OK, so I go to a lot of jazz shows (more than 500 in the last three years), and for the most part, they are all excellent -- it's a testament to the kind of musicianship that is required to play that music. Sometimes, though, the music is so transformative that it transcends the limits of prose, regardless of the number of superlatives one can pile into a review.
That's exactly what happened on Dec. 12 when the Mark Dresser Quintet laid it down at Dizzy's.
Dresser's music for five players has always represented something special in his catalog. Inspired initially by the groundbreaking work of jazz firebrand Charles Mingus, Dresser has extrapolated that concept into a breathtaking extension that pushes the limits mercilessly while keeping one foot firmly grounded in the blues.
His latest incarnation of the MDQ features four all-star players in flute-wonder Nicole Mitchell, trombone explorer Michael Dessen, powerhouse pianist Joshua White and the cliché-free drummer Kjell Nordeson.
The night unfolded with a wonderful five-way feature for each musician, beginning with White, whose manic, circular velocity created a melodic cell that traveled next to Nordeson's mallet-driven gestures on cowbells and miniature bongos. Then it was Dresser, opting for a woody tone and buzzing arco, where the choice notes stirred up molecules in the listener's chest. Mitchell hissed breath through her flute and activated soft whistle-stops. Dessen picked up on the breath as generator concept with percolating sputters. Then all five jumped on the ostinato-based "Flocus," where melodies layered across each other as the dynamics heaved and swelled.
Next up was a new composition, "The Hobby-Lobby Horse," which opened on Dresser's string slaps and violent pizzicato. The horns orbited lines around the gravity of the bass until uniting on pointed unisons that were dazzling. It seemed like the melody just kept expanding until Dessen broke free with blue warbles, while Mitchell soared and cooed. White appeared to toggle between soft touches and fearsome pounding as Nordeson kept a quiet fire burning throughout.
I have heard Dresser's metric-modulated-blues "Digestivo" a dozen times before, but the version unveiled on Friday night was a stunning tour de force from the very first measure. Mitchell made the incongruous notion of blues-piccolo seem inherently natural with startling intervallic leaps and judicious chromaticism. White delivered a synapsis of jazz piano history that shifted from the barrelhouse to the Baptist church to an assault-with-a-deadly-weapon charge that drew rapturous applause.
This was an environment that Dessen was born to thrive in, and he did not disappoint, logging in with blustery, x-rated commentary ladled direct from the gutbucket. Then it was Dresser, all alone, winding in grainy orbits around a serpentine groove that lurched and lunged. It may well have been the most satisfying single performance I've ever witnessed. Yet the evening was still young.
Next was a brand new dedication to the late Daniel Jackson, "Two Handfuls of Peace," a staggering elegiac beauty that began with a melodic purity that evoked the gifts of Billy Strayhorn before sailing into the uncharted waters of multiple voices of unresolved agitation. Even though "Not Withstanding" has a metric premise that might confound Albert Einstein, the net result was a wonderfully organic construct that had me dancing in my head. It also afforded Nordeson the spotlight to assemble an essay of monstrous intensity following the dazzling duo of Mitchell and Dessen that opened the piece. White took the baton from the drums and proceeded at breakneck velocity, weaving in and out of traffic before yielding to the composer, whose double- and triple-stop layered solo danced around the staggered groove created by his hissing breath.
This was an evening of creative music that swirled in apogee around the pull of the conventional -- connected yet unbound, where the deeply lyrical rubbed against the jagged edge undaunted, both concepts emerging stronger from the encounter. I doubt it gets much better than this.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.