Somewhere In The Upstream


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Michael Dessen, trombone/computer/composition
Christopher Tordini, bass
Dan Weiss, drums
Clean Feed Records, 2018

Liner Notes

Somewhere In The Upstream is dedicated to Yusef Lateef (1920-2013), an acclaimed composer and saxophonist who created an expansive body of musical work that began in the late 1930s and continued up until a few months before his passing at the age of 93. His career includes early sideperson contributions to ensembles led by jazz icons such as Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderly and Charles Mingus; influential recordings as a bandleader beginning in the 1950s, when he was one of the first artists to incorporate non-western instruments and technniques in jazz contexts; numerous fully-notated compositions for classical forces beginning with his first orchestral composition in 1969; four years of musical research and collaborations in Nigeria during the 1980s; many widely known publications on musical techniques as well as philosophical and literary writings; a doctoral degree in Education and fifteen years as a faculty member in the Music Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and a vast collection of musical recordings under his own label produced during the last two decades of his life that integrate composition, improvisation and technology in a deeply individual way.

Lateef’s musical legacy resists the categories through which we typically understand twentieth-century music, and offers a powerful example of the multidimensional legacies of twentieth century African American music traditions. Although he was named an “American Jazz Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts, Lateef himself declined to use the word jazz and chose instead to refer to his musical tradition with his own term, “autophysiopsychic music,” which he defined as “that which comes from one’s spiritual, physical and emotional self.”

I was fortunate to study with Dr. Lateef for several years in the mid-1990s, and also to have opportunities to perform on one of his albums and publish writings about his work. He was the first mentor who helped me begin developing a musical practice that – as he might put it – “syncretizes” numerous traditions and ideas in an individual language. He profoundly influenced me through the depth of exploration that he brought to music making and, just as important, through the consistently kind and loving character of his words and actions. Conversations in my two years of composition lessons with Lateef often ranged far beyond the technical aspects of music, and even though we would often respectfully disagree on some topics, he modeled a practice of compassion that impacted me in ways I cannot adequately express in words.

Somewhere In The Upstream builds on the previous work that I have done with this trio, and although it does not in any way attempt to imitate Lateef’s music, I realized as I was completing the piece that the soundworlds and methods I have been exploring with this band over the past decade owe more to Lateef than I had previously understood. Many of Lateef’s albums on his YAL label, made when he was in his 70s and 80s and living in a rural area of western Massachusetts, used the recording studio in an alchemical way, bringing together pre-composed materials and improvisations to create otherworldly spaces infused with paradox: they are simultaneously humorous and deadly serious, abstract and referential, and original yet grounded in longstanding, communal traditions. Like my previous music for this trio, Somewhere In The Upstream was created in search of a similar spirit, but rather than being a studio creation, this work is intended for live performance. We documented it in that spirit, recording the entire piece in the single take you hear on this CD.

This composition also takes a form that I call a “scorestream,” in which precomposed score materials are displayed in realtime on screens for the improvisers to interpret, in coordination with electronic sounds and processing. In this sense, the score is not a predetermined linear narrative but more like a database of musical structures that are displayed in slightly different ways in each performance, following a logic built into the software I created. With respect to both scored and electronic materials, the line between what is composed and improvised in this music is often difficult to discern, but is also irrelevant; like many traditions of music making that use complex structures in highly improvisatory ways, we do not simply alternate between reading and improvising, but instead use intricate, precomposed materials as points of departure for realtime, collective composition and discovery. In that spirit, this music is also deeply indebted to my phenomenal collaborators, Chris Tordini and Dan Weiss. They are exceptionally flexible, virtuoso musicians who pry open the compositions I bring to reveal new possibilities in each performance, and I am honored and privileged to have worked with them over the past decade to develop this trio’s unique sound and approach.

Thank you for listening.

– Michael Dessen

Credits

Recorded at Systems Two in Brooklyn on June 6, 2016
Recording Engineer: Max Ross
Produced by Michael Dessen
Mixed and mastered by Rich Breen
Executive production by Pedro Costa for Trem Azul
Design and Artwork by Travassos
All compositions by Michael Dessen © 2016 Cronopio Music (ASCAP)

The composition and premiere of Somewhere In The Upstream was made possible by a composition commission from the Fromm Music Foundation. Additional performances and recording costs were supported in part by a New Music USA Project Grant. I am deeply grateful to both organizations for supporting my musical explorations. Special thanks also to Mariángeles Soto-Díaz, Amanda Cooper, Stephanie Ahn, Glenn Siegel, Bonnie Wright, and Ayesha Lateef.