photo: Daniel Theunynck
Michael Dessen has an uncanny ability to craft pieces that are delicately structured but also uncharacteristic of his contemporaries.
Similar in vein to Ray Anderson, Dessen also has the ability to move between genres with ease. While he has recorded in many different settings, it has been his recent trio work that has really caught my ear.
Formed only a few years ago, Dessen uses the trio format to explore a number conceptual rhythmic structures. This makes for intensive listening but also a high degree of discovery.
On their first album, Between Shadow And Space (Clean Feed; 2008) along with Christopher Tordini (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) create a dense, evocative and fluid mixture of acoustic and subtle electronic instrumentation that is really mind-blowing on first and repeated spins.
The title track deploys a rich counterpoint and improvisation. Tordini and Sorey are the perfect counter for Dessen's compositions. This trio challenges and explores each other's strengths. Patterns are structures are slowly built up and quietly torn down over the course seven minutes on the opener and the listener gets a full understanding of what Between Shadow And Space will be for them--A journey through space, sound and thought.
"Chocolate Geometry" moves along in multi-layered fashion. It's like meditative suite. Gentle introspective passages delivered by simultaneously by Sorey's complex brushes and some dense strokes from Tordini. Dessen's trombone turns into a manipulated trumpet augmented by just the right amount of electronics to mix things up and send the piece soaring.
"Water Seeks" comes flying in to the close out the session. A beautiful and searching piece dedicated to Alice Coltrane with all the harmonics and resonance that would be associated with great composer/harpist/keyboard player. It's loaded with rich texture, sharp hues and rising atmospherics that quietly fades leaving the listener some traces of a long beautiful journey.
Dessen reassembled his trio for the even more rugged Forget The Pixel (Clean Feed; 2011). This time with Dan Weiss on drums and Tordini remaining. The results are the same but Weiss does pack a aggressive punch to Sorey's more insular and thought-provoking approach. Both drummers are perfect in this setting though.
"Fossils And Flows" rips through the speakers introducing the lineup and direction. The trio never let up. Its sound quickly becomes an avalanche and Dessen's use of electronics feels like a thousand aliens sending a message that things will be different this time as his group visits your stereo. "Fossils And Flows" is actually an observation on the BP oil spill in the U.S. and and when listening, you get the feeling how things quickly got out of hand in the Gulf is similar to how unique the sound of this trio moves shapes and patterns.
"Forget The Pixel" is a more organic and improvised piece with each member exploring different aspects of Dessen's composition. It's a number that moves, and moves with light but an effective pace. Dessen and Tordini's exchanges are tight and beautiful well placed. Weiss' drums come in first like a military band and quickly turn impressionistic. Tones and utilization of space is one of the reasons why I have been so captivated by Michael Dessen's trio work. "Three Sepals" is another exemplary mark of his unique writing skill. It's a subtle ballad that stretches from note to note. It also has just the right amount of hard tones to keep the listener engaged, waiting for the next unknown marker. A real treat for the ears.
I have to admit, I've only just discovered Michael Dessen's work in the last year so I have a lot of catching up to do. But from his trio work and a couple of other albums I've gotten over the last few months I am completely absorbed and excited by his material and direction. His playing and writing are superb. He doesn't use the electronics as a gimmick. The sounds are more a subtle aid moving in and out time. They never overtake the rhythm or the meaning of a tune. And that's pretty hard to do. Michael Dessen has proven he is a gifted artist with the trombone, electronics and in composition. An artist who is continually thinking and rising above.