The Juilliard School and Lindemann Fellows Present "Cosi Fan Tutti"
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Michael Dessen Trio: "Resonating Abstractions"

by Dan Lehner

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Explaining programmatic music is always a tricky balance. Tell your audience too much about the story behind your piece and it’ll feel like you’re leading a museum tour; tell them too little and you might as well have scrapped the concept in the first place. During Tuesday's premiere of Michael Dessen’s Resonating Abstractions at Brooklyn's Shapeshifter Labthe trombonist/composer let the audience in on exactly two facets of the piece that illuminated the internal concept while keeping a sense of mystery: 1) the piece was a seven-movement work (subverted by playing the whole suite without interruption), and 2) the piece was inspired by seven pieces of visual art (subverted by not announcing the pieces or even the artists' names).

The disparate influences were easily discerned by virtue of how different each section of the work sounded. The musical vignettes moved seamlessly from superbly non-academic, blustering rock grooves to airy minimalism and intertwined rhythmic clockwork. Dessen avoided straying too far from center and unified the work with compositional elements (such as blisteringly boisterous high register playing), as opposed to overtly motivic themes. The trombonist also kept things exciting by switching up the trio’s participation: Bassist Chris Tordini offered spidery and harmonically coherent solo jaunts, oftentimes pairing up in duo with drummer Dan Weiss, who provided a potent kick with his combination of drum ’n’ bass and metal-by-way-of-Paul Motian. 

Other than his formidable technique and soulful harmonic sense, Dessen’s claim to power is his use of computer-modulated electronics. This sort of interpolation in jazz/creative music can go in many different directions, and Dessen utilized almost all of them. In one instance, he used the computer to twist and morph his trombone tone into pure cybernetics; in another, he looped electronic sounds into an ambient effect around his trio. A little detail that made a big difference was not just how he utilized electronics, but how he masterfully transitioned in and out of electronic sections. It was not so simple as turning the programs on and off—Dessen carefully built sonic precedents by introducing the electro-trombone sounds one by one and artfully fading them out when returning to acoustic settings.

As groundbreaking as it all seems, Dessen is actually part of a progeny of trombonists who incorporate electronic, computer-generated sounds into jazz music, the first being one of his teachers, George Lewis. What made the performance all the more fascinating, however, is how much Dessen personalized the sounds to the trio, making the computer an active, living participant and an instrument unto itself. Resonating Abstractions is simultaneously a classical suite, a musical cyborg, a new stomping ground for improvisation, and a new sonic territory for trombone music and chordless jazz trios.