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Drew Gress – 7 Black Butterflies (2005) and The Irrational Numbers (2008)

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A Darker Shade Of Blue

Personnel: Drew Gress (bass instrument); Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Ralph Alessi (trumpet); Craig Taborn (piano); Tom Rainey (drums)

Review by Mark F. Turner (AAJ)

To say that Drew Gress may be one of today’s premier bassists/composers is a bold statement, but one with considerable merit. The veteran player has profoundly enhanced numerous recordings by names like Uri Crane, Don Byron, and Ravi Coltrane with his distinct sound, dynamic playing, and writing abilities. But his most revealing work has been on his own recordings, of which 7 Black Butterflies is simply a cut above in terms of vision, creative energy, and sheer musicality. This followup to 2001′s Spin and Drift continues to challenge and yield deep rewards with music that is beyond the norm and thoroughly engaging.
Iron sharpens iron, as the band includes the vast talent of saxophonist Tim Berne, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, drummer Tom Rainey, and keyboardist Craig Taborn, who are a perfect mixture for Gress’ fertile concepts. These artists have proven on many recordings that they that can play it straight, but they definitely push towards the edge with their associations with freer jazz idioms. Collectively they are force to be reckoned with, and with Gress as the catalyst, 7 Black Butterflies unflinchingly gives a broader view of his abilities. Once again the bassist has composed all new material with the goal of creating music that is “modern and beautiful. This becomes evident starting with the atmospheric “Rhinoceros —a composition that at first moves slowly and gracefully, then shows dangerous instincts as the tempo swells and charges, with a forceful vamp powered by robust drumming, and then retreats with eerie sax/trumpet siren wails. The remaining eight selections are compositions in the truest sense, allowing optimum creative interaction between the music and musicians.
The album’s beauty has many facets, from the cinematic quality of “Zaftig, with its grand thematic changes, to the up-tempo siblings “New Leaf and “Blue On One Side, which employ aggressive swing with heated horn arrangements and outstanding solos solidified by Gress’ bass. Beyond his formidable skills as a composer, Gress is an incredibly strong player. To get a full taste, listen to his solo on “Bas Relief, which is marked by power, nimbleness, and ingenuity, with biting and sustained notes.
The modern nuance of electronics enhances this acoustic setting nicely, but it’s the musicians themselves who create the fifth element, with many memorable performances like “Low Slung High Strung, with its serrated tempo, where Berne and Alessi converse against complex and feuding horns as Rainey’s drums push the music, Talborn delivering another stellar solo.
The closing ballad “Like it Never Was recalls ideas from Mingus and Weather Report, but more so from Gress himself. Wondrous, strange, bold, and beautiful are all synonymous of 7 Black Butterflies, one of this year’s most interesting releases.

Personnel: Drew Gress (bass instrument); Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Ralph Alessi (trumpet); Craig Taborn (piano); Tom Rainey (drums)

Review by Mark F. Turner (AAJ)

Drew Gress might be suffering from a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde complex. On one side, he’s the mild-mannered, in-demand bassist whose exemplary fret work has supported other artists’ recordings—pianist Fred Hersch, The Claudia Quintet’s For (Cuneiform Records, 2007) and the Steve Lehman Quintet’s On Meaning (Pi Recordings, 2007), to name just a few. However, on the flip side, a ferocious alter-ego emerges when Gress is a leader, producing some of the most dynamically forward music in the current environment with The Irrational Numbers.
The truly monster quintet is reassembled from Gress’ 2005 recording 7 Black Butterflies (Premonition), with names synonymous with music on the edge: Tim Berne (alto sax), Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Tom Rainey (drums) and Craig Taborn (keyboards). They continue on adventurous sonic paths with Gress’ power bass solo in “Bellwether,” back-dropped against the sounds of horns and clever electronics, leading into the pulsing dance of “Chevelle” the unusual ballad “By Far.”
“Neapolitan” is the recording’s pièce de résistance; a stunning show of Gress’ writing, and musicians who are capable of pulling off multiple solo threads, shifting themes, changes intensity, and blazing performances. More ideas are conveyed in its twelve minutes then some entire recordings.
The nature of the music is even more atmospheric and enigmatic than its predecessor Butterflies, due in great part to some tech-savvy production work by guitarist/film scorer David Torn. This work is especially noticeable on “True South” (which includes the theme from composer John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”), which is beautiful, surrealistic and haunting.
Yet once again, it is the quintet’s musicianship that transforms Jekyll into something more than human, as witnessed on the aptly titled “The Heavenly Hell.” It contains Gress’ muscular bass dueling with Alessi’s bright trumpet. Then a heated argument develops between Berne’s angular alto and Taborn’s piano. Finally, Rainey’s drum torrent enters the fray with the entire quintet exchanging intense solos. And like that fictional Hyde (after the nefarious concoction has been consumed), Gress is at it again with The Irrational Numbers.

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