Interview in Avant Music News

Mark DresserMark Dresser (news)

Veteran bassist Mark Dresser was kind enough to answer a handful of our questions about his music and career.  Mark has played with John Zorn, Ray Anderson, Jane Ira Bloom, Tim Berne,Gerry Hemingway, Anthony Davis, Dave Douglas, Satoko Fujii, Bob Ostertag, Joe Lovano, and many others.  You can learn more about him and his latest activities at his website,

You’ve spent a lot of time over the years exploring aspects of solo bass. What led you back to the group format inNourishments?

I’ve been working between improvisation and composition, exploring the sound potentials of the bass in recordings and performance since 1983. I’ve also been composing and performing ensemble music as well since 1988. Initially I was composing for the groups as an extension of my solo music especially with the cooperative groups, Tambastics with flutist Robert Dick, drummer Gerry Hemingway and hyperpianst Denman Maroney. This was followed by composing for the string trio, Arcado with violinist Mark Feldman and cellists Hank Roberts and Ernst Reijseger, documented on five different CDs, three of which were recorded on Winter and Winter including one with the WDR Orchestra of Cologne, a live trio recording on Avant, and finally the collaboration with the Trio du Clarinets (Enja). With each new band my focus became broader than solely making a music from extended techniques and I became more and more interested in the integrating personal sound vocabularies of my bandmates within universal parameters of music, i.e. melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and form.

In the early 90’s, I put together the quintet, Force Green (Soul Note), with Dave Douglas, Theo Bleckmann, Denman Maroney and Phil Haynes. In the beginning of the 2000’s my main compositional focus was the trio with Matthias Ziegler and Denman Maroney. With this trio I was able to explore polyrhythm, changing tempos, melody buoyed by a broad sound world of extended techniques that Matthias, Denman, and I share. We recorded the CD, Aquifer (Cryptogramophone). I also co-lead a quartet with Denman Maroney with drummer Michael Sarin, and the great, late singer, Alexandra Montano. This was less exotic sonically and was more focused on expanding the song form. We recorded the CD, Time Changes (Cryptogramophone) released in 2005.

In 2004, I moved back to California to teach at UC San Diego after having spent the previous eighteen years in New York City. It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to interact with the local San Diego scene. I was involved with three cooperative groups that had me touring and recording, Trio M with Myra Melford and Matt Wilson, Mauger with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Gerry Hemingway, and Jones Jones with Larry Ochs and Vladimir Tarasov. I still wanted to form my own group and it made sense to have a west coast ensemble to develop my new music, which included pianist Joshua White, saxophonist Tripp Sprague, trombonist Michael Dessen, and drummer Duncan Moore. As well I formed an east coast band so I could play this repertoire in New York with my long time collaborators: Denman Maroney, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Michael Dessen, who plays in both the west and east coast quartet, and drummers Michael Sarin and Tom Rainey.

How did Nourishments come about?

In 2008 I was approached by a festival in France to make a proposal for a concert based on a culinary theme. I dreamed up a project that included chef, Paul Canales, digital artists Ligorano/Reese, animator Sarah Jane Lapp and a cast of musicians. In the end I didn’t get the funding for the project, though I started to realize aspects of this project in steps. Firstly a collaboration with Paul Canales and Trio M (Myra Melford and Matt Wilson). We would exchange recorded and notated musical themes with Chef Paul, an amateur musician himself, and in exchange he’d send us photos of dishes he had created with titles. This went on for at least six months. We made two concerts together in which we performed while Paul cooked for dining audiences between musical sets.

The next step was with animator Sarah Jane Lapp who has been a long time collaborator since 2000. In summer 2010 Sarah Jane and I spent a couple of weeks in residence in Berkeley, CA at the Maybeck House. We spent time in Paul Canales kitchen, video taping the process, composing and creating drawings. Sarah Jane and I worked together on this collaboration for a couple more months over the next year which ended in the premier of Nourishments for a telematic concert between NYU and UC San Diego, Inspiraling 2011: Telematic Jazz Explorations that included conductor/composer Sarah Weaver, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, Oliver Lake on alto, Tomas Ulrich on cello, Amir El Saffar on trumpet and Ikue Mori on laptop in New York and from San Diego included trombonist/composer Michael Dessen, pianist Joshua White, flutist Nicole Mitchell, and myself on bass. The title tune of the CD, Nourishments, is an arrangement of the telematic composition for my east coast quintet.

Your playing on Nourishments is subtle. On the surface, the music sometimes comes across as rather straight-ahead, but the more I listen to it, the more I find that there’s a lot of interesting things going on underneath. Did you set out for the tracks to exhibit this understated nature?

I intended to compose music for a quintet instrumentation of two horns and rhythm section, one that is admittedly typical in jazz formations. But I also composed and arranged the music specifically for these musicians in mind. I think of my music as being highly collaborative and I rewrite the music several times before it reaches it’s final arrangement. In this band, all the members I have long performing histories. Denman I’ve been playing for over twenty five years and Rudresh, who is newest to my music, we’ve been working together off and on for nine years Whereas earlier CDs were weighted towards timbre investigation, this quintet book focused on melody, harmony, and cyclical forms. I intended that these pieces would be well suited to the improvisational strengths of these particular musicians. I also wanted to integrate the timbre extensions and microtonal vocabularies that I have explored with Denman in earlier projects. I tried to find a musical balance bringing together all of those musical areas that I love.

You’ve been using telematics (long-distance musical collaboration in live performance) for a while. What are the challenges and rewards of the technology? Do you think that remote collaboration will grow in the future?

I’ve been actively researching, rehearsing and performing live with musicians in different geographical locations via high speed internet which we refer to as “telematic music” since 2007. Thanks to composer/improviser/pioneer Pauline Oliveros who coached me in the fundamentals, as well as to composer/performer/developer Chris Chafe who created JackTrip, an open source platform allowing musicians in different geographical locations, we can perform live events in different geographic locations with multi-channel uncompressed audio. As a result of being on faculty at UCSD I have the support and access to high bandwidth fiber optic network, commonly known as Internet2. As well I work with a team of technologists and artistic coordinators who share an excitement about the potential of the telematic medium for a community of improvisers, composers and visual artists. These include, Sarah Weaver, Michael Dessen, Myra Melford, Jason Robinson, and several others around the globe. The audio quality is really impressive and the video potentials are quite promising as well. The ability to rehearse with colleagues at distance is an indisputable advantage allowing us to develop music over time as well as not having to get into a car or on a plane to work. The concerts have been very gratifying overall however they’re highly labor intensive and have a production complexity that is closer to film, TV and theater than traditional music performance. Though we can definitely transcend geographical distance, including compositional work-arounds for the delay that occurs because of distance, we can’t transcend is time zones. To perform with my friends with Zurich for example, a 9pm show in Switzerland is a noon show in San Diego. As well this level of network is only available to those with high level Internet, usually only found at research universities.

One of my first experiences with your music is the mid-eighties quartet work with Anthony Braxton, Marilyn Crispell, and Gerry Hemingway. It was quite eye opening. More recently, you joined Ms. Crispell and Mr. Hemingway to revisit part of the Braxton catalog. What was it like getting together with these folks after almost 30 years?

Marilyn, Gerry, and I were invited to perform for Anthony Braxton’s 65th birthday party at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City in June, 2010. We were all very happy to celebrate Anthony and his music. As a quartet we played together for nearly a decade. It was a significant life changing experience for all of us and we developed a very special musical synergy. Braxton’s music and leadership style is very special He has a singular way of empowering his bandmates and sets up a collaborative environment of trust, responsibility and freedom. Playing with Anthony Braxton also launched my career in a significant way.

As the three of us live in different cities, (Woodstock, Lucerne, and San Diego) We agreed upon some of Anthony’s more direct repertoire, those pieces that we could rehearse individually and put together quickly at a sound check. The performance itself was particularly exciting as we were playing for Anthony whom I hadn’t seen in years and for a packed audience of friends and fans at Le Poisson Rouge in NY. At the end of the set, Anthony picked up his horn and joined us. Fortunately this set was recorded by NPR, Two Sets from Anthony Braxton’s 65th Birthday Celebration. Afterwards we were invited to record a trio CD of Anthony’s music by John Zorn for his label, Tzadik. I’m extremely happy that this music is documented.

The UC San Diego music department is home to many well-known “creative” musicians. What is it like to be in such an environment?

I musically grew up in the UC San Diego environment. I was a student there at three different periods (in the early 70’s, the late 70’s and mid 80’s.) I was initially attracted to UCSD after hearing the great Bert Turetzky perform. Afterwards I lived in New York City for nearly twenty years before returning to UCSD, as faculty in 2004. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with the trumpeter/rhythmic theorist Ed Harkins, the singular percussionist and conductor Steven Schick, the Pulitzer Prize winning composer Roger Reynolds, and world renowned pianist and composer Anthony Davis. As a research university UCSD has been extraordinarily supportive of my creative activities, including the telematic music research, furthering my solo music with the 2010 production of the CD/DVDGUTS: Bass Explorations, Investigations and Explanations (Kadima Collective), and documenting other recording projects. Also I must mention the high caliber of the students who come to study UCSD. It continues to be a highly inspiring and energetic environment.

Can you share any of your plans for the next few months, such as releases and performances?

In December I’m performing music from Nourishments with my East Coast quintet featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa, Michael Dessen, Denman Maroney and Michael Sarin at Firehouse 12 in New Haven on the 13th and on the 21st atCornelia Street Cafe in NYC. On December 15th I’m participating in a telematic performance, Time Axiom: A Telematic Music Concert between musicians in New York, Belfast and Zurich. Early 2014 I have performances with the iconic drummer Han Bennink, violinist/violist Mary Oliver, and Michael Dessen. I’m also working on some new solo music and performances and a duo recording with Anthony Davis. In Spring I will be in Europe on sabbatical doing some composing and giving concerts with Myra Melford and Gerry Hemingway, some solo concerts, including the Ulrichsberg Kaliedophon, a special project in Denmark called Experimentarium led by violist/composer Marius Ungureanu, collaborations with the noted Italian bassists, Daniele Roccato as well as the German bassist, Sebastian Gramss.