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Leaves of Gress

Towson Jazz Alumnus Returns to Teach and Perform At His Alma Mater

Drew Gress

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/11/2009

It's not often that a musician gets to come back to his old school as the leader of an all-star band, but that's what Drew Gress did when he returned to Towson University the week after Thanksgiving in 2006. Gress, a graduate of the school's jazz program, was joined at the Kaplan Concert Hall by four of New York's finest jazz musicians--alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and drummer Tom Rainey--the line-up that had just made Gress's 2005 album, 7 Black Butterflies, and that would go on to make his 2008 disc, The Irrational Numbers.

Gress, the tallest member of the band, stood behind his big-bellied upright bass in an untucked blue shirt, tan slacks, and receding red hair. He guided the group through seven of his own compositions, which proved far more ambitious than the usual verse-chorus-bridge structure of most jazz tunes. Each of Gress' pieces offered several themes, often counterpointed against one another. This gave his soloists plenty of material to choose from and develop, and they took full advantage.

The evening's highlight was "Neopolitan," an epic number that was eventually recorded for The Irrational Numbers. It began with a funky bass figure that drove downward again and again. Pitted against it was a jaunty horn theme that began in unison, but gradually split into two jousting melodies. When the horns shifted to a moodier feel with muted trumpet and lower-pitched sax, Rainey peeled off from the rhythm section to create a jangling cymbal part while Taborn started stabbing block chords. As the themes multiplied, so did the conversations until Berne finally erupted into a long, cathartic sax solo. Throughout it all, the rumbling bass motif kept pushing everything forward.

"That tune started with that bass line that drives itself into the ground," Gress explains over the phone from New York. "I was trying to write music that keeps changing over a bass line that doesn't. Sometimes thinking of something extra-musical helps me come up with solutions. In this case, I visualized eating spumoni in Naples, which made me think of what we call Neapolitan ice cream in this country with the blocks of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. That helped me think in terms of chunks of musical material and what might happen if I placed one on top of another. I never know how the improvisation is going to change what I write, but I do know that if I come up with enough strong materials for the right musicians, they're going to do something good with it."

Gress is coming back to Towson for a week-long residency at his alma mater. For much of the week, the bassist/composer is working with Towson's jazz students in ensemble and improvisation workshops, but he also presents two concerts open to the general public. On Feb. 11, he performs in a duo with trumpeter and Towson jazz professor Dave Ballou, and on Feb. 13, Gress performs with a group of Towson students. Before the Friday show, Gress hosts a pre-concert discussion about his music and his days in Maryland.

He first came to the school in 1977, drawn by Hank Levy, the legendary arranger for Stan Kenton and later the head of Towson's jazz department. Gress had started composing at his Pennsylvania high school, and now he wanted to write expansive, orchestral jazz pieces. In Levy, Gress had an expert at such work and in the school's big band he had an "open laboratory" for testing his ideas.

Among his fellow classmates were tenor saxophonists Ellery Eskelin, now a much recorded bandleader in New York, and Glenn Cashman, now a member of the group Luther Hughes and the Cannonball-Coltrane Project and a full-time teacher at Colgate University. In the late 1980s and early '90s, Gress led a quartet called Tekke that featured Cashman, pianist David Kane, and drummer Michael Smith. That band's 1989 recording, Tekke, has just been reissued by the Silver Spring label Magellan Records.

During his time at Towson, Gress landed a summer apprenticeship in Los Angeles orchestrating music for Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons. While he was there, however, he found himself missing the East Coast and the Baltimore/Washington jazz community.

"I found there was immediate gratification to playing with Sonny Stitt on a pick-up gig or with Ethel Ennis at her club in Baltimore that was different from the delayed gratification of arranging," he says. "So I started putting more energy into playing. In D.C., I met Marc Copland, who was known as Marc Cohen then, and started playing with him a lot. To me, the best jazz is a combination of the emotional and the intellectual, and Marc's playing is like that--it's really smart, but it has a lot of heart. It's also very democratic--he really gets right in there with you and improvises. He has taught me so much over the years. He took me under his wing when I was 19 and very green and basically taught me how to hear." Copland's terrific new piano-trio album, Night Whispers, features Gress as both a bassist and a composer.

Gress stuck it out in Baltimore/Washington jazz for 11 years after graduating from Towson in 1981, but eventually made the move to New York in 1992. He had a few contacts, such as Eskelin and pianist Fred Hersch, but the bassist's main strategy was to play in every situation he could--whether it was an informal get-together at a friend's apartment or a club's open jam-session--just to get heard. It worked; The word-of-mouth spread and soon he was getting paying work.

And he thrived on the city's energy. "It was overwhelming how driven the musicians in New York were," he says. "When they didn't have live gigs, they were doing sessions. When they didn't have sessions, they were rehearsing. Maybe it's because they're making a sacrifice to be in New York--the cost of living is so high and the living conditions can be very tough--but musicians in New York seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere. I got swept up in the energy. I just said yes to every invitation to play that I got."

In the 17 years he's been in New York, Gress has recorded with everyone from fellow Marylanders Eskelin and George Colligan to Dave Douglas and Don Byron. Gress is featured on Blending Times, the latest album from John and Alice Coltrane's son Ravi, and The Classical Variations, the new release from pianist Uri Caine. Gress is also a member of John Hollenbeck's chamber-jazz ensemble, the Claudia Quintet. (The 2008 Downbeat Critics Poll named the Claudia Quintet as the best up-and-coming group in jazz.) But as much as he enjoys playing with these other musicians, Gress longs to devote more time to his own compositions and his own quintet. He's always looking for the right balance of notated parts and spaces for improvisation.

"Jazz composition is so risky because it relies so much on improvisation and you never know where it will go," he confesses. "Your natural tendency is to clamp down on the soloing, to be more controlling of where the music goes. But that would be a mistake, because I want the guys in my band to contribute--I learn so much from them. I feel like I'm a fairly liberal parent. I raise my compositions to be strong and self-reliant and then I send them out into the world without supervising them every single minute. If the improvisers are inspired by what you write, that's the real sign of achievement because it means the music is really good.

"I turn 50 in November, and it's interesting to see how I fit in on the timeline of the music," he adds. "I recently played at Birdland with Dave Liebman, Randy Brecker, Marc Copland, and Billy Hart, and it was the first time in a long time that I've been the youngest player in the band--whereas on the recent recording session with Steve Lehman's octet, I was the oldest by quite a bit. But I'm committed to play with younger folks because they really push me. That's why I'm looking forward to working with the students at Towson."

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