Nourishments is an emphatic musical statement from a seasoned bandleader, returning to the front of a traditional quintet.
Nourishments, Mark Dresser Quintet (Denman Maroney, hyperpiano, Mark Dresser, bass, Michael Dessen, trombone, Michael Sarin, drums, Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone, Tom Rainey, drums), Clean Feed.
By Steve Mossberg
Like so many jazz musicians that live outside of New York City, bassist Mark Dresser doesn’t always get as much attention as he deserves. Though he’s been part of some fantastic collaborative projects since he moved to San Diego to teach in 2004, the virtuoso player and composer has recorded notoriously few sessions under his own name. After years of chamber music, film soundtracks, solo recordings, bass duets, and live performances done in web simulcast by musicians on opposite coasts, the new recording Nourishments is Dresser’s triumphant return to the good old jazz quintet format, and one well worth the wait.
The album is clearly born out of the collaborations Dresser has been a part of over the years. Several of the compositions show the influence of Rudresh Mahanthappa, the alto saxophonist that has brought so many Southern Indian rhythms to the table in contemporary jazz. The LP’s opening track, “Not Withstanding,” which Mahanthappa co-wrote with the leader, features whirling melodic phrases that grow shorter and faster, building in intensity amid an disorienting array of changing rhythmic feels that the band navigates with aplomb. The opening duet on “Rasaman” is built on improvisations Dresser has done with trombonist Michael Dessen on the west cost. There are points in several tracks where Dresser’s flexible bowing plays off of the scraped strings and ‘bending’ notes of his old partner Denman Maroney’s modified “hyperpiano.”
Dresser ended up going with two different drummers on the CD, both veteran New Yorkers who are significant influences on the sound of left-of-center jazz: Tom Rainey and Michael Sarin. Rainey, who sounds something like a delicate hurricane when delivering the off-the-cuff beats on the abstract “Apertivo,” supplies rhythmic precision and a strong, relaxed groove on the downtempo “Canales Rose.” Sarin drives relentlessly at all times, but remains flexible and inventive, even when pushing his bandmates to rush into the high crescendos on the Thelonious Monk-like title track.
Dresser is a composer who has often stood with at least one foot in the avant-garde over the years, and while Nourishments is by no means a screaming free-jazz affair, it does require some attentive listening. From the sound of his new pieces, the west-coast college professor has managed to stay pretty well abreast of what’s contemporary in New York. The compositions are sprawling and complex, meticulous in construction, with a clever balance of long melodic development with juicy chances handed to soloists to showcase their talents in different, challenging situations. Rhythmically, the sound of the group is very tricky, with few pulses sticking around for too long. In the first five minutes of “Canales Rose” the band explores some of the tune’s melodic material in a slow, broken-down manner before the groove kicks. The unconventional intro will come off as either exhilarating or maddening, depending on your point of view.
The bass playing on Nourishments is fantastic. Dresser is not one to show off his technique with fast playing and agile flourishes, but his virtuosity is evident in other ways. When the group is playing together in full quintet mode, as in the tune “Telemojo,” his bass lines possess all the wit and soul of the great players, such as Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers. The bass solos, often unaccompanied, are performed with a classical precision and a mature tone that one would expect from a concert bassist. He always gives the impression that he is in complete control of his instrument’s voice. It is this confident understatement that allows Dresser to make music of challenging complexity sound compelling and natural.
Unlike the leader, Mahanthappa does not minimize his abilities. As on all his recordings, he is an unrestrainedly fast player, churning out a million notes a minute. That said, his notes always seem to exude considerable meaning. On the title track, he has an excellent moment of simultaneous soloing with Dessen. The trombonist, embracing his instrument’s natural textures, plays rich, sensuous, and slow-building phrases. Mahanthappa is in high gear here, but he weaves his notes together so cleverly that they create a mosaic effect, complementing the trombonist’s lines rather than obscuring them. Maroney is fleet and sensitive on “hyperpiano,” always sympathetic to his bandmates and the compositions alike. Throughout the recording, he demonstrates his rare ability to take the idea of playing a piano’s strings with foreign objects beyond the realm of novelty or gimmickery. His playing on Nourishments is always worth listening to, whether the musician is in the background or foreground.
Nourishments is an emphatic musical statement from a seasoned bandleader, returning to the front of a traditional quintet, but it is far richer because of the creative strength Dresser draws from his band mates. It’s impossible to miss the mutual respect and joy of collaboration in all of the album’s quick turns, sharp corners, and jagged edges. The music is tough and pretty, smart and fun, and sounds brand new, though it comes from experienced hands.