A Review of Stephan Crump with the Rosetta Trio’s “Reclamation”
Inventive, deeply melodic and resonant, Reclamation is a great record featuring strong writing and arrangements, a unique string trio line-up and three unique voices. Stephan Crump is a fabulous jazz bassist and is joined by Jamie Fox and Liberty Ellman on guitars in a trio which has been together for some time. This is their second album. The interplay, sensitivity and musicality reflects the fact that these three have spent a good while playing together and patently enjoy it. This is music without any whiff of cliché.
Stephan is becoming better known as part of Vijay Iyer’s ground-breaking trio. He also plays his resonant upright bass in his wife’s (Jen Chapin) group alongside Jamie Fox. Stephan was born in Memphis (with a French pianist mother and a drummer father from Memphis) and is now based in New York. His resume is very diverse: Ashford and Simpson, Michael McDonald, Jorma Kaukonen, Mahavishnu Project, Dave Liebman, Billy Hart, Sonny Fortune, Eddie Henderson, Ernie Watts, Greg Osby, Kenny Werner, Marvin Stamm, Frank Foster, Bobby Previte, and late blues legend Johnny Clyde Copeland among others. He is a fabulous bassist.
Ellman, who also played a great deal with Iyer, plays acoustic guitar on this record. He has learned a great deal from playing with Henry Threadgill and has also played alongside Steve Coleman, Butch Morris, Greg Osby, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Jason Moran, Oliver Lake, Bob Stewart, Marty Erlich, Peter Apfelbaum, Josh Roseman, Michele Rosewoman, Nasheet Waits, Mark Helias, JT Lewis, Graham Haynes, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie since his return to New York from San Francisco.
Fox plays electric guitar on this release. He has played with artists as diverse as Brother Jack McDuff, Dr. John, Ernie Watts, Gene Harris, Tiger Okoshi, Carla Thomas, Otis Clay and The Shirelles. He worked with Joan Baez as musical director and as lead guitarist in Blood, Sweat and Tears. His own record, ‘When I Get Home’ features Kenny Werner and Peck Allmond. As with Ellman, there is a combination of earthy bluesiness and intelligent abstraction in his playing and all three use dynamics superbly and compliment each others playing perfectly.
This trio has such a unique sound: deep, resonant bass and the diverse and complimentary styles of the two guitarists. Arrangements feature a great deal of collective improvisation and rarely if ever do we hear a single melodic line accompanied by straightforward guitar chords and bass line. The emphasis is on counterpoint with a soloist likely to be accompanied by a countermelody, fractured arpeggios, rhythmic patterns or arco drones. This creates an ever-changing tapestry of sounds… and these guys do improvise as much with the sounds as the notes. The CD was recorded in Crump’s home studio with all three musicians live in one room.
The record opens with “Memphis” which honors Crump’s hometown and is also a way of saying goodbye. It has a syncopated bass two-feel with guitars swapping lilting, swinging melody lines and countermelodies. There is a relaxed elegance to the playing and the focus flits effortlessly from melody to solo to collective improvisation, with a hint of a Hot Club feel in the line-up, the relaxed melodic feel and the joie de vivre. Crump’s bass is sure-footed and elegant. His playing on this track is exquisite: you simply must hear him. He combines limber walking, syncopated two-feel, double stops and expressive asides. The trio wind around each others’ lines and the improvisation gradually becomes more abstracted until by the end all three are soloing simultaneously, freely over an implied pulse and the track ends with an aural question mark.
“Silogism” rails against political pandering to the so-called heartland. It is brief and very tasty. Deep, earthy upright bass and bright, choppy, resonant acoustic guitar build a rollicking groove. String noise is used as a textural effect and after less than two minutes, it’s gone.
“The Leaves, The Rain” has a simple, beautiful, heartfelt melody. It’s Romantic in the sense of perceiving beauty and magic in nature. The interaction of the trio is chamber-like on the ballad opening: the three musicians dancing around each others parts – counterpoint and delicate voicings proliferate. As on almost every track, melodies are passed around between members: first Fox, then Ellman, then Ellman and Crump, then Fox and Ellman. With this delicious interplay a quite pensive mood is created. The solos involve vary between simultaneous soloing or highly interactive accompaniments in the tradition of the Bill Evans trios. The use of melodic fragments reminds me of Bill Frisell but the trio have very much their own sound.
“Overreach” is something quite unlike anything I’ve heard before. Ellman plays an Escher-like pattern of power-chords on the acoustic guitar. Bass adds a percussive, woody groove to the complex metre and Fox adds a convoluted but very catchy melody. A second melody, voiced by Ellman answers wonderfully. There are many repeated lines on this tune, reminding me of the way sophisticated looping musicians use repetition contrasted with invention to great effect. Fox and Ellman solo freely over the bubbly, rocking groove which alternates between something like 18 and a 7/8 beat, you’ll be too busy dancing in your head to count though. This tune has a memorable quality and I have found it has pretty much made a nest in my head for the last few days. The concept of the tune concerns the self-destructive tendencies of Crump’s home country.
“Here Not Here” starts with abstract splashes of deep color from bass, slowly the motif comes into focus, guitars join and a dark, repeated, bluesy motif emerges into focus like a great figure from the mist. This contrasts with a faster, still mournful figure leading into a quiet, free improv interchange. These guys are fabulous listeners and Crump’s Mingus-like expressive slides and growls contrast with chordal fragments, clusters, string noise and koto-like behind the bridge picking from the guitarists. To hear how organically the theme returns from the melee is delightful. This tune is about the challenge of being “in the present”, whatever technological possibilities constantly surround us.
“Shoes, Jump“, written for Crump’s son Maceo, is the kind of two-word expressive phrase the (then) toddler used to express enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the word: this another crazily catchy number. One listen and you’ll never forget this. A jolly, bouncy swinging melody over a funky New Orleans vibe. The playing is lucid and joyous and the musicians go to town. 100% jazz, 0% cliché. Ellman has a ball over Crump’s limber playing, and Crump has a tremendous bounce to his playing. You can hear him breathe during his intense solo. Fox soars aloft… and as ever there are effective and varied backdrops to the solos.
The introspective “Escalateur” has delicate guitar textures over arco bass, a slow melody and arpeggios that hang in the air. Crump’s bowed toned is fabulous, rich and expansive. The bass solos soulfully and expressively over the guitar progression. Crump’s bass sings and flutters and makes great use of flute-like harmonics. It has a mood I took for mournful but is actually closer to determined and knowing.
The epic “Pernambuco” is named for a tree, being the wood from which Stephan’s bow is made. Crump writes that it looks outward from that to the history of man’s raving of resources. It begins with quiet sounds that perhaps echo a rainforest scene: thumps of wood, creaking timbers, rubbing on strings into which atmosphere Crump’s bowed upright comes accompanied by soft guitars. The strong, slow melody is played by first Crump and then Fox before a swirling pattern heralds a memorable, sinuous melodic line from Fox. The three build an intense rhythmic ballet. Crump plays a resonant plucked line that reminds me of berimbau as Ellman adds shards of melody. There is no overplaying here – every note is precious. Ellman’s soloing is quicksilver and original, Crump’s bass tone is woody and deep, and the bluesy Fox makes wonderful use of dynamics as he varies his accompaniment. Then Crump (arco) and Ellman breathe a beautiful melody together after about nine minutes in that has me thinking of “In a Silent Way” in its direct intensity and atmospheric accompaniment. Fox has a bluesy authenticity to his playing and his short solo on this tune melds jazz, folk, blues and his own approach. Ellman makes clever use of a loop-like acoustic guitar figure then as Crump and Fox play the original melody again adding soaring bowed harmonics and bubbling guitar sounds.
“Toward Fall“, written for his wife Jen Chapin, a fabulous singer songwriter, has a deeply affecting slow melody beautifully phrased by bass and acoustic guitar over electric guitar textures. All three solo expressively over the slow waltz and the piece ends on a bright note. A lovely way to end the album.
This is a splendid record. It’s such an inventive, resourceful jazz chamber trio that benefits from Crump’s passionate melodies, the sense that these three know each others playing extraordinarily well and a steadfast avoidance of cliché. They manage to create music that is moving, beautiful and original. The musicians are firmly rooted in blues and jazz but create something individual and brilliant.
Reclamation track list
- Memphis (letting go, whilst keeping alive the most important bits)
- Silogism (faulty logic that leads to heartland pandering)
- The Leaves, The Rain (to autumn and its leaves sticking, flopping down the streets)
- Overreach (will we get past this?)
- Here Not Here (question technology)
- Shoes, Jump (for Maceo – you used to talk like this)
- Escalateur (i’ll leep trying to get there)
- Permambuco (a song for a tree)
- Toward Fall (for Jenny)
Here’s a live performance of the track “Overreach”: