Contrabass virtuoso Mark Dresser has the unique distinction of being both one of the most celebrated progenitors of improvised music in the world and a best-kept secret here in his hometown.
Dresser came to San Diego in 1972 to study with Bertram Turetzky, stayed until the mid- '80s and returned after 18 years in New York to teach at UCSD in 2004.
Since March of last year, the bassist has left the country to tour abroad five times, performing in Mexico, Canada, Italy, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Israel, Italy, Poland and France.
In that same time frame, he's been featured on five CDs: a duo with vocalist Jen Shyu (Synastry), a trio with LA free-jazz legend Bobby Bradford and trombonist Glenn Ferris (Live in LA), a trio with pianist Myra Melford and drummer Matt Wilson (Trio M: The Guest House), a duo with pianist Diane Moser (Duetto), and a trio with drummer Gerry Hemingway and pianist Marilyn Crispell performing the works of Anthony Braxton.
All one needs to do to become a fan of Dresser is to witness a performance. He's mastered his instrument in ways most bassists never even considered. It sometimes sounds like he has three hands when you hear him play -- but Dresser is about much more than astonishing technique. His music is highly intelligent without sounding academic, and it always celebrates the blues without resorting to clichés.
Initially inspired as a teenager by the towering and diverse influences of Jimi Hendrix and Charles Mingus, Dresser has always sought to maximize the sonic potential of the contrabass. He recently organized and codified his years of experimentation into an instructional DVD called Guts, which is available from Kadima Collective Recordings. Watching Guts is like viewing a master magician walk you through his most mind-boggling tricks, step-by-step.
It's kind of shameful that a musician of Dresser's stature does most of his performing outside San Diego.
One potential remedy for this situation lies in his dedication to a brand-new performing aesthetic known as Telematics. Telematic performances use the Internet 2 ( a super high-bandwidth consortium operated out of universities throughout the world that combines software and high-speed connections). With this equipment -- and a small army of highly trained support personnel -- Dresser can perform a concert at UCSD with collaborators in LA, NYC, Amsterdam and elsewhere with all of the players able to hear and see each other in real time, with virtually zero latency. Think of Skype on steroids.
With all these national and international gigs, does he miss playing in San Diego?
"Bandleading locally is hard for me to sustain financially," Dresser said. "If I play in New York, the ramifications are clearly greater with recording and concert opportunities. My East Coast Quintet has been invited to record for Clean Feed Records, to perform at the Vision Festival and the Angel City Jazz Festival. There are no such invitations for the West Coast Quintet, though, musically both are worthy."
Dresser's West Coast Quintet features trombonist Michael Dessen, who commutes to gigs from his home in Irvine, and San Diego musicians Joshua White on piano, Tripp Sprague on saxophones and Duncan Moore on drums.
So to keep his music alive, Dresser is off to New York this weekend to play a concert celebrating the Dutch drummer Han Bennink's birthday, then off to Europe for the entire month of May with Trio M.
Catching Dresser performing at home is always a treat. Don't miss the next chance. I'll keep you posted.
Robert Bush Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.