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Music Review: Drew Gress – The Irrational Numbers

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Unlike many other musical styles, jazz stands out as a genre that can easily tap into the deep crevices of the mind, digging up deeply held emotions and feelings. Stylistically, it is ready to express many ideas at once, to reveal the subtle feelings and nuanced thoughts that aren't always seen at the surface.

Most modern jazz musicians recognize this, and with this knowledge comes the challenge to move listeners in deep, meaningful ways. Any true jazz fan knows that jazz is not just here to entertain or create pretty sounds (in fact, a lot of jazz isn't too pretty), but that it is here to express and reflect the inner movements and expressions of the mind.

Which brings jazz musician Drew Gress into the conversation, a man who truly knows how to use each instrument and every improvisational technique to the greatest emotional effect. In his latest, The Irrational Numbers, Gress knows that his bass-driven jazz digs deep into, as Jack Kerouac said in his novel On The Road, the "pit and prune juice " of the human experience. The Irrational Numbers does just this, taking its listeners on a complex journey of highs and lows experienced at the peaks of mountains and the crevices of caves.

At first listen, The Irrational Numbers is hard to take in, bringing in equal amounts of dissonance and beautiful melodies. Every musician goes off on their own improvisational techniques, digging deep into their own personal feelings in order to bring together the group as a whole. At times, Gress' sound becomes jangled and discordant, but just as he goes off on a tangential riff, he brings the group back to a more unified, conventional sound.

The album starts off with "Bellwether," a short introductory song that highlights the more subdued elements of the rest of the album. With Ralph Alessi's muted trumpet and Gress' bass motifs carrying the rhythm and melody, "Bellwether" is a way for the band to say "we're here" and for the listener to wake up.

Once Gress has us listening attentively with "Bellwether," he gets right into it with "Chevelle," a fast moving and, at times, dissonant song that brings in the whole band. "Chevelle" begins with pounding beats and discordant piano chords. When the horns come in, there is a frantic pace, as each musician improvises on top of the riffs holding the rhythm together, including Gress' bass (here, Gress takes a step back, letting the other musicians take solos). Eventually, "Chevelle" breaks through the madness, and comes to a more conventional jazz technique. At the end, the piano (along with Gress' electronic instruments) brings the rest of the band back down to a beautiful, ethereal moment on the album.

The rest of The Irrational Numbers continues in this way. On "Your Favorite Kind," alto saxophonist Tim Berne riffs along with Alessi's trumpet, juxtaposing each other with fast, technical solos. Gress also reasserts his bass prowess, moving his fingers along the fingerboard as fast as he can. On "Fauxjobim," the band starts off with the same subdued sound of "Bellwether," carries that to the end while drummer Tim Rainey improvs all over the place.

The Irrational Numbers has a way of drawing the listener in, as if the album is one continuous stream of sound. In fact, this is the type of album you can get lost in, not realizing there's a new song every few minutes. By the end of the album, Gress has you wanting more. Throughout the album, Gress also hearkens back to the motifs at the beginning of the album, like the subdued chorus of "Bellwether" and the chaotic moments of "Chevelle." In this way, the whole album feels like it's telling a story through sound. As "Blackbird Backtalk" fades out to the next track "By Far," for example, Gress has taken you into a fiery chaos and then left you in an icy sea, and you must find your way out. And then, on "That Heavenly Hell," you are back to chaos and confusion, as the saxophone and piano fight each other for your attention. It builds to a climax and then leaves you with "True South," a slower track that rounds out the album and goes back to the control and beauty of "Bellwether."

Gress also shows off his bass skills when you least expect it. On "Mas Relief," a short song that lulls you into the bombastic "That Heavenly Hell," Gress riffs along on his bass with a few keyboard effects in the background. It's a beautiful song that shows Gress doesn't always need to fall behind his band; his powerful talent on bass alone can hold a song together.

The Irrational Numbers shows that Gress is willing to delve deep into the recesses of the mind to move listeners. At times, the music moves into chaos, and then within a split second everything seems back to normal. Gress displays a strong command of jazz while showing that the bass can still reign supreme when everything is done right. Overall, The Irrational Numbers is a great album that is worth every second.

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About Kevin Eagan

  • Hey Kevin, great write-up. It’s apparent you listened to this record very closely and sweated the details when it came time to describe it. You got me wanting to go back and revisit my own copy of this CD.

    Keep ‘um coming, man.

  • Thanks, Pico. It’s an excellent album, but it took a longer period of gestation for me to appreciate it as much as I do now. Thus the detailed review, I suppose!

  • Great album, and a great piece, Kevin. I agree – it’s an album that needs some time to fully digest which is why I really wonder why they chose to release this so late in 2007 (rather than holding it for sometime in 2008,) when it’s going to get overlooked in the Christmas shuffle and by the best-of lists due to its newness. I had to regrettably leave it off my list because I just didn’t feel comfortable enough with it yet, and felt it would be better suited to a 2008 list regardless of copyright date.

  • Tom,

    You know, the release date is interesting. It was released twice, the first time late 2007, and to the general public just this week (according to amazon.com and the press releases I got about the CD). I wonder if this was done intentionally, to get some of the serious jazz enthusiasts on board for the public release. Is this a common practice? I’m not sure, but interesting observation nonetheless.

  • nice review kevin. i’m currently listening to “that heavenly hell” from an npr interview. interesting…it’s reminding me of some of the larger Braxton ensembles.