Drew Gress

"Dardevil instinct"

It seems that Marc Copland and Ellery Eskelin are important in your musician life. Can you explain us why ?

Both Marc and Ellery were/are influential and inspirational for me, as they both represent one of the core pursuits of improvised music...the artist's search for a personal voice. Marc went so far as to change instruments, as his feeling was that the only way he could express what he was hearing was the piano, which necessitated his relinquishing the saxophone. That is a courageous choice to make in mid-career. I'm sure he felt, and feels today, that it was the only choice to make...that this change was essential. Marc and Ellery have much in common in that they are both willing to question musical convention, and to question why things have become common practice. What this leads to is the exploration of music's boundaries. One can explore violating the conventions of the day, questioning whether the proscriptions of musical "society" work for you, or against you, as an artist and individual, and no matter what your answer to that question is, I think your music changes just by virtue of having asked the question. For now, I've come to the conclusion that there are certain musical conventions I can work with, and others that are not so intriguing.

You said about Joint Venture “we were without a real model for what we were doing”. Do you think that at this moment it was the begening of a new scene ?

I don't think I would go so far as to say that. I was speaking more from a personal standpoint...we were a cooperative quartet, in which everyone composed music for the group, and decisions were made in truly democratic fashion. It wasn't always easy, or pretty (the decision-making process, that is), but I think the music that resulted was strong and individual. It was a first step toward taking matters into our own hands, both musically and career-wise. This is becoming more and more how creative music reaches the public; as the recording industry becomes more and more monochramatic, it has been left to the musician to find an outlet for the music he/she creates....and every day you are asking yourself what makes the music that is important to you, and that you feel others will care about, as well.

You are one of the leading musicien of this new scene in New York. How do you feel about it ?

I am thrilled to be able to play with some of the finest, most stimulating musicians in the world, and for me, variety is the spice of life. I am happiest when exploring and playing several different musics simultaneously, and improvised music is all about how the individuals interact...so this musical life is NEVER boring. It's also exciting for me to be a part of, hopefully, taking the music to new places, and being in demand means that you have the oppurtunity to participate in something new and different ona regular basis, and that is all any musician can hope for... a chance to be yourself in a new place. Anyone who travels knows what it feels like to be somewhere you've never been before, and that's the feeling I'm looking for....excitement mixed with unpredictability, even danger.

With our world's affairs being in the sorry state they are right now, I feel the energy we devote to such a benign endeavor as making music, harming noone, (at least physically) and bringing pleasure to our audiences, is sorely needed today. At the end of the day, I hope I can look in the mirror and say that I've conducted my life with a degree of integrity and honesty, and done no harm, to boot. I hope we all can.

I think (but it’s just my personnal way of thinking !) that Drew Gress / Tom Rainey is one of the most exciting rythm section at the moment. Can you explain us your relation with this drummer ?

Tom Rainey is one of the great improvising drummers, with a daredevil's instincts and perfect musical radar. I first met Tom in 1987 at a demo recording session with Ben Monder, so our first playing was in the studio, on tape-sans rehearsal. There was an immediate hookup, and, as time went on, we found ourselves playing in several different bands together (Fred Hersch, Tim Berne, Tony Malaby, Andy Laster, Simon Nabatov, my own band). I can't really explain why we seem to think the same way about groove, interaction, and sound, but sometimes it's best not ruin things by analyzing too much. One partial explanation might be that we listened to much of the same music growing up as teenagers...although that was 3,000 miles apart. I'm still not sure how the music of Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra have directly affected what we do, but it's in there.

I read that you like visual artists like Rothko, Chagall or Gaugin. How it influences your way of playing or composing ?

When I view paintings or architecture, I often hear music, and while I can't explain in words what it is that happens, seeing the work of someone that is rethinking the traditional ways things have been done is inspiring, and triggers parallel ideas of your own. Allowing the static vibration of a Rothko to wash over you is a singular experience, and he raises the point that there doesn't have to be much going on, as far as visual activity, for the piece to command your attention...instead, the glow seems to come alive, and you as the reciever become totally focused on that color field. The power to rivet someone's attention that way is a special thing...I'm trying to learn from how painters, architects, dancers, actors, writers, poets do that.

What do you know about the jazz improvised french scene ?

I am aware of artists such as Louis Sclavis, Marc Ducret, Bruno Chevillon, Joelle Leandre, Steve Arguelles...there is a lot of very fine new music coming out of France these days....as always, some of the very finest double-bassists are French.

What are your last recording ? And may be a concert in France ?

The latest recording of my own music is "Spin & Drift", which features Uri Caine, Tim Berne, Tom Rainey, and myself (I also play some pedal-steel guitar on this album). It is on Premonition Records, from Chicago. It can be hard to find in Europe, but you can go to www.premonitionandmusic.com, or Amazon.com and get it. I also have a recording on SoulNote..."Heyday", which features Ben Monder, Dave Binney,a nd Kenny Wollesen.
As far as other projects I've played on, there will be a new trio recording with Tony Malaby and Paul Motian that will happen in March...I'm excited about that. Also, Bill Carrothers will be recording music from World War I in June, and that should be a fascinating project to be a part of.
I believe the next time I will be performing in France will be in March with Marc Copland. I believe we'll be playing in Paris MAR 17-18, Marseille MAR 20, and Besancon MAR 21. Then, in April, I'll be back in Paris again with Ralph Alessi's Quintet (with Don Byron).

Interview by Jean Delestrade