Drew Gress – The Sky Inside (2013)

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Drew Gress is a first-call bassist and has certainly earned the caché to have first-call players on his own albums. As with previous projects such as The Irrational Numbers and 7 Black Butterflies, he composes material for The Sky Inside worthy of the impressive lineup ha’s assembled, which by the time of Butterflies had coalesced around former Paraphrase bandmates Tim Berne (alto sax) and Tom Rainey (drums), as well as Craig Taborn (piano) and Ralph Alessi (trumpet).

In spite of the six-year span since they last recorded together, the band has lost nothing in synergy and as I dig deeper into this latest outing, it becomes clear that the unity is stronger than ever. The Sky Inside, like other Gress projects, can come off as a deceptively fairly pedestrian modern jazz record if you were to listen to it superficially. Immersing yourself in it to uncovers the ingenuity of Gress’ compositions and his arrangements of them, and how he leverages the full potential of his band to bolster the songs by bolstering each other. Everyone relentlessly propels along the songs, each adding an idea that feeds an idea by someone else, and Gress actively facilitates that kind of environment.

“No Saint,” which begins the program, bristles with creations that spring forth from Dress’ ingenuity. It begins with a subtly irregular beat manned by Gress, Taborn and Rainey, with an opposing, harmonic theme played out by horns. Then, Taborn peels off the bass line to create dissonant variation on which Berne creates his familiar pleading alto sax lines and soon Gress and Alessi join in what is has briefly become three way improvising, eventually giving way to Alessi. But the other soloists never completely fade away, as interlacing lines fade in and out. The ending horn lines are the same lines used by the rhythm section in the beginning.

“In Streamline” stands in stark disparity to “No Saint,” the busy phrasing on prior track followed by this quiet, introspective mood piece. Taborn and then Gress both leave thoughtful solos, as Gress has a very clear tone and lyrical expression. Alessi begins “Long Story” with a motif that’s assisted by Taborn, and Berne follows with thoughts on that. Rainey maintains a light, semi-second line beat and Gress is improvising alongside an increasingly abrasive Berne. Alessi can be heard nudging his way back into the picture to speak swing in his own language. Later on with “Long Story Short,” the same basic pattern is expressed as an abstraction where Rainey seems to be discreetly shifting the undercurrent away from avant-garde and closer to mainstream jazz.

Speaking of Rainey, he’s perhaps the unsung hero on this album, deftly managing loosely defined and ever-evolving rhythms, and doing so with a light-footed but very active approach. He eschews largely bottom-heavy sounds and flamboyant cymbal clouds to avoid overpowering the rest of the players, instead just helping them sound better. His lithe style pushes along “Kernel” with a graceful swing and nudges “Dreampop” from darker shadings into a brighter, snappier territory.

“The Sky Inside” is that epic in the middle of the record, the intro just a fascinating, atonal conversation between Alessi and Berne, with seems partially extemporaneous partially notated. A chamber music like motif follows, with an unexpected synth chord shimmering at the end of each statement. Swaths of silence become a big part of the song, which is breached when classical articulations by Taborn supported by Gress takes center stage, making this one duet traded for another. Taborn morphs into Cecil Taylor as a groove is invented by Gress and picked up by Rainey. Berne and Alessi offer up a new thematic line, and steer Taborn toward it.

The contemplative character of that song contrasts with the knotty progression of “Zaftig Redux,” which on which Gress extemporizes, followed by Berne and Alessi, and finally, Taborn, who does that Don Pullen inside/outside thing.

The Sky Inside is a title that implies the limitless potential on where the music can go and the collective ability of the musicians to carry the music to its potential. It’s potential fulfilled.

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The Sky Inside is available for sale by Piroquet Records. Visit Drew Gress’ site for more info.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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