thirteen years of working together in diverse projects that include an electro-acoustic quartet with Bob Ostertag and the late David Wessel on laptops, to all the telematic concerts that we’ve been working on together since 2008, and to the collective, Trio M with the joyful and hyper musical drummer, Matt Wilson. Myra’s a real musical force. She plays with a powerful melodic sensibility, rhythmic power, and sound. She brings a palpable energetic level to the music that I hear, feel, and continue to find inspiring.

Michael Dessen is a great friend and very important collaborator in my musical evolution, especially since 2008 with the telematic work. Together we’ve co-produced multiple concerts, the majority of them we’ve done with our colleagues in Europe (Matthias Ziegler and Gerry Hemingway in Switzerland), those in Seoul, Korea, and our partners on the East Coast. He also composes, and performs and is the point person in the technical coordination. Also, we’ve co-taught courses together in telepresence, between UCSD and UCI.

In 2010 when I decided to create a book of music for a quintet, it was with Michael whom I regularly checked out my new music through the telematic connection – even though he lives about 80 miles away, we could decide to rehearse and within ten minutes we’d be checking out my new sketches and developing the music. Besides being a blackbelt trombonist and musician he’s really smart, analytical, and a good sounding board for my ideas. He was the only person who played in both my West and East Coast versions and is part of my septet. I’ve learned a lot about my own music through playing various versions of new works with Michael, often telematically.

Also, I feel a special musical and human connection with Nicole Mitchell. She was totally game to check out the telematic work as a player and composer as soon as she arrived at UCI. As a flutist, she’s fantastic, so fast in learning music and improvisationally she brings a great sense of invention and playfulness that is rhythmically, melodically and sonically vital. There’s a spiritual dimension to her music and person that I love.

Joshua White has been the musician from San Diego that I feel the most musical chemistry. He’s a fearless improviser and awesome pianist. I trust his musical instincts implicitly. The music jumps to another level whenever he plays. When I conceived of a West Coast quintet as well as my septet it was Joshua I had in mind.

TC: You mentioned before that you often compose with different players in mind. How do personal and stylistic dynamics end up shaping the inner workings of your various groups?

MD: Each person impacts the music differently. Generally I have a sense of the emotional direction of each piece, and carefully choose how each player or grouping of players might impact the music in terms of instrumental color and chemistry. For example, on “Newtown Char” from Sedimental You, dedicated to the tragedies in Newtown and Charleston, it starts with a bass clarinet solo into an ostinato composed for Marty Ehrlich. It was informed by a cut on Marty’s beautiful, CD, Fables (Tzadik, 2010) which begins with a particularly soulful and mournful bass clarinet ostinato. I knew Marty would improvise a fitting invocation, setting up the ostinato and the notated accompaniment that follows. In “TrumpinPutinStoopin,” I knew Michael Dessen would improvisationally bring the right approach to the introduction. There are many examples in which my choices both compositionally and improvisationally are informed by the specific individuals in the group.

TC: In reference to performing, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

MD: Ultimately a recording and a live performance are two different musical processes. Performing in a studio requires a special kind of experience both in performing and listening. Performance wise it is a challenge to learn how to limit one’s movement so that all of the sound is directed into the microphone, especially for a rhythm section. Getting a hook-up between the bass and drums is really different, as both are typically recorded in isolation and we’re listening to each other solely through headphones – compared to the bandstand in which we can hear and feel, not only the sound, but the energetic connection achieved through close proximity of live performance. To get the same result in the studio is different. Yet the result achieved in the studio often has more sound detail than live performance because of close microphone placement and post production work. When recording Sedimental You we were recorded and mixed by master engineer Ron St. Germain whose incredible skill and imagination brought the maximum richness of each instrument and reinforced the architecture of each piece. There are amazing potentials in the studio as a production tool. One can achieve results unattainable in live performance. I look forward to further exploring this more.

TC: In the same line of thought, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival copies (CDs, vinyl) versus more ephemeral formats (downloads, streaming)?

MD: As we all know the recording industry has dramatically changed in the last forty years in terms of format, cost, and the dramatic diminution of its economic value, especially since streaming. My first solo recording was a self-released cassette and I’ve recorded, LPs, CDs, and DVDs. There’s a movement towards self-production by artists themselves, which makes sense on many levels, yet I’ve not participated in this. The only constant, is artists have a need to document their evolving work. These recordings don’t happen by themselves. It manifests because of dogged determination and cooperation by other artists, engineers, foundations, and record companies that believe in and value the power of music. No doubt the tides of technology will continue change and musicians will continue to adjust and find ways document and disseminate their work.

TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

MD: I have some solo projects in the works, a book, CD/DVD, and a web document related to the solo work and telematics. I’d like to compose another set of music for the Mark Dresser 7 or an even larger group. There are continuing telematic projects in the planning as well as future touring, in solo, with the septet, my trio, and the ongoing cooperative groups, Trio M, and Jones Jones.

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