Jesse Gress, Todd Rundgren and Kasim Sulton (photo: Dean Budnick)
The first time I saw Jesse Gress, I thought he was Todd Rundgren.
It was the early 1990s, somewhere in Northeast Ohio, and a lanky guitar player with long brown hair was walking around the stage fiddling with axes and warming up for the gig to come.
It was only later – 60 minutes or so – I learned this was not Rundgren, but Gress, the guitarist extraordinaire who had recently joined Rundgren’s band and would go on to be an integral part of the Individualist’s musical output for the next 30-plus years. And it was later still that I learned Gress not only looked like Rundgren, but could sound like him, too, playing the exquisite solos in songs like “Black and White” and “Zen Archer” with everything they needed while never copying what Rundgren had done on record or on stage previously.
That’s no small feat when you’re playing the parts laid down by a master musician who often plays and sings every note on his studio albums. Yet Gress could do that and more. And Rundgren, who is as singular an artist that has ever come along, recognized this and eulogized Gress as “a musical mystic who heard things the rest of us barely grasped.”
High praise, indeed.
Gress, 67, died Feb. 21 after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He leaves a giant hole not only in Rundgren’s band, but in Kasim Sulton’s Utopia and in the Tony Levin Band. Guitar geeks will miss his insightful articles and tabulations in magazines such as Guitar Player, but they can still turn to his five books on the topic for assistance. For as talented as Gress was as a player, he was just as adept at sharing his tools with others who knew how to use them.
I never bought a ticket to a Jesse Gress concert, but I saw him perform at least 25 times over the years – maybe more. He came into Rundgren’s band just as Vince Welnick was running off with the Grateful Dead and my two diametrically opposed musical obsessions cross-pollinated.
The only times Gress wasn’t on stage with Rundgren was when the latter put together a special band for some occasion or did one of his sporadic tours under the Utopia banner. That is until 2021, when Gress had a lung transplant and sat out Rundgren’s virtual-show residency in Chicago which only a couple of dozen fans were allowed to witness in person as the performances were beamed across the United States.
Those gigs were spectacular. But Gress’ absence was palpable.
By the end of the year, the guitarist, masked, was back, sounding as good as ever and giving Rundgren’s music everything it needed.
The last time I saw Jesse Gress was in Cleveland in late 2021, when he was there in the band that miraculously recreated the studio trickery of A Wizard, A True Star over two nights. I no longer mistook Gress for Rundgren.
I also had no idea I’d never see him perform again.
“His space will never be filled,” Rundgren said of his longtime musical compatriot. “He has taken it with him.”
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