In the Belly of the Bass: Mark Dresser Disemboweled
Gut-bucket: n. 1. An early type of jazz characterized by a strong beat and rollicking delivery, similar to barrelhouse. 2. A homemade bass instrument.
Contrabassist and composer Mark Dresser has built a remarkable career by mastering a well-defined universe of extended techniques employed in a broad range of musical situations. The 58-year old Los Angeles native enrolled in the University of California at San Diego in 1971 under the tutelage of ground-breaking eclectic virtuoso Bertram Turetzky, but his studies were interrupted by a two-year stint with the San Diego Symphony (1972-’74). He was also involved in Southern California’s free-jazz scene before moving to New York in 1975 when he joined a group of fellow LA ex-patriots led by then-drummer Stanley Crouch, Black Music Infinity (that included James Newton, Arthur Blythe, David Murray, Bobby Bradford, and Walter Lowe). But Dresser felt “crushed” in New York and returned to the West Coast in 1977 and returned to UCSD in 1980. In 1982 he earned his Bachelor’s Degree and in 1983 was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study with bel canto-style master Franco Petracchi, co-founder of the Walter Staufer Academy in Cremona. In Europe he met Anthony Braxton and became his regular bassist. He returned to San Diego in 1985, earning his Master’s Degree the next year. In July of 1986 he re-relocated to New York where he lived until July of 2004, when he accepted the position at UCSD left vacant by Turetzky’s retirement.
Of over 115 recording projects he’s played on, almost 30 are as leader, most notably of his group, Force Green. His first solo recordings, Invocation (Knitting Factory 173, 1995) and Unveil (Clean Feed CF043, 2005) show how his command of harmonics, bow effects and multi-tonal single string playing, as well as improvising in multiple meters and metrically modulating tempos, have set a standard in contemporary bass playing few have rivaled. It was no surprise to 30-plus contrabassists gathered on the corner of Spring and Bowery Streets on August 27, 2002 to pay tribute to the late Wilber Morris when his brother and our conductor, Butch, carefully considering the conglomeration, called out: “Dresser! Get us started!”
Mark Dresser’s most recent solo outing, Guts: Bass Explorations, Investigations, Explanations (Kadima KCR Triptych 1, 2010) is also the first release from the Jerusalem-based Kadima Collective Recordings “Triptych” series and includes a booklet, a CD, and a DVD – hence, whence “triptych.” (The label boasts future releases including: Deep Tones for Peace—featuring performances by thirteen contrabassists, including Dresser, as well as a telematic performance involving composer/conductor Sarah Weaver between Jerusalem and New York and a 90-minute documentary about the Jerusalem-based concerts—and Confidentially by Paris-based contrabassist extraordinaire Joëlle Leandre.)
The release’s 12-page “art booklet” alternates between excellent descriptive artwork by Dresser’s “friend, animator, film-maker, and collaborator,” fellow Fulbright recipient Sarah Jane Lapp; photographs by journalist and managing editor of AllAboutJazz Laurence Donahue-Greene and film-maker Francois Lagarde, as well as liner notes written by Dresser.
These notes include descriptions of significant events during the six-year hiatus between Unveil and Guts, and are useful even for those not familiar with his previous work. Along with information on recording technology (where and when the recordings took place and the names of the recording and mixing engineers), Dresser positively impacts the apprehension of the CD’s eleven tracks by describing the three instruments used and their associated technology. He throws an inside curve when introducing his “3/4 Hungarian-made instrument with a fake label marked Nicolo Bianchi, Milano 1996,” but many listeners will appreciate knowing on which tracks his 7/8 Hawkes & Son’s “Professor” is played. Knowing that these instruments use Kent McLagen fingerboard pickups routed through a network comprised of a Jim Hemingway preamp, Walter Woods amp, and an Epifani speaker cabinet informs the listener that the performances on the UCSD’s Hammond Ashley 5-string contrabass violin are entirely acoustic. The track listings and timings for the CD are spartan, but accurate, and Dresser includes brief descriptions of each piece at the end of the booklet, while the DVD includes more detail about the CD.
… presents 11 pieces, nine by Dresser and two by Roger Reynolds. The first eight tracks have titles that border on the scatological: “Visceras,” “Spleendeed,” “Innard Pulse,” “Dermus,” “Duohandum,” “K-tude” and “S’Offal.” This multiple tiered play on jazz, a genre grounded in extended techniques, and one of the nicknames of the contrabass, gutbucket, is a bit of fun, but the music is anything but glib. Those knowing Dresser from his tours should recognize the counterfeit Bianchi (modified with a removable neck for air travel) that he uses on the opening piece, “Visceras,” on the two penultimate pieces composed by Reynolds, “imAge/contrabass” and “imagE/contrabass,” and on the final piece, “Ekoneni,” a beautiful danceable tune by Dresser dedicated to the late Zimbabwean author, Yvonne Vera. According to Dresser, its response is fast so the listener hears a clear, direct voice that captures every nuance of the extended techniques employed. The bass is fitted with two sets of magnetic pickups in the fingerboard, but this doesn’t change the overall sound of the instrument, which becomes clear when listening to the two tracks, “Spleendeed” and “K-tude,” that he plays on his larger Hawkes contrabass, an instrument manufactured by the family-owned business that later merged with Boosey & Company to become the world’s leading publisher of sheet music. While mass produced mainly for British military bands, Hawkes contrabasses are beautiful, hand-crafted instruments with a distinctive voice. Although the pickup system is the same for both instruments, the listener can hear how the Hawkes’s notes have more “chest” to them than the almost coloratura resonance of the faux Bianchi. There is a typo on the eighth page of the booklet that can lead one to believe that two instruments were played on “K-tude,” but the last sentence of Dresser’s notes states, “There are no overdubs on this CD.” Listening to “K-tude,” a piece comprised entirely of rapid-fire arco arpeggios performed in perpetuo moto, I couldn’t hear a point where he could change instruments. I decided to contact Mark to clear up my confusion. He assured me that the bass used on track #6 is his Hawkes and not the university’s Ashley, which is used on five, not six, of the tracks.
Each piece on the Guts CD focuses on a particular aspect of the extended techniques Dresser has explored and expanded for nearly four decades. An overview of these techniques is presented in …
… the DVD …
… which is in four parts: (1) Explorations: A Conversation with composer Roger Reynolds – A video of Reynolds and Dresser discussing the history of their collaboration, philosophies about collaboration in general, and the impact of their collaboration on each other. Reynolds does most of the talking, but Dresser is the focus. My take on it is that Dresser, who is by-and-large an improviser of the highest rank, has inspired a new standard of collaboration between composer and performer. While the discussion between the two is edited and the glare of the camera lights elicits a kind of Heisenberg effect, there is a second half of the meeting where Dresser demonstrates some of his arsenal of extended techniques that are best heard through amplification to Reynolds, who queries and comments about them. There are several points where Reynolds and Dresser are so absorbed in the process that the viewer can feel like a fly on the wall. One gets to see how Dresser approaches the process of collaboration and, while the techniques he discusses – flautando, subharmonics, vertical bowing, bitones, diagonal bowing, gravity drops, and multiphonics – are explained elsewhere in the DVD, the degree of exposition is enhanced by Reynolds’s observations. Dresser also discusses the McLagen pickup system in detail. There is a subtext in this portion of their dialog regarding extended techniques’ place in music making that could be an opening to deeper philosophical inquiries on the human condition. This section alone, in my opinion, makes Guts worthy of being in every musician’s library.
(2) Investigations: Approaches to Making Music – an edited interview with Dresser where he presents his philosophies about and approaches to making music as well as more than a bit of biographical information. Dresser admits that Jimi Hendrix was an early inspiration:
When … I heard what you could do with feedback and harmonics … it hit a light-bulb; it’s like playing ponticello on the bass. It’s like, all of a sudden, you start getting the whole spectrum – from the fundamental to the harmonics.
Although most composers know that playing arco sul ponticello reinforces the higher harmonics on a string to point that some or many can sound as loud – or louder – than the fundamental, relating the effect to Hendrix is important. His entire generation knew the music of The Experience and the concert world is peppered with orchestral, big band, chamber ensemble, and solo instrumental versions of his work. The point is that extended techniques are something whose time has come. Dresser also includes as another influence John Cage’s philosophy of listening to the environment as an act of music appreciation. This openness leads Dresser to one of the things I found most significant about this section and Dresser in general: the idea of intuition as technique, something most jazz musicians are familiar with, but goes largely ignored in the groves of academe. If I were using this DVD as a teaching aid, I would have the student watch and discuss this section first.
(3) Extras – a set of PDF files that are accessed by opening the DVD instead of running it. These are meant to be printed and used as virtual handouts for …
(4) Explanations: A Studio Demonstration – a video presentation by Dresser based on his article, “A Personal Pedagogy,” written for John Zorn’s Arcana: Musicians on Music (New York: Granary Books, 2000). This section is what Dresser considers “the heart of the DVD.” This is where he lays out the proverbial “bag of tricks” that comprises so much of his sonic identity. Its chapters are organized in a way that each one leads logically into the next. Beginning with “Harmonic series – a natural phenomenon of string vibration” as the foundation on which the subsequent chapters rest, Dresser demonstrates how to play gravity drops, harmonics up to the 19th partial, harmonics in relation to equal tempered half-steps, artificial harmonics, compound artificial harmonics, pizzicato artificial harmonics, falsetto flautando, subharmonics, arco and pizzicato multiphonics, two-handed pizzicato, double-glissando, bitones, and amplification. Dresser has been writing about some of these techniques (especially multiphonics), but more with the player in mind than the composer. It’s primarily a tool for contrabassists to learn about ways of playing that go beyond what Reynolds considers the “inertia of teaching and institutions” that limit traditional pedagogical methodology to the romantic period of Western art music. This section and the virtual handouts available in Extras make Guts a must-have for every contrabassist. I would go as far as to suggest that every player of a stringed instrument will find something useful in it.
I miss the inclusion in the booklet of timings for this portion of the DVD, only because it would make finding things easier, but there is a simple solution for this; one of the PDFs is the script Dresser wrote for Explanations that makes an excellent place to write down the timings. There are also a few bonuses in this section: (1) the performance of Dresser’s “Bacachaonne” (46:15) that was originally recorded on Unveil and is dedicated to Israel “Cachao” Lopez, the father of the modern mambo; (2) a performance of “Ekoneni” (57:55), the last piece on the CD, that allows one to see how Dresser plays its bitone effects; and (3) a short improvisation at the end of the DVD that puts all of the extended techniques discussed into play.
Guts is not just a new release by Mark Dresser, but an important treatise on the state of music making. I think there will be a point when musicians can be divided into two distinct groups: those who are familiar with it and those who aren’t.