Steph Richards
Photo: Chris Weiss / Courtesy of Northern Spy Records

Steph Richards’ ‘Supersense’ Is Music So Wild You Can Smell It

With her experimental jazz album Supersense, trumpeter Steph Richards may have created the first-ever album that you can smell.

Steph Richards
Northern Spy
23 October 2020

There’s nothing new about synesthesia in making art. For as long as humans have expressed themselves artistically, they have found creative ways to meld the senses together. Different art forms may be inextricably linked to particular senses, but at a fundamental level, we never truly experience art with all other senses tuned out. The opening lines of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night illustrate the fluidity of sensory experience: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Steph Richards’ Supersense takes synesthesia as its core conceit; however, her method of doing so is something quite new indeed.

Supersense bills itself as an album that you can smell, and not just figuratively. With each physical copy of the album, Richards and her collaborator Sean Raspet, a “scent artist”, include a scratch-and-sniff sheet with smells designed to accompany each song. According to liner note essay author Steve Smith, Richards “notes that [in the studio] some scents were designed as prompts, and others functioned like conversational counterpoint”. As to which category each song falls in, that decision is left up to the listener.

The eerie, scratchy “Sleeping in the Sky”, which evokes the haunting music of the Caretaker’s Everything at the End of Time, is represented on the scratch sheet with a scent like fresh linens. Accompanying the sharp, almost abrasive texture of “Metal Mouth” is a smell reminiscent of a tongue depressor. (Then again, having grown up in California’s central valley, an area with the worst air pollution in the United States, I may not be the ideal aural sommelier given the damage to my sinuses.)

Still, this is free jazz, and there are no vocals or other textual apparatus provided to elucidate why a scent was chosen for a particular song. Therefore, the synesthesia-based guide given to the listener for experiencing Supersense cannot really be a master key to the music. At the level of composition and olfaction, this is anything but straightforward or literal music, even at its most immediate. Joined by Jason Moran (piano), Stomu Takeishi (bass), and Kenny Wollesen (drums), Richards throws the listener into a musical odyssey that has the momentum of a Looney Tunes cartoon. 

The opener “Underbelly” anchors itself on the tense interplay between Moran’s spindly low notes on the piano and Takeishi’s controlled sloppiness on the bass. The seven-minute title track then flows between a range of tempos, with Richards delivering some superb runs on her trumpet. At certain points, it seems Moran’s fingers might shoot straight out of his hands owing to the speed he plays and the leaps in space up and down the keyboard. Moments of respite, like the languid “Glass”, are ephemeral. Richards never stops pushing boundaries; just when a song feels like it’s settled into a groove or a riff – like Takeishi starts to do on the back half of “Bunker” – it will either end or move on to the next thing.

Given its extreme heterogeneity and restlessness, Supersense is one of those “your miles may vary” kind of records. Those with a taste for music completely uninterested in convention, operating at the edge of form, will follow Richards and her fellow players on whatever sideways paths she takes. Anyone who likes musical compositions to have a core motif, melody, or even rhythm will wonder what the hell is going on most of the time. But for its clever multi-sensory concept, Supersense should be listened to by those interested in music’s ability to transcend aurality. If this be the music of scent, sniff away.

RATING 6 / 10