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Last Sunday, I made the trek up north to Los Angeles to catch a performance by one of creative music's greatest contrabass virtuosos, Mark Dresser, appearing at the Angel City Jazz Festival with his East Coast Quintet, featuring reed master Marty Ehrlich, Irvine trombonist Michael Dessen, hyper-pianist Denman Maroney, drummer Michael Sarin and special guest, the legendary cornetist Bobby Bradford.

Although most San Diego jazz fans don't seem to know it, Dresser lives here, and teaches at UCSD. This concert represented a rare opportunity to hear these musicians outside of NYC, or Europe--so the trip to LA was well worth it.

Dresser's set was preceded by a low-key performance of the Peter Erskine New Trio, which featured the drummer's nephew Damian Erskine on 6-string electric bass, with Vardan Ovsepian on piano. Erskine's material was decidedly melodic and pastoral--and only really seemed to come alive in those moments when the drummer chose to turn up the heat. Still, Erskine is a master--and just hearing the myriad ways in which he pinged his ride cymbal made for an experience. The younger Erskine has a lithe and nimble approach to the instrument, and Ovsepian is a great piano player--perhaps I would have been more blown away if I hadn't heard the drummer's old trio with saxophonist Bob Sheppard and bassist Darek Oles a few months back.

Dresser's music is both complex and visceral--it hits you on multiple levels, and it was great to see a large audience cheering the ensemble's rich interpretation of his stimulating charts. Opening with his metric-modulated blues, "Digestivo," the bassist elicited layered, guttural discourse from Ehrlich and Dessen, and drew from a deep well of throaty pizzicato ideas in his solo.

Maroney plays a updated variation of "prepared-piano," using a few simple items inside the instrument to create sonic textures that range from clouds of shimmering glissandi to something resembling "slide-piano," where he moves a metal rod along the length of one string. Dresser steered his bow towards the bridge to set eerie cries in motion as the band wound its way through his composition, "Telemojo," an episodic piece that found the bassist thwacking his strings with a windmill attack. Dessen's trombone spot exploited dynamics to an unusual degree--building to chaotic swells, and dropping to pin-drop reverberations--all powered by a wellspring of seemingly infinite ideas.

Dresser's tunes often feature both horns layering the melody and, or soloing at once for a mesmerizing stereophonic effect--something Ehrlich and Dessen took to dizzying heights on "Rasa," a yearning, stair-stepping modal piece that seems to flow in all directions at once.

Free jazz icon Bradford joined the group for "BBJC," delivering a text-book demonstration on the creative use of the plunger-mute--growling and sputtering over Ehrlich's clarinet, while Dresser's Herculean "walking" seemed to traverse continents. At one point, all three horns spun improvisational orbits around each other for a completely modern iteration of the New Orleans group improvisation aesthetic.

Dresser's music is thoroughly grounded in the jazz tradition established by innovators like Charles Mingus and Anthony Braxton, and will prove to be a vital testament to the creative impulse for years to come.

Photo by Bonnie Wright

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