All About Jazz review by Clifford Allen

Michael Dessen Trio – Between Shadow and Space (CF 106)

Somehow it’s not at all surprising to read in Michael Dessen’s bio that he studied with trombonist George Lewis and pianist Anthony Davis, two of this music’s most well known academes. Dessen is a trombonist, composer-improviser and scholar who explores new media arts, the internet and cross-cultural migration through sound. Improvised music has a hard time fitting in with the academy, and can often feel bereft of something once it does enter even the most wide-open of academic contexts. However, attaching Dessen’s resume as a writer and teacher to a pair of projects that are quite simply about “doing” rectifies much of that.  

Between Shadow and Space is the debut of Dessen’s trio with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Chris Tordini—a format he’s explored since 2005, though this is the trio’s first recording. If one is expecting bravura a la Roswell Rudd or BassDrumBone, the shuffle here is at a low boil, pensive tone and a limber hush in the opening bars of the title track as the rhythm section sets up a fractured gallop. Dessen states in the notes that the trio is an exploration of the push-pull between groove and texture, an idea that seems like an afterthought to the very fact that his playing is based on this approach.

Dessen’s improvisations are unhurried but very exacting, seemingly behind the beat and teasing the tempo—a plastic pair like Sorey and Tordini is quite essential. The sparse “Chocolate Geometry” introduces laptop-generated sounds alongside mallets, bass harmonics and brass gurgle, tracking like a fuzzy needle through its long tones. Bends, waves, plucks and pings fill in the spaces between group flurry, canvassing the ground before Dessen’s trombone re-enters.

The introduction of electronics does attune one’s ears differently, towards hearing more than may actually be there. Tordini’s introduction to “Anthesis,” with its plucked glisses and slippery finger-work, seems fleshed out by phantom digital blurts, Dessen’s near-swagger hitting a puckered phrase that’s altered and Sorey’s cymbal wash taking on the blur of samples. It’s a quality of orchestration, but not by means one traditionally thinks about—altering one’s way of hearing the instruments themselves, so that one almost pre-hears them. Suffice it to say Michael Dessen is doing a lot with a little.

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