steph richards
Photo: Walter Wlodarcyzk / Courtesy of Clandestine Label Services

Trumpeter Steph Richards Finds Her Age of Aquarius on ‘Zephyr’

Steph Richards’ Zephyr is a beast that, in everyone’s interest, shouldn’t be tamed. Strange music is one thing in that it provides life with much-needed flavor.

Steph Richards
Relative Pitch Records
15 October 2021

Zephyr is a duet album with Steph Richards on trumpet and Joshua White on piano. And while you probably have a preconceived idea in your mind of what that will sound like, that idea is most likely wrong. I don’t put this information upfront to be haughty; I’m’ just saying that you’re in for a treat.

Steph Richards approaches the trumpet similarly to Natsuki Tamura by muffling it, muting it, making it squeak, and using it as a vehicle for grey noise when the lips come together but don’t quite buzz. For his part, Joshua White is no mere accompanist. His approach to the keyboard can be just as abstract as how Richards plays her horn. White also prepares his piano (placing objects against the piano strings), bringing the opening title track to “Rite of Spring”-levels of rhythmic force. This particular passage is preceded by a trumpet passage so smothered that it could pass for saxophone if you weren’t paying close attention. And that’s all just within the first song.

Stranger still is the next track, “Anza”, named for Richards’ then-unborn child. As White lays out a series of discordant chimes, Richards plays her trumpet with the bell submerged in water, likely resembling the amniotic fluid surrounding the life that was growing inside her at the time. The bubbling and gurgling make for rather tense listening, sounding like someone who forgot to empty their spit valve hours ago. She reprises this technique on “Sacred Sea”, Zephyr’s lengthiest track, at five minutes and 34 seconds. As White’s notes softly strike a small gong (or something that sounds like one), Richards announces her water trumpet with a brief blast of sound that barely registers as a note. A few seconds later, she comes in with increasingly sustained notes placed high in the harmony set by White. As “Sacred Sea” wraps up, Richards makes a great impression of a whale.

That’s not all the strangeness, not by a long shot. “Amphitrite”, named for a Greek sea goddess, streaks by in 65 seconds of White playing one note again and again as Richards blows into her horn without producing a single tone. “Sequia” is an impressive showcase of both musicians as Richards double (or triple?) tongues her way through White’s impersonation of Cecil Taylor. “Cicada” finds Richards making liberal use of a plunger mute, mimicking the speed of Jimi Hendrix with a wah pedal. Thanks to the sharp, percussive attack of White’s piano on “Heyyookkee”, there is no room for rubato as Richards fearlessly navigates choppy waters.

Zephyr ends with four movements to a miniature suite titled “Aurora”. The first one starts as a call and response between piano and trumpet but then turns into a chance for Richards to solo freely over White’s unobtrusive thumps. The pianist gets an opportunity to go in a more pointillistic direction on the following song. The beginning of “Aurora III” sounds like Richards is moving her mute in and out of the bell as she plays it. The concluding track is another moment where White conjures a stormy backdrop while Richards uses a flutter-tongue to let her not fan out into colorful overtones.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you thought that Zephyr was going to be one of those duet albums where a smooth piano accompanies a slick, sultry horn playing blissful melodies, it is not. Zephyr is a beast that, in everyone’s interest, shouldn’t be tamed. Strange music is one thing in that it provides life with much-needed flavor. But musicians who take such weird, unorthodox approaches to their instruments are the ones who stick in our minds as the next generation looks for another wall to tumble.

RATING 7 / 10