Drew Gress, co-leader of Joint Venture, leader of Jagged Sky, sideman for Fred Hersch, Erik Friedlander, Tim Berne, Dave Douglas, and many others, finally has a record of his own out in the States. And what a recording it is. First, there's the band: Uri Caine on piano, Tom Rainey on drums, Berne on alto and baritone saxophones, and, of course, Gress on double bass and (out of the bag finally) his pedal steel guitar. Make no mistake, this is a jazz date with some New York trickery up its sleeve. On the opener, "Disappearing, Act I," Berne's baritone saxophone is multi-tracked to staggering effect. As Gress' bass plays between the tracks to create an alternate melody for Caine and Berne, Rainey becomes the sole timekeeper -- with a steaming yet relaxed tempo that flows between three streams of harmony. On "Torque," Gress takes the lead and establishes both rhythm and harmony, playing pizzicato in B flat as he solos across the color parameter toward D flat, reversing the harmonic mode just as Caine and Berne enter. There's nothing vanguard in the approach; it's strictly post-bop with modal tenets tossed in for measure, especially from Caine, whose large chord voicings are legendary among musicians anyway. And from post-bop, we move toward the strictly modal textures and shades of "It Was After Rain That the Angel Came," the most poetic and starkly gorgeous piece on the album. The sparse melody line Gress states at the beginning of the tune fuels it with all of its emotion, and is echoed after four choruses by Caine doing his best Bill Evans. The flourishes of his right hand offer the lilt in the melody and Gress' mode shift to create within a harmonic invention for Berne's alto to conceive different melodic conceptions from. It's languid, melancholy, and heartbreakingly beautiful. And the pedal steel? It shapes the chromatic framework of "Aquamarine" in short yet windswept chords. Caine and Berne create a melody from the atmospherics and shifting shades of color. Caine's solo against the shapely, rounded sound of the pedal steel is one of his most lyrical and inventive, whereas Berne is put through scalar changes against shifting harmonic architectures throughout his entire solo. The instrument lends textures that are both subtle and imposing while offering a solid foundation even for Rainey to clip his time and syncopate under the rhythmic assumption by the rest of the trio -- all because of the guitar's constant landscaping of the melodic frame. Gress has made many records as a bandleader, and played on many more, but this is the first time that his own vision is realized, his own lyric conception is considered the total picture for a recording -- no matter who the band is. His stellar bevy of sidemen has allowed the composer as well as the musician in him to shine through.
Spin and Drift Review
by Thom Jurek