To the casual listener, an evening of non-scripted improvisation between a double-bass and a drum set might seem tedious, but when those two instruments are powered by local virtuoso Mark Dresser and NYC veteran Joey Baron, that scenario could only lead to a night of delirious communication and joyous music making.
Baron and Dresser have a long history that dates back to the bassist's 18 years in the Big Apple, especially when they were both members of the Tim Berne and John Zorn ensembles. That history came into laser focus time and time again in the rapt dialog between the two old friends.
One doesn't often think of the drums as a quiet instrument, but as the night began with Dresser's ridiculously full, woodgrained plucking, Baron's soft responses with sticks the size of knitting needles set the template for what was to come: give and take, ebb and flow and the glory of small gestures carried out in the spirit of an organic conversation. An invisible pulse dominated even when it didn't always seem obvious, and ostensibly rubato passages eventually revealed a dovetail -tight groove.
Baron led off the second improvisation with a pastel sketch of slow strokes with a mallet in one hand and a brush in the other -- it was more of a melody than a "beat" -- and Dresser responded with eerie bowing near the bridge, producing seagull cries. That singable beat became imbued in polymetric detail as layers of cadence pulled against each other. Dresser's bass tones at times expanded Baron's small kit so that the net effect was that of two drummers, and that integration worked both ways.
The third exploration began with the bassist logging in with two-handed tapping and creaking overtones until Baron's super-articulated ride cymbal morphed into a "sheets of ping" dynamic that drew pedaled strums and unison streams of triplets into the discussion. There were shades of Elvin Jones underpinning tremolo arco and slow descending double-stop glissandi. Baron often played the drumset with his hands, and once he got going, there seemed to be a primordial dimension that evoked the drum songs of Africa and the Caribbean, especially when Dresser slapped both hands along the strings.
Dresser began the last piece with an irresistible line that created a raw swing vamp upon which Baron laid down a rich soliloquy of clicks and rimshots that had all of the joy of a New Orleans parade. A loud and well-deserved ovation ensued. Definitely a night to remember.
Joey Baron and Mark Dresser played the Experimental Theater at UCSD's Conrad Prebys Music Center on Tuesday, Oct. 14.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.