I spent the better part of a day last week attending the annual UCSD Jazz Camp, and, as always, the experience continues to resonate deeply. I started out by auditing Anthony Davis’ “Listening to Jazz” course, where the topic of the day was the music of Thelonious Monk. Davis broke several Monk pieces into their essential components -- often demonstrating at the piano what makes them tick.
Next up I decided to sit in on Mark Dresser’s ensemble class -- which was incredibly instructive. Dresser certainly can’t be accused of coddling his students -- he chose some incredibly challenging original material, and the initial attempts at playing them had all the red flags of a massive trainwreck.
But, over the course of two hours and much gentle encouragement, each piece coalesced into recognizable and successful music. I wish I’d caught each of the students' names, but I can say this: 15-year-old vocalist Zion Dyson more than acquitted herself, and I can see big things in her future.
What brought me to the camp on this particular day, though, was the rare opportunity to witness a faculty concert by Trio M, the gold-standard improvising ensemble featuring bassist Mark Dresser, Bay Area pianist Myra Melford and New York City drummer Matt Wilson.
Wilson kicked off the boisterous opener “Al” (dedicated to Albert Ayler), teasing the underside of his hi-hat with brushes as Dresser bounced his bow across the strings of his bass and Melford posited pensive arpeggios. Soon, the tune burst open, fueled by the joyful martial cadences of the drums, bowed double stops and streams of thematic information from the piano.
Sometimes free players wander far from the tradition, but from the opening chromatic blast of “M,” these cats proved that they can still swing their butts off. Dresser has a huge personal sound that's bigger than a city bus, and his command of motion allows for refractive gradients of tempo. Dresser's sound was buttressed by Melford’s swirling kinetic energy, which careened about like a speedball in a super collider, and the ebullient fusillade of Wilson, who creates rhythms out of everything within reach -- even a music stand or an instrument case.
Melford delivered an absolutely astonishing, physical performance on “Montevideo,” which toggled between soulful versicle and absolute mayhem -- hereupon she pounded the house Steinway into submission with clusters from her elbows, fists and the edges of her hands.
Dresser began the closer “Ekoneni,” alone, swaying in time with his bass as he guided it in a seductive dance between extremes of lyrical grace and brutal counterpunches, while Melford whipped strands of melody over Wilson’s gleeful Zimbabwean groove.
Jazz education never sounded so good.