Jazz trombonist Michael Dessen unveils work inspired by abstract art at Hampshire College

T hink jazz trios and you might usually picture a piano, bass and drums, or maybe guitar, bass and drums. Or maybe it’s guitar, saxophone and drums, or some variation of that.

What about trombone, bass and drums?

That’s not unheard of, says former University of Massachusetts Amherst music student Michael Dessen, though it’s fairly rare. But Dessen, who once studied under jazz legend Yusef Lateef at UMass, brings an added twist to his own trombone-led trio: electronic music, in which he uses a computer to vary the sounds of his group and build on their improvisational work.

Now Dessen, a former Hampshire College music professor with close ties to the Valley, is returning to the region to unveil a new composition inspired by the work of contemporary abstract painters. He and his trio will perform “Resonating Abstractions,” a seven-movement work, at Hampshire Nov. 26 at 8 p.m. in the school’s Recital Hall.

For Dessen, who previously lived in Amherst but has taught music for the last several years at the University of California, Irvine, coming back to the area is always a treat.

“My wife and I really enjoyed our time here,” said Dessen, who earned a master’s degree in jazz composition at UMass in the mid 1990s and taught at Hampshire in the first half of the 2000s. “It’s a great place to live, plus it has a wonderful music scene.”

It was also during his time at UMass, studying with Lateef, that Dessen found a way to harness his different musical interests. He’d played slide trombone pretty much exclusively in classical orchestras and ensembles up through high school, then discovered jazz and world and electronic music as an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. He wasn’t sure at first how to integrate these disparate styles, as well as his growing interest in composing, with his classical training.

But at UMass, Dessen said, “Yusef gave me the model for how to do that. He showed me how to put all of those things together, how to find my own way.” Part of Lateef’s ability to do that, Dessen adds, stemmed from his own constant exploration of different music, which included playing saxophone, flute and several instruments from other countries.

“Yusef never stopped learning,” he said. “He was still figuring things out.”

Dessen went on to do further studies at the University of California, San Diego, concentrating on experimental music and improvisation. He’s since used those skills to play in a wide variety of settings, from different jazz combos and groups — as well as the occasional classical ensemble — to his own trio of trombone, acoustic bass and drums, which he says performs music that’s roughly “part jazz, and part more unusual stuff.”

He’s also started a new MFA program at the University of California, Irvine called Integrated Composition, Improvisation and Technology (ICIT), and he’s involved in what’s known as telematic performances, in which musicians in remote locations play together via the Internet.

Artistic counterpoint

As a performer who enjoys variety, Dessen says he finds inspiration for his compositions from different places as well. For “Resonating Abstractions,” he drew both on his own interest in abstract painting and the connections that painters have previously built with musicians; he notes that many abstract painters in the mid-20th century were influenced by jazz players like Charlie Parker.

“I wanted to find some art and use it to help me think about new ways of composing,” he said. “How could I use their color and shape and form in my own music?”

He found inspiration closer to home as well: His wife, Mari á ngeles Soto-Diaz, is an abstract painter and a Hampshire College graduate who also previously taught at the school.

After looking at the art of numerous painters, Dessen settled on seven artists, an eclectic group that includes Beatriz Milbazes (born in Brazil), Julie Mehretu (born in Ethiopia), Tomory Dodge, a young California painter, and Jonathan Lasker, who’s from New Jersey.

Lasker’s work is an interesting counterpoint to his own, Dessen notes. Whereas Lasker begins some of his paintings with what look like simple scribbles, then builds in more complexity, Dessen says he might compose a complicated piece, with specific parts for his trio, but then simplify it on stage by leaving big passages open for improvisation.

“It’s like we use the reverse procedure” than Lasker, he said.

“Resonating Abstractions” lasts for about one hour and segues from one movement to the next without significant pauses, Dessen said. It also makes use of electronic music, both in prerecorded sounds that Dessen plays through a computer as well as live processing, in which he uses the computer to alter the sounds of his trombone, Christopher Tordini’s bass and Dan Weiss’ drums as the three musicians perform.

“I don’t want to get up and just hit the ‘play’ button,” he said. The electronic part of the music “is also a part of the improvisation.”

Given his and his wife’s connections to the area, it made sense to debut his new composition at Hampshire, Dessen says. His trio will also perform the piece in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Diego and Irvine.

Dessen added that he’ll likely be back in the region in the future for other gigs. He played in Amherst this past summer in a jazz ensemble that included his friend Jason Robinson, a transplanted California saxophonist and composer who now teaches at Amherst College.

“I’m always looking for different places to play and different ways to play,” he said. “It’s an ongoing exploration.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

The Michael Dessen Trio performs at Recital Hall at Hampshire College Nov. 26 at 8 p.m. The concert is free. For information about Michael Dessen, visit mdessen.com.