“I think of the bass as an orchestra,” writes bassist/composer Mark Dresser in the liner notes for his breathtaking new solo album, Tines of Change. If anything, this is an understatement in regards to the multi-dimensional sonic possibilities that Dresser conjures from the instrument. Through his singular combination of improvisational artistry and innovative adaptations, Dresser seems to discover orchestras within orchestras, crosscurrents of harmonic and multiphonic inspiration that engage in captivating and entrancingly beautiful dialogues.
Dresser has devoted a lifetime of research and performance to expanding the vocabulary of the bass, experimenting with extended techniques as well as with the physical properties of the instrument itself. Intensive though these studies have been, the results are always far from esoteric. He is renowned as one of creative music’s most expressive and inventive artists, whether in his expansive solo playing or in collaboration with such acclaimed collaborators as John Zorn, Henry Threadgill, Gerry Hemingway, Myra Melford, Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, Tim Berne, Jane Ira Bloom, Dawn Upshaw, Ray Anderson, and countless others. His trio with “hyperpiano” player Denman Maroney and flutist Matthias Ziegler features three musicians who take similarly expansive approaches to their instruments.
Released via Pyroclastic Records, Tines of Change features a dozen new explorations performed on unconventional four- and five-string basses crafted for Dresser by the Colorado-based bassist and luthier Kent McLagan. The album’s title refers to those basses’ most striking feature, an array of metal tines affixed to a secondary bridge. Like the strings these tines can be plucked or bowed, offering a variety of sounds from the percussive to the ethereal that adds sounds resembling both an African mbira and the stroked rods invented by composer Robert Erickson that Dresser employed on his 2017 release Modicana.
But that’s just one of the modifications that McLagan has made to translate Dresser’s sonic imaginings
into reality. In 2001 he embedded hand-wound individual magnetic pickups into the fingerboard of the bass, one set below the nut and the other at the octave. These additional pickups allow Dresser to sound up to three different pitches on each string, as well as amplify subtle tones and pitches that might otherwise go unheard in a live or collaborative setting.
“I heard micro-details of the instrument when I practiced alone, that got lost once I played with others,” Dresser explains. “That led to a lot of time thinking about how I could make these exciting soft sounds louder. As a bass player, you're relegated to what the realities of the acoustics allow. I realized that I could access the sonic details I was hearing by amplifying the bass differently.”
In large part that desire stemmed from the diverse influences that caught Dresser’s ear early in his development. Three figures stand out as hugely influential, each from a different point on the musical spectrum: Charles Mingus, whose expressive and fervent playing drew a prismatic rage of colors from the bass; Jimi Hendrix, whose ability to sculpt feedback encouraged Dresser to attempt to wield the most unpredictable aspects of his instrument; and Bertram Turetzky, the unparalleled experimental and new music solo bassist whose dynamic virtuosity, eclectic stylistic range and mentorship were crucial to Dresser early on.
“As a young musician, it was as if I had conflicting musical agendas,” Dresser recalls. “I set out to learn how to embrace and integrate them, and make them speak to one another as a single musical identity. Ultimately everything feeds into one another. It’s all music.”
“Prolotine,” the opening track on Tines of Change, is that effort in microcosm, a polyphonic dialogue between the disparate voices of Dresser’s bass. Arco moans give way to pizzicato hammering, shimmering overtones resound from deep, echoing scrapes. “Tynalogue” plunges into the sub-audio range of the tines, resonating below the range of hearing with percussive beats that are felt deep in the body.
Each piece reveals new potentialities, profound riches unearthed from bold explorations – from the deep harmonic sonorities of “Harmonity” to the stark, crystalline elegance of “Melodine.” On “Gregoratyne” Dresser bows the tines, conjuring auroral patterns that evoke the preternatural singing of Gregorian monks. “Narratone” delves into guttural sounds that at times evoke the overtone-rich tradition of throat singing.
Though it arrives as the result of a significant period of reflection and invention, Tines of Change can’t be considered the “culmination” of Dresser’s solo explorations. As always, he continues to evolve and broaden his musical possibilities and compel open-eared listeners with previously unimagined, deeply felt invocations.
“I realized that the bass has so many different and distinct voices,” he says. “I wanted to be able to access them and make them speak to one another. What I’m trying to do with all of these techniques is expand what I hear and feel. It's always about trying to find something that registers to me as musical and expressive and something that I want to listen to. I’m driven by the larger impulses of what is musical.”
Mark Dresser is a Grammy nominated, internationally renowned bass player, improviser, composer, and interdisciplinary collaborator. At the core of his music is an artistic obsession and commitment to expanding the sonic, musical, and expressive possibilities of the contrabass. He has recorded over 150 albums.