Sunday, May 11, 2014

CD Review: Dave Ross Quartet

CD Review by John Pietaro:
Michael Monhart - Tenor Saxophone
Michael Bisio -  Bass, Vocal
Jay Rosen - Drums
Dave Ross - Guitar, Vocal

Recorded at the Blue Room,Brooklyn, NY, April 8th, 2008

Recording engineer - Robert O'Haire
Mixed by - Dave Ross at Orange Music Sound Studios, Orange, NJ
Mix engineer - James Dellatacoma
Mastered at Sound Mirror by "Magic" Mark Donahue
Produced by - Dave Ross and Robert O'Haire

Let it be said that Dave Ross is one of the most Harmolodic guitarists performing in improvisational music today. That he is not more widely known as a leader in this sphere is to every listener’s detriment. The wealth of imagery Ross conjures out of a guitar transports the instrument beyond mere orchestral pallet – here is where the truly unorthodox sits in a happy emulsion with impeccable technique. Ross’ approach to the guitar is refreshingly unique, inspired by visionary saxophonists much more than any other guitar player; he projects linear, spiraling sounds from deep within that emerge with jewels of melodies, barks, growls and motifs that are evocative of….something else. In true Harmolodic fashion, melody, counter-point, harmony and rhythm are interchangeable and excitedly feed off one another each time he puts fingers to fret board.

As a musician active in the NYC free jazz/new music scene myself---but as one who also writes about it---I would be remiss if I didn’t state here that I know Dave through mutual performance, but this in no way compels me to write in hyperbole, would that even be possible. In fact, my performances with this guitarist allow me something of a special insight into his conceptions and I look forward to the rolling sonic sky he creates as he both locks into the rest of the band’s moment, and then carefully rejects it all to bring us into new terrain. As I said, this is one of the most Harmolodic guitarists out there. Ornette would have to dig this music.

‘Bye-Bye Brooklyn, Hello Everywhere’ opens with  the halted breath of “Love at First Feel”, with the four musicians engaging in a group improvisation, dancing about one another as would a young couple in the moments leading up to intimacy. Beckoning, retreating, advancing in hot pursuit. Or was that “feel” simply about the good vibes that grew in the session itself? Either way, the interactions are true and you can tell these musicians enjoy one another’s work. There is a real sense of unity and the collective improv is a moment in time that is as gripping as it is joyous. Bell-like guitar trades the lead with whispering saxophone and the searching commentary of upright bass and drums. And then the dance picks up speed and pulsations are going off in every direction. Michael Monhart’s powerful tenor is ever-present in this four-way discussion but, for this cut, maintains more of a section-man role than that of the front of the band. A lengthy solo by Michael Bisio reveals a fluid, multi-dimensional bassist who establishes a groundwork that is as much about rhythmic drive as it is extended techniques and gorgeous melodic statements. It is far too easy to get lost in the reality Bisio brings forth. As his solo diminishes, drummer Jay Rosen takes us back to the moment with gently piercing metals and the brattle of fills on his tom-tom and snare rims. The quartet resumes its collective improvisation until Ross’ own solo section emerges. Lightning-fast runs, percussive fret assaults, bluesy wailing and atonal quests pour out of your speakers, with the bass chasing down every move until the two, engaging in call-and-response, slow to a sudden, unresolved halt.

The next cut, “All Roads Lead to Universe”, is a Ross composition which offers an imaginary landscape into a horizon somewhere far away. One sees an endless desert, a barren mountainside, with a red sun beating down on a small caravan of believers that move along determinedly over miles of the mind. Wheezing saxophone, the reed sounding as dry as the imagery this produced for me, slowly brings a melody to the forefront. By the time this somewhat Arabic piece comes into being, the saxophone is now full-bodied, perhaps even one part bar-honker in addition to the obvious world music and post-modern jazz influence. Ross’ guitar, now feeling strangely like some sort of electric sehtar, opens the pathway for Bisio’s bowed bass which, cello-like, guides the rear of the caravan beneath Rosen’s white-hot cymbal rolls.

“This is Was” kicks off with a clipped walking bass which builds into the free jazz comp of the old school shimmering rhythm section  a la Haden and Higgins, creating a swathe in which all else is built upon. The first leading voice one encounters in this brief piece, traditionally enough, is the tenor, here spewing out a blurring improv that screams out Ayler’s name while reminding us that for at least one classic album Ornette played tenor too. The inventive, dominant performance of Monhart is quite classic and yet is unafraid to look well beyond his favorite memories of the Atlantic and Impulse records in his collection. Behind him, Ross drops in a chordal structure, bouncing off of the gallop of bass and drums. The guitarist takes over in a solo which includes a tap dancing duet with snare rim-shots, and then Bisio is featured as the sounds around him slowly come apart, decrescendoing into an abrupt false ending. The piece returns in an explosion that feels like a Sun Ra orchestral climax but also recalls early King Crimson. It’s all over quickly, leaving you wanting much more. The title’s Was seems to not only comment on the past of improvisational music but the blink of the track itself.

“In the Key of D” may have been a general idea in the instructions when this piece was first presented, but the irony of the title is apparent; the work opens with a drum solo. Drummer Rosen offers a world of sounds in his frenetic but quite musical feature. Even as the other instrumentalists enter the scene, Rosen remains out front. The inventiveness is germane to the standard of the contemporary free drummer’s language. The approach is far different from the “traditional” free jazz drumming of the music’s first period, as heard in the prior piece. In this case, the showcase is of the drumming conceived by stalwarts such as Rashid Ali and Milford Graves and then developed further through percussionists like Charles Downs (Rashid Bakr), Ronald Shannon Jackson and Jamie Muir. Just as the music had to develop to a point where the elements could break the chains of their conservatory roles, so did the New Thing drummer have to develop a vision of his or her instrument. The ride cymbal is not specific to time-keeping, perhaps nothing is. And why need it be? The constantly shifting terra firma offers a natural contrapuntal voice to lead lines which have moved well beyond any work’s specific harmonic structure let alone key signature. It’s a new day and it has been, progressively, since at least 1956. The artists of the underground claimed it as the Year One in their quest for the next philosophy, but have forged on ahead steadily. Nothing can stop this progression. The full breadth of it can be heard in many pockets of this album. But in the world of Dave Ross, the full breadth can sometimes be a detailed close-up of only one or two voices of the whole.

Case in point, “So Nice 2 Be…” closes off this album with the leader and bassist sitting out, apparently enjoying the gripping tenor/drumkit duet carrying on wonderfully about them. This is a concise selection that never falls into the trappings some extended duets have, where the players’ inspiration runs out well after the listener’s interest. Here is a rapid-fire excursion that invites us along for the ride and then ends with mutual satisfaction---like our younger selves had hoped for in First Feel encounters gone by. Love is never having to say ‘you are out of tune’…

The utter modesty that would allow a leader to end an album with his own tacit speaks volumes. Even more than these darkly adventurous, magical cuts can. Dave Ross never turns down the spotlight, and once in it he is a master magician of free, yet he is just as inspired in playing behind another soloist, dropping in just the right chords, spikes of sound, languid lines—or basking in silence. But Ross BECOMES the guitar when he is in the moment, and this cannot be learned through any tutelage. You have to experience it for yourself. ‘Bye-Bye Brooklyn, Hello Everywhere’ offers at least a glimpse into that special place.

 -John Pietaro is a musician, writer and cultural organizer from Brooklyn NY. His website is and blog




  1. Wonderful review. Dave needs more exposure.

  2. Thanks for reading the piece and commenting, Dom. And I agree, Dave needs more exposure---but then this movement has never been designed for the Top 10. Its a struggle for us all but I am happy to acknowledge folks whenever possible. peace, jp


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