Stephan Crump: Never can say goodbye

(July, 2010)

Stephan Crump’s favorite way to experience New York City involves strapping his 4-year-old son Maceo into the child’s seat of his bike and heading out of their Brooklyn apartment to take in a cyclist’s eye view of Prospect Park, Coney Island, the Staten Island Ferry, the Brooklyn Bridge and beyond.

And while the shaggy blonde toddler’s exuberance probably accounts for much of the satisfaction Crump gets from these journeys, there’s also something about seeing his own world from a unique perspective that illuminates the creative spark inside him.

“The title of the album, ‘Reclamation’ comes largely from that experience,” says Crump, whose work for the past few years in Vijay Iyer’s band may soon be eclipsed by his own reputation as a leader and composer with the release of his new Rosetta Trio album. “It’s this sense of reclaiming a different connection to our community, our space and our relationship to the environment.”

In the Rosetta Trio — with guitarists Liberty Ellman and Jamie Fox — Crump explores a different connection to concepts like groove, forging not only new music but a new relationship for the listener with the material itself. And the same way you see a city from a different point of view when you bike, rather than walk or drive around it, the music on “Reclamation” is very much about the act of changing perspective.

For starters, the band’s instrumentation casts a shadow of the American folk music tradition on Crump’s ethereally pretty compositions.

“He has a straightforward, melodic simplicity that you might associate more with American folk or rock,” Iyer says. “It’s true to who he is, and it balances some of the complexities of our [band’s] music.”

The unique lineup also means a shift in each instrument’s role within the group, which contributes to the delicate balances of sounds that give the new album such an intimate feel. “The whole ensemble [has] to be a rhythm section simultaneously with being lead and harmonic instruments,” Crump explains, adding that the result is a “flow of all those roles,” which forces the band to express groove without a drummer. It’s an unexpected twist that forces your ear to listen more closely to the lower registers of the music, like on the track “Shoes, Jump,” which involves a sort of controlled soulfulness.

Shifts in the music’s meaning also lend to the overall vibe of the new album. Take the notion of place. Crump’s relationship with New York began when he moved here after college 16 years ago, but his native Memphis is a key player, too.

One of the highlights on “Tuckahoe,” his second album as a leader, is the title track, named after the street where he grew up. At the time he wrote it, the tune was meant to be both a tribute and a goodbye to the place where he’d been raised.

“I remember distinctly feeling the music and the art and the creativity in the water and the air and the soil there,” he says, seated by an electric piano in the studio in the spacious Prospect Heights apartment he shares with his wife, the singer-songwriter Jen Chapin, and their two sons. On the wall behind him, a panoramic photograph taken by his dad peers off the city’s coast, across the Mississippi to the Arkansas flood plain. “I think in the past 30 years, we‘ve gotten so far away from that and it doesn’t seem like it’s a fundamental part of the collective of everyone’s lives now. It’s more like there are pockets of creativity you can connect with. It’s especially difficult for me to experience that when I go home to Memphis because it’s a stark representation of that greater trend in our culture.”

Realizing he could never really say goodbye to the city, Crump began writing another song about it during one visit when he was feeling acutely connected to that sense of loss of a communal creative spirit.

Given this timeline of music and emotions tied to his hometown, it’s fitting that “Memphis” is the opening track on “Reclamation.”

“It’s sort of a dissolution of the image,” he explains. “You know — here’s the melody, here’s the image, here’s the piece and then let’s just drift away from it and let it vanish.”

The Rosetta Trio was born from material Crump had compiled between 2001 and 2005, much of which was his fundamentally about his reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“We were on our roof when we found out what was going on and we have a beautiful view of downtown. We watched it fall and then just experienced the bottom falling out,” he says, drawing a deep breath. “The music that came through at that time was extremely personal and emotional.”
He called on his friends Ellman and Fox to help him test out some of what he’d written. Listening back to a recording of the rehearsal, he knew he wanted to make a record immediately, which they did.

Released in 2006, the album was named one of the year’s best by CODA and Jazzwise magazines, and was similarly hailed by critics at the New York Times, Downbeat and the Wire.

The compositional beauty and elegance wasn’t lost on Crump’s peers, either. “They have an intimacy and focus, and great subtlety with timbre, texture, counterpoint, and balance. It’s a lovely resonance,” Iyer says in praise of the Rosetta Trio.

Summarizing more metaphorically, guitarist Jim Campilongo adds that the album “sounds like nature.”

Lately, Crump’s schedule has been a dizzying feat of masterful tours with Chapin and Iyer, room-packing gigs with Campilongo’s Electric Trio, prestigious invitations such as his 2009 solo performance at the International Society of Bassists, and the ongoing duties that come with being a dad. Looking ahead, he’s working on an expansion of the Rosetta Trio’s concept inspired, again, by place.

Stephan Crump


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