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"When you try to describe the indescribable,"warned British jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, "the indescribable will get you every time."

That may be, but here we go.

Last night, contrabass magician Mark Dresser performed a solo concert at Conrad Prebys Music Center, one of the most acoustically pure venues in the country--dazzling an audience of about 100 dedicated listeners--including a dozen or so internationally acclaimed musicians in their own right--for ninety minutes of stellar, sonic exploration.

Dresser began "Invocation," with somber open-string strumming that mixed in the drama of hammered bi-tones and two handed tapping--allowing each gesture to mature and breathe organically. Completely improvised, "Invocation," drew musical content from the most unexpected sources--often through the tiniest digestible gestures, and he used every inch of his instrument to call up images of a woman's sob, a swarm of buzzing insects or a distant thunder-storm rumbling.

Dresser kept a drone activated while he set chords and double-stops into motion for "Bacachaonne," a remarkably intricate dedication to both Bach and the Cuban bass icon Israel "Cachao" Lopez, which somehow--I swear, had snippets of Beatles' melodies hidden within.

On "Threaded," Dresser took the bow apart and reattached the frog underneath the "G" string so that he was able to bow three and four strings at once--allowing him a seemingly infinite pallet of super-harmonic possibilities. Playing triple, and at times quadruple-stops--massive harmonies emerged through the skillful manipulation of corresponding overtones--evoking both orchestral textures and an almost certain conviction that electronics--especially digital delays were involved--they were not--Dresser was playing purely acoustically.


UCSD composer Roger Reynolds spent hours in research and collaboration with Dresser before he wrote "imAge/contrabass." It was obviously time well spent as borne-out in the bassist's nimble execution of the sprawling score--which codified some of Dresser's remarkable inventions and expanded them into places only Reynolds' imagination could take them.

Dresser uses the bow like Picasso used the brush: to refract and recast certain realities and to create completely new ones. There was an underlying structure and an inevitable sense of flow directing every piece he played. Using the bow to exploit his empirical understanding of the harmonic-overtone series--Dresser crafted impossibly high and piercing timbres alongside deep and resonant possibilities in a balanced narrative on the incredible range of tones available to the contrabass.

One of the shortest pieces: "Pluto," took this development of sonic other-worlds to its ultimate expression. Dresser switched to a lightly amplified bass for this one--using a volume pedal to magnify the sounds of several pickups mounted inside his custom fingerboard--he detuned his bass and took the audience into a sense of the stillness of outer-space, witnessing the elliptical orbits of "The Five Outer Planets."

A brand-new piece, "Mr. Not So P.C.," found him centering a fingered note between harmonics and overtones on adjacent strings--seeding clouds of eerie textures while maintaining an almost "cowpoke" rhythm underneath on a pedaled "E" string. Somehow, shades of jaws-harp and steel drums came wafting through.

Accompanying the short animated film of Sarah Jane Lapp, "Chronicles Of An Asthmatic Stripper," the bassist crafted a soundtrack that followed the protagonist around her house, tagged along to the doctor's office and even supported the bump and grind at her very surreal workplace. Highly entertaining.

The bassist closed the evening with his joyous ode to the Zimbabwean spirit, "Ekoneni," sending everyone home on a high note.

In short: a glorious evening that seemed to go by in a flash.

Photo by Bonnie Wright

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