Mark Dresser Seven – Ain’t Nothing But A Cyber Coup & You(Clean Feed Records. CD review by Dan Bergsagel)
Sounding more like a group of outlaws than a jazz ensemble, the Magnificent Mark Dresser Seven pack musical infamy even if they aren’t packing heat. Masterminded by the prolific Mark Dresser himself, on his latest adventures he is accompanied regular collaborators, including the versatile and quick-fingered Marty Ehrlich and the sparky rhythm duo of Joel White and Jim Black.
More than simply a well-balanced skillful septet, the Seven combine on Ain’t Nothing but a Cyber Coup & You to produce a record combining energetic dystopia with reflective analysis, exploring deeply personal loss and sadness as much as it explores our collective political ones.
For an avant-garde compositional bandit like Dresser, the record is conceptually formal: six (approximately) ten-minute pieces sandwiching brief minute-long stripped down interludes built around the steel rods of the unusual instrument, the McLagan Tines. Like a wine pairing at a tasting menu, each sets the scene for the following track. Pre-Maria is a tension-building purr before the bass and percussion scuttle, rattle and splat into Let Them Eat Paper Towels, a piece inspired by the response (or lack of) from the administration to support Puerto Rico post hurricane Maria. Essentially a sombre thing, it flits from anguished violin breaks to a keys trot loose adaptation of Que Bonita Bandera, winding up and up, always with a hint of unhinged chaos, until finally it snaps into an abrupt halt.
Embodied in Seoul is about peace – intercontinental, maybe inter-peninsula – but an elusive, scratching, peace. And again Kier GoGwit’s violin is a key piece, providing much of the scene-setting and melodic lead; an evocative sound well used. Together the group builds into a sweeping melodic train and climax, the keys jumping nimbly right through it. Gloaming leads with a resonant double bass welcome, vibrating on two-levels and an additional violin string pairing before an earnest keys turn and rich flute. Described as a ‘parametric waltz’, it develops with all the instruments waltzing to the same song, but each dancing slightly apart, on their own in the room.
While carefully crafted and well thought out, the record is at its most ear-catching when arriving with the unstoppable momentum of the Seven in full flow. Ain’t Nothing But a Cyber Coup & You has a furious piano intro, eventually joined by sharp uplift kick, more hip hop beat than anything else, and nimble equally furious bass lines. Clarinet and violin laments are delivered over a high-paced rhythm section uniting regularly on the theme, vamping between ripping keys and drums, and returning to a two-chord theme, like a siren, throughout.
Black Arthur’s Bounce hangs on a rolling melody running through the piece with urgency and a continuing momentum only to be brought to frequent stop/starts for regrouping. The melody lead shifting from the prominent trombone of Michael Dessen, to the violin letting through an alto swagger, and crisp flute of Nicole Mitchell cutting through before a frenetic piano flourish. It’s a bit of an improvisational showcase from the whole ensemble, as indeed is the whole.
The liner notes touch on Dresser’s embrace of political discourse in his pieces, and a sardonic dystopia inspired by Mingus – particularly the enticing juxtaposition in the title track and the cruel surrealism of Let Them Eat Paper Towels, spotlighting the nefarious interference of an imperial presidency in the first cut, and a much more nefarious lack of interference in the latter. However I’d posit that instead, as a strong composer and double bass band leader embracing hints of chaos in a multi-melody tune, tracks like Black Arthur’s Bounce are when Dresser most fuses some of the Mingus approach with bits of ’70s AACM Chicago filtered through an ’80s Anthony Braxton.
The record as a whole is pieced together with these small, open-stitched interludes, but from beginning to end they slip from playful to increasingly more agitated. So it is some reassurance that we finish with the soothing Butch’s Balm, in memory of teacher and pianist Butch Lacy – reflecting the more energetic opener in memory of Arthur Blythe. Tender, slow start with considered minimal piano composition, this weaves along the clean melancholy of Joaquin Rodrigo, the slow gravitas of Erik Satie, with the timbre of Tan Dun. Percussive brushes, the bass as if in quarter time. A slow machine scene.
First impressions of Ain’t Nothing But a Cyber Coup & You may be of political collapse and technological crime – on the face of it this is very much a current affairs statement; however I’d argue this is a record more rooted in the past than looking emboldened into a bleak future. Sure, there is a tinge of chaotic despair, but there are also real affirmations of the precedence of human connections: in memories of people like Blythe, Lacey, and of tender moments gone by. As a whole the thought and careful composition on these buoyant moments outshines the current realpolitik and wargames of the rest. Political comment or to one side, Ain’t Nothing But a Cyber Coup & You is an excellent and powerful album from a talented ensemble with no weak links, and led deftly by a contemporary compositional force.