Michael Dessen Premieres His Enjoyably Tricky New Suite at Shapeshifter Lab
Trombonist Michael Dessen’s New York premiere of his his new suite Resonating Abstractions, with Chris Tordini on bass and Dan Weiss on drums at Shapeshifter Lab a couple of nights ago was a lot of fun. Ostensibly inspired by the imagery of seven mysteriously unnamed visual artists, it challenged the audience to conjure who those artists might be as it pulsed along on a groove that proved to be as hard to resist as it was tricky. Weiss dug in and had a good time with it: although there’s a clearly visible mathematical architecture to both the rhythm and the melody, Dessen left just enough room for the trio to imbue it with their personal wit and rambunctious energy.
At its knotty but robust heart, it’s a funky, head-bobbing piece that takes a simple duotone bass riff and doubles it, then doubles it again over similarly minimalist yet thoroughly unexpected metric permutations. Overhead, Dessen carried the tune with a jaunty, warmly melodic focus and bluesy directness. Most of the suite (not yet recorded, a task hopefully to be achieved in 2013) is extremely accessible, although there were spaces where it was extremely not. The juxtaposition between the work’s long, consonant passages – which Dessen delivered with a wonderfully opaque, balmy tone, without recourse to either squalls or squeaks – was somewhat jarring, in contrast to where he utilized an electronic mute to add a chaotic, timbrally extreme edge.
Tordini anchored both the melodic and rhythmic center during those moments, slowly and methodically shifting from suspensefully resonant long-tone passages to nimbly pulsing, looped phrases that he took his time embellishing, and there was always a payoff. Meanwhile, Weiss neatly worked shuffling polyrhythms into his tersely altered groove, exchanging a few wry elbows with Dessen along the way.
The electronic enhancements were more successful with the bass, when it came to a long, nonchalantly crescendoing Tordini solo: Dessen limited the laptop to a slightly reverb-tinged sustain effect that fleshed out the many spaces between early on. As the suite wound up, Dessen finally took it skyward, flurrying and clustering, for a long-awaited yet understatedly resounding crescendo. Being a Chamber Music America commission might have something to do with its canny blend of minimalism and traditionalist jazz tropes. And what about those artists? Escher, maybe? Some of the 70s op-art guys? Paul Klee, in the suite’s more playful moments? Or maybe none of the above. The work’s less-focused electronic moments allowed the listener space to ponder questions like that.
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