Drew Gress is one of the busiest bassists in New York, leading his own two groups and working with Ravi Coltrane, Fred Hersch, Dave Douglas, Don Byron, Tim Berne, Uri Caine, Erik Friedlander and others. As a composer, he studied with Hank Levy and spent time ghost writing for the Hanna-Barbera cartoon studios. He was artist-in-residence at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia, and he’s received grants from the NEA and Meet The Composer. Asked about the pressure to break new artistic ground, Gress says, “I don’t think it’s worth doing another project unless you have something else to say. That‘s why mine are so few and far between.” His fourth and latest release as leader is The Irrational Numbers (Premonition).
1. Duke Ellington & Ray Brown
“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” (from This One’s For Blanton, Pablo). Ellington, piano; Brown, bass. Recorded in 1972.
Before: Ray Brown has a characteristic place where he places the beat. It’s insistent and very steady. I think he also prided himself on the strength of that beat and his being the pivot for that rhythm. I’ve spoken with a few drummers who’ve played with him and they say that he will assert his supremacy in the first few moments as far as where the beat will be played. The pianist could be Hank Jones, but that’s a total guess. There were some voicings he played that reminded me of a bygone era, perhaps ways of playing and harmony that maybe the younger players of today don’t go to school on, in the same way as the influence of Chick and Herbie and McCoy.
After: Duke. Yeah, I should know this better than I do. My favorite record with Ray Brown is Way Out West. I think it’s important for a bassist to hear that recording because it’s a textbook example of how to fill out a song by yourself, really, with just one additional improvising musician. And the way the songs are presented with such clarity and inside counterpoint, it’s a textbook in how to maintain interest with a minimum of means.
2. George Mraz
“The Peacocks” (from Jazz, Milestone). Mraz, basses. Recorded in 1995.
Before: That was beautiful. I’m going to guess that was George Mraz playing The Peacocks, a Jimmy Rowles tune. What struck me was how much whoever is performing it, whether it’s George or not, really loves that tune. I feel there was tremendous care and love taken with the arrangement of it. It wasn’t just I’ll play the melody up here arco and then have some pizzicato activity below to keep the rhythm locked in. It really held my interest, really eloquent. Great rhythm with the bow, which you don’t hear very often. It’s not easy to play in an improvisational setting with that kind of control of rhythm.
After: I consider George to be somewhere in that bridging area between tradition and more modern extensions of that. There’s something about the way that he approaches the envelope of the pitch and the way he plays time. And there’s something about the attitude and the way he shapes the curve of improvising just through walking quarter notes I find intriguing. He’s one of my favorites at doing that.
3. Oliver Nelson
“Teenie’s Blues” (from The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Impulse). Nelson, Eric Dolphy, alto saxophone; Bill Evans, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Roy Haynes, drums. Recorded in 1961.
Before: [chuckles during Dolphy’s solo] It’s amazing how Jaki Byard’s comping is in call and response with Eric Dolphy on this. I’m not sure what record this is. [listening to Nelson’s solo] It’s some high level motivic manipulation, there. Originally I thought it was Mingus because of the aggressiveness of the quarter notes. The drummer was playing interesting call & response on the snare with the soloist. They were also emphatic with the hi-hat, maybe it was just the way it was recorded, but it felt like he was dictating to the bass player where it should be. It also had a looseness on top from the cymbal time and the general dance of it. I was enjoying it.
After: It didn’t sound like Paul Chambers. I’m so used to hearing him with the Columbia reverb on him. There was more rhythmic variety in his improvisation. I play with Ravi’s group and we opened for Roy Haynes recently. He still sounds absolutely amazing.
4. Hans Glawishnig
“Barretto’s Way” (from Panorama, Sunnyside). Glawishnig, bass; David Binney, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Antonio Sanchez, drums. Recorded in 2006.
Before: I have no idea who that is. Perhaps Avishai Cohen? I think this is from the generation after me, trying to integrate the Latin rhythms into a springboard for improvisation. Some polyrhythmic devices, kind of a discursive thought that the melody would end when it ends and not be bound by bar lines. He stayed close to the role playing function of the bass, which is what the music needs. The alto solo reminded me of some things that David Binney would play. He was very comfortable shifting gears rhythmically in the midst of lines. Just like in speaking; for emphasis you can change the rate at which you speak your words and then trail off, again for emphasis. Whoever it was was very flexible rhythmically. Could be Miguel Zenon, maybe with Ed Simon.
After: Yeah, Hans is a fine player. I liked the opening melody, that was the outstanding feature of the take, I thought. The playing was high level, though it didn’t move me from point A to point B.
5. Victor Wooten
“The Lesson” (from Palmystery, Heads Up). Victor Wooten, bass (no overdubs), hand claps; Roy Wooten, cajon, shakers, hand claps. Released in 2008.
Before: I really enjoyed that. And that’s one of the hardest things to do, to maintain interest in what is essentially a bass solo for several minutes. It was all there, nice melodic sense, sophisticated arrangement. I felt like each note was necessary, nothing gratuitous there. Great rhythm and a nice tune in and of itself. I have no idea who it might be. I was impressed by the technique but it served the music always. To be truly musical and still assert your technique is a real dilemma. I don’t think I’ve found a way to do that myself without toning down the technique. Whoever that is found a way to show all the listeners that obviously they can play a lot of bass, but it’s really a lot of music, and that’s what impressed me about it.
After: Yeah, I though it might be him. I know of him from the Bela Fleck things. Is this all solo? It’s beautiful.
6. Herbie Hancock
“Both Sides Now” (from River: The joni letters, Verve). Hancock, piano; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Dave Holland, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums; Lionel Loueke, guitar. Released in 2007.
Before: What I liked about that piece is how each musician found their own environment in which to exist sonically, so it was like a long-term group improvisation. I was kind of intrigued by the fact that nobody seemed to be particularly interested in soloing or making grand statements or gestures, and so I became more interested as the piece went on. I enjoyed having my attention diverted in a subtle way. It was nice to be invited rather than told what to listen to. I thought the tenor player was influenced by Wayne, but also played less, maybe, than Wayne would play. And the fact that the guitar was there threw me, to tell you the truth. It seemed like the introduction was recorded separately from the track. There was a mix shift or something in there. Were they two separate pieces or were they related to each other?
After: I thought it might be Wayne, the really reserved, languid unhurried nature of “I’m not going to play anything until I hear something to play.” I enjoyed the drumming as well, the brush playing had just the right mix of support and interest. They were serving the music.
Why don’t more people do that?
I don’t think it’s encouraged. I think there’s a real analog to democracy. True democracy is a fearful thing to a lot of people. It does equate to anarchy in a way. When everyone is serving music like that, that’s true democracy on the highest level, of let’s make something together, like really together. Anything these people play is going to have significance. That’s a bold stroke to interpret her [Joni Mitchell’s] music. She’s my wife’s favorite artist.
7. Aladar Pege
“Elvesztettem Paromat” (from Winter Rose, Enja). Pege, bass. Recorded in 1980.
Before: That seemed like a compendium of extended techniques for the bass. To my ear I’m not sure if it was serving a greater musical whole or not. There was the bowing on two of the strings while fingering the notes on the adjacent strings with the left hand, and some flautando and arco effects using the upper partials, natural harmonics and whatever. Musically, it didn’t really reach me. The difficulty is in integrating it into a musical whole. For me, form and function are interwoven in a way, and technique is like a toolbox for the work you choose to do with it. My own musical judgment is that it should serve some other goal you have in mind, unless you’re going after that cinematic chop-shop approach, which can also be very interesting, where you’re literally jumping quickly from one scenario to another. But there was space in between so that led me to believe that’s not what the artist had in mind. It sounded like many different people so I wouldn’t want to venture any guesses.
After: Ah. He’s Hungarian and considered a virtuoso on the bass.
Was that virtuosic?
I suppose [sigh].
Are you bored by virtuosity?
No, not at all. But it has to function as some greater thing to me. Obviously he can move his hands around the instrument quickly. I guess I didn’t feel anything. My grandmother was Hungarian but I can‘t translate that [title]. The only Hungarian words I know are “watch it, rascal” and “calm down, you’re going to get it.”
8. George Russell
“Waltz From Outer Space” (from Jazz In The Space Age, Chessmates). Ernie Royal, Alan Kieger, Marky Markowitz, trumpets; Frank Rehak, David Baker, Bob Brookmeyer, trombones; Jimmy Buffington, French horn; Walt Levinsky, Hal McKusick, alto saxophone; David Young, tenor saxophone; Sol Schlinger, baritone saxophone; Bill Evans, piano; Barry Galbraith, Howard Collins, guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; Charlie Persip, drums. Recorded in 1960.
Before: That was great, so colorful, a really effective way to truly integrate improvisation with the written material. My first guess is George Russell. Is this the record with Bill Evans on it? One way you can tell if the arranger or composer has found a way to integrate the written with the improvisation is when the improviser’s language has been affected in a noticeable way and you don’t hear them speaking their usual language. In this case Bill Evans is out of his element but giving, yielding to that influence and having that inform the improvisation. And it’s super-compositional; the interplay and the counterpoint in that 2nd section is in marked contrast to the first section. And the writing, I thought, was remarkable as well, even the way his backgrounds gradually mutated into a different tonality. He would gradually add instruments and remove the previous ones, kind of like an orchestrational analog to Lutoslawski’s chain concept, where the next idea is born out of the end of the previous idea. So, you have this constantly mutating but somehow unified thing. It was like a giant, slow operating filter that gradually changed the bandwidth it was allowing through. It was interesting to hear that achieved in a purely orchestrational way.
After: The bass player is Milt. He could do anything. He was a totally versatile, amazing human being, too. I met him–he must have been 80 at that point already. A beautiful man, he radiates that through the instrument.
9. Ron Carter
“Bag’s Groove” (from Dear Miles, Blue Note). Carter, bass; Stephen Scott, piano; Payton Crossley, drums; Roger Squitero, percussion. Recorded in 2006.
Before: Well, there are some ideas at play there in rearranging the harmony of the head and the 6/8 underpinning the rhythm. I would like to have heard it extend into the improvisation or truly integrate into it rather than just be the idea for the in and out heads. Some good playing, I like the time of the bass player especially, just rock solid pulse. I assume it’s the bass player’s record but I couldn’t tell you who it is.
After: I wouldn’t have guessed Ron because ordinarily he takes more chances. I think Ron Carter to me is the classic embodiment of what attracted me to jazz in the first place: which is the combination of intellect and muscle, or sinew. Combining both elements makes high art when it’s good. Ron was the perfect foil; I don’t know of many players who could stand between Herbie and Tony in that place at that time. As revered as Ron is I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves.
In the Miles Davis group, was he mostly the timekeeper?
Not at all. He was as much the harmonic voyager as Herbie and Wayne. He did hold down the fort, but also steering the direction of the music. Herbie and Tony could imply certain things, but until Ron said, “well this is where it’s going” would it truly go to that place. Maybe this is a bass player’s persecution complex partially at play here. Granted, we’re the offensive linemen of the jazz world. I think Ron moved the bass function onto a higher level.
Ever talk to him about that?
Not really, I’m very shy. I’ve met Ron and he’s been very nice to me but I’m usually pretty nervous around such heroes.
10. Dave Holland
“Four Winds” (from Conference of the Birds, ECM) Holland, bass; Sam Rivers, soprano saxophone; Anthony Braxton, alto saxophone; Barry Altschul, drums. Recorded in 1972.
Before: Well, that album I know. It’s Dave Holland, Conference of the Birds. It’s been a while since I’ve heard it. I was struck by the tremendous forward motion created by Dave and Barry Altschul. Hearing Ron and Dave back to back is interesting for me. I guess I hear Ron’s thing amplified somehow for the late 60s early 70s, and how Dave took the time thing to a more extreme place of really leaning on it. I love it myself but you don’t hear people play time that way anymore. I was struck by the focus of everyone on that take, and the way they kept this forward energy but the pulse was always there. And Dave kind of solved that problem of how to depart from the lower registers of the instrument but still retain propulsion and function, even though he’s interacting in a different way. It’s an important record. Not just for those players but also looking for ways to blow apart time and still keep form or that strong tether to the written material.
11. Danny Gatton & Buddy Emmons
“Rock Candy” (from Redneck Jazz, NRG). Gatton, guitar; Emmons, pedal steel guitar; John Previti, bass; Dave Elliot, drums. Recorded in 1978.
Before: They have ridiculous technique. I play the pedal steel but I can’t imagine being able to get around on the steel like that. Just thinking on the instrument is quite a task. Maybe it’s Speedy West, although it seemed more sophisticated than that, so maybe it’s Buddy Emmons. When the steel player played some chordal voicings, that was especially interesting for me. It’s like playing the piano with mittens.
After: Buddy is an amazing virtuoso, like the Art Tatum of pedal steel. He’s just a freak, in a world of his own. There is a steel guitar convention in St. Louis every year. I haven’t gone yet but I hope to go. It’s an amazing instrument.
Most jazz fans don’t listen to pedal steel guitar.
And I know why. [laughter]
12. Mark Dresser & Mark Helias
“Comb Over” (from The Marks Brothers, DeWerf). Dresser, Helias, bass. Recorded in 2000.
Before: I enjoyed that. It may be Mark Helias and Mark Dresser. I really enjoyed the arrangement and the way they found common ground together and almost became one instrument, but without losing their personalities. It just had a tremendous vitality to me, and that’s one of the things I think of with both of those guys. I think in many ways they embody the best of both worlds, inside and out, in a way. They’re both coming up with different solutions but both are intriguing players and artists, and I think they’re in it with real integrity and for the long haul. It’s not a format I normally associate with either of them so it’s interesting to hear them play this particular thing. It’s cool.
After: They both have a muscular approach to the instrument. Mark Dresser often goes into open territory and with his extended techniques, far more extended than the Aladar Pege. He’s made real pioneering work on the bass, though he didn’t go there on this piece. Mark Helias is kind of the evolution of Gary Peacock, in a way, but with muscle. He has a somewhat slightly more romantic heart to his playing but still with vitality. They’re both composers. I thought this might be Mark Helias’s piece. He’s more likely to write a tuney type of tune. Mark Dresser’s coming more from a chamber edge of things with his writing.
13. Miles Davis
“On The Corner” (from The Complete On The Corner Sessions, Sony Legacy). Davis, trumpet; Dave Liebman, saxophone; Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Harold Williams, keyboards; John McLaughlin, guitar; Collin, Walcott, sitar; Michael Henderson, bass; Jack DeJohnette, Don Alias, Badal Roy, percussion. Recorded 1972/reissued 2007.
Before: I guess this is Weather Report. It’s really important music to me, as musical democracy in action. I think the elements of music they went about fusing …[hears guitar solo] No, it’s not Weather Report. It must be 70s Miles. First, I was intrigued by the keyboards and different sounds happening–just the rhythmic trance thing. I enjoy this music because even though it’s happening within a more narrow parameter, harmonically, they brought the same sensibility of theme and variation and keeping things mutating as much, even within those parameters. My sense is there’s a piece there and they’re extracting or abstracting the material. I think that’s what they were exploring at the time. The jazz world has always had this code or spy-type organization where you needed the password to get in. Really it’s about recognizing the materials and the form you’re playing on and how that’s manipulated, and that’s the whole key for the listener. But for all I know, that might limit my experience of this music. I’d like to come to it as just enjoying it for what it truly is without any conscious mind going on.
Your three favorite recordings of all time?
Well, for jazz recordings I’m going to say Duke Ellington at Fargo, maybe Miles Four & More, and the William Steinberg, Boston Symphony version of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. That blows me away.
Interview took place at WKCR-FM 12-28-07