Michael Dessen Trio

Resonating Abstractions
Clean Feed CF 291 CD

The Astronomical Unit

Super Earth

Gligg Records 071

With double bass and drums for grounding, the third instrument in an improvising trio can be anything from the traditional piano to any other one, in this case a trombone. But with the subsequent limited sound picture lacking a true choral instrument, canny participants have to creatively compensate. This isn’t a problem for the two ‘bone-bass-drum ensembles here – one German-Australian and the other all-American. However each trio has evolves a different solution to the problem.

Consisting of two Germans, trombonist Matthias Müler and drummer Christian Marien, plus Australian bassist Clayton Thomas, the Astronomical Unit (AU) decisively promotes a group strategy. Each sonic inference is knitted into a compound narrative. Contrarily as the billing makes clear, U.S. West Coast trombonist Michael Dessen is definitely the leader on his CD. While his seven compositions have more conventional structures than AU’s two free-form improvisations, his Brooklyn-based rhythm section of bassist Christopher Tordini and drummer Dan Weiss have the same space in which to maneuver. Plus Dessen modifies his brass timbres with computer sampling and processing.

More than 20-minute variations on themes, the AU’s tracks, recorded live in Saarbrücken, fabricate seemingly antithetical and atonal timbres jigsaw puzzle-like into self-sustaining portraits. “Primor” for instance, sets up the narrative by weaving jiggling, irregular drum beats plus bell pings and sharp scrapes produced from Thomas’ strings with bee-buzzing slurs the trombonist sources from his horn’s lowest registers. With the multiphonics continuum one part brass puffs and burps, one part string strokes that could come from a National steel guitar and one-third stick pressure, the climax is as multi-directional as it is concentrated.

Building on this density in the subsequent “Anti Matter”, AU both strips its sound down to aural atoms and upwards to commanding dissonance. Müller who has worked with saxophonist Frank Paul Schubert and guitarist Olaf Rupp; Marien who has played with visual artists and dancers; and Thomas, who sometimes appears to have improvised with half the musicians in Europe; expand the improvisation with aggressive polyphony. But no matter how many agitated string squeaks, moderated bell-muted whimpers and snappy patterns are advanced collectively, individuality is maintained enough so that solidity never lapses into sludge. Finally a crescendo of vocalized trombone slides presages a drum tattoo that directs the three into a finale that so decisively adds a Second Line-like beat to the finale that the subsequent jollity is almost visible.

Visible elements also underlie the pieces on Resonating Abstractions, since Dessen, who teaches at the University of California at Irvine as well as playing in the band of bassist Mark Dresser among others, tries to match his musical abstraction to the dimensions of certain paintings by a septet of visual artists. Although the concept resonates with Dessen, approaching the tracks separated from their inspirations is more compelling.

Also compelling is how the composer shrewdly appends computer elements to the trio work without upsetting his cohesive compositional vision. Compare the all-acoustic “Grid after Grid” for instance with the processing in use on “Organic and Unnatural Objects”. On the former drum pitter-patter and thickened string thumps frame the picture as the trombonist works his emphasis from long-lined slurs to expansion and finally moderated bites which join the others’ output. Thematically balancing on Weiss’ cymbal splatters and Tordini’s pumps, Dessen’s programming attached to his mouthpiece movements expose the second piece’s theme. Echoing flanges and burbling oscillations make the subsequent interaction blurrier while the narrative maintains its originality.

Better use of acoustic instrument shading is expressed with “The Infinite and the Invitation”. It could even be defined as a brass concerto showcasing Dessen’s inventiveness. In contrast, drum-top rubs from Weiss and Tordini’s extended single finger plucks make a sympathetic background for more electro experiments on “Where Does Time Go”. Dessen responds by creating two parallel brass lines, one consisting of staccato animal-like screams and the other showing off moderated plunger timbres. By making this trio into a quartet for six minutes, the CD’s most noteworthy track is created.

Overall those interested in tremolo improvisational excitement should head for Super Earth; those who want to follow the evolution of a programmatic idea to the Dessen three. Either band has created individual good listening. And neither needs to add another instrument to its line-up.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Super: 1. Part 1. Primor 2. Part 2. Anti Matter

Personnel: Super: Matthias Müller (trombone); Clayton Thomas (bass) and Christian Marien (drums)

Track Listing: Resonating: 1. Grid after Grid 2. Organic and Unnatural Objects 3. Ignite 4. The Infinite and the Invitation 5. While in the Subterrain 6. Where Does Time Go 7. To Make Real

Personnel: Resonating: Michael Dessen (trombone and electronics); Chris Tordini (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums).