Michael Dessen Trio – Between Shadow And Space (CF 106)
In a little over a decade, computers have gone from being a novelty to a ubiquitous musical tool. Their uses range from strictly adjunctive – my favorite example is seeing Michael Morley on stage with Two Foot Flame referring to a document on his laptop screen that contained the settings he needed to enter into his old Moog synthesizer before each song — to a deep engagement with the thing’s abilities to shape and originate sound. Given that computers still can’t match the reaction speed of a guitar, saxophone or drum kit as an instrument, it’s ironic that so many improvisers embrace then. This CD, the debut by trombonist Michael Dessen’s trio, shows how well the computer can fit into a jazz context when it’s in able hands.
Dessen, like a lot of jazz musicians in recent years, has split his time and tutelage between academia and real-world endeavors, so while he brings strong chops and a clear sense of purpose to his music, he also recognizes that sometimes audiences want the music to come to them. He’s selected his fellow musicians well. Bassist Christopher Tordini brings versatility. He introduces “Restless Years” with a big, bold pulse, anchoring Dessen’s muted melodic explorations. But on “Granulonum,” he plucks out intricate figures that occupy their own space and constantly negotiate with the boundaries of the other two instruments’ sound zones; they overlap in flux, like a three-circle Venn diagram that is in constant revision as new data comes in. And when Dessen opts for long tones later in the same track, Tordini compliments them with satisfyingly grainy bowing. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey is similarly flexible, and he shows a real flair for contributing small but strategic details, like his alternation of rests and stuttering cymbal forays in “Antithesis,” as well as carrying the whole load, as he does in a slow and intricate solo on “Chocolate Geometry.”
On the title track, which opens the record, Dessen shows his skill at wringing a voluptuous and mournful tune from his trombone; he’s clearly capable of playing some fine music with the power out. But on five out of seven tracks, he doubles on computer, mostly using it to broaden his tonal and textural palette. It surfaces from the midst of an improvisation on “Chocolate Geometry” like a breaching whale, emitting warped brass tones that first swamp the proceedings, then find their place within a vigorous three-way conversation. On “Restless Years,” the computer’s squiggly voice doubles the trombone’s earthy line like a flashy monorail hugging the curb of a gravel road. And on “Water Seeks,” the gorgeous dedication to Alice Coltrane that closes the record, it magnifies the horn’s cry into a bobbing sea of sound. Records like this show how jazz can grow in the 21st century without losing its essential interactive and rhythmic characters.