Jazz's Stephan Crump Creates Thrilling Interaction with His Rosetta Trio on 'Outliers'

Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Stephan Crump's Outliers sounds like a great ECM record that forgot to lull you into too much easy beauty. It earns its loveliness from thrilling interaction.

Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio

Papillon Sounds

19 February 2019

Bassist and composer Stephan Crump is one of the most quietly active players in creative music. As a member of Vijay Iyer's trio and sextet, he is at the center of a critically acclaimed and vital set of projects. Crump has been a collaborator with many other of the central players in the New Jazz such as guitarist Mary Halvorson and alto saxophonist Steve Lehman.

As a leader, Crump's most personal and longstanding project has been the Rosetta Trio, where he guides conversations that include guitarists Liberty Ellman (playing acoustic) and Jamie Fox (playing electric). The band creates a modern example of the kind of chamber jazz that has several antecedents largely abandoned on the contemporary scene. When you hear the textures of these two very different guitarists, in contrast, the duet recordings of Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie from the 1970s come to mind. They also remind of several dates led by bassist Marc Johnson: Bass Desires and Second Sight from the 1980s (pairing John Scofield and Bill Frisell for the first time), and The Sound of Summer Running (pairing Frisell and Pat Metheny, with Metheny often on acoustic guitar) from 1997.

All this music was released on the ECM label, which emphasized its folkish, conversational nature. Recorded with crystal clarity and a sense that every tremor of each string was essential to the complete sense of expression, the style suggested the best kind of intimacy the music could reach, even if it did not always swing with vigor.

Outliers is the fourth outing for Crump with Rosetta, and it both conforms to the best of this tradition and stretches it a good deal. Fox and Ellman are very different players, but in this band, they come together around a common purpose. Ellman is generally a bit drier and abstract, with Fox seeming warmer and more streamlined. Always, there is a blend. For example, the opening track, "In Waves", sets the guitars to waves of strumming and harmonics, with just brief passages in which they play short, single-note melodic lines. The result is a webbing of texture and rhythm where the two guitarists can be hard to distinguish as their rhythms move from perfect coordination to contrast. Careful listening is particularly pleasurable, as your ear plucks out an electric lick from Fox or a nylon ping from Ellman. For most of the track, it is Crump who is taking the melodic lead, surging from the bottom, complimenting the propulsion of the strumming with his own insistent and earthy lines.

The title track offers a different kind of blend. While it is often Ellman who plays staccato patterns with a plucked style that suggests African music (or, if you prefer, raindrops on a skylight), "Outliers" allows all the members of the trio to play pointillistically. In a kind of canon, the players begin in unison, creating a repeating and syncopated pattern, then the guitarists stay together as Crump's bass moves into its own plucked and repeated patterns. Then it's Fox who slips away, playing a line that is a bit more legato, but only slightly so. By the time the improvisation begins, we have already heard a dizzying set of composed variations. Then the players work in a gorgeous flow of pops and slides, each one maintaining a degree of that raindrop-on-the-roof approach, but varying it in waves. "Cryoseism" (composed by Ellman, the only tune here not by the leader) works a similar territory in places, though it moves across a series of textures: impressionism, pulsing groove, lurching bass beneath guitar unison.

More typical, perhaps, is "Re Eyes", where an initial swaying ballad theme featuring a melody for Ellman's acoustic guitar gives way to a second theme for Fox, behind which Ellman plays hiply lurching staccato/plucked pattern. When the first theme recurs, however, Fox plays it—switcher-oo. The guitarists take more traditional turns on the impeccably gorgeous "Away From, A Way To". Fox plays the lilting melody as Ellman finger-picks a sumptuous accompaniment, leading to the electric guitarist's creamy solo. Ellman takes over, and Crump increases the pressure from his bass line—resulting in one of the most rousing improvisations on the session.

This instrumentation and the tradition in which it operates sets up some gentle gems. "Dec 5", in particular, aches with a gentle simplicity. Fox plays a three-note descending melody four times, Ellman answering with an ascending line, repeated. Then Fox plays his three-time, then two, the pretty themes converging. The improvisations occur over what sounds like a minor blues pattern. The simplicity of the form adds to its weight of feeling.

Outliers is not, however, without some subtle jolters. "Synapse" is a jabbing theme that sits atop a classic Crump bass line. He plays odd-meter funk first, suggesting a hopelessly hip character who has had one drink too many. Ellman and Fox then express a busy, surprising melody in harmony that weaves above the bass line, filling in its gaps. The contrasting theme is smoother, giving the listener a breather before the groove returns. The improvisations live up to the composition, with Fox and Ellman trading long passages in the lead, but also with the guitarist who is accompanying sometimes playing the most breathtaking notes. Eventually, every member of the trio is collectively improvising in lovely clockwork. The brief "Esquima Dream" finds Fox playing a strummed funk pattern over Crump's most straight-forward version of common time (which is still tricky, for the record) as Ellman improvises, leading to a unison line for the two guitars that snakes and shakes and delights. When both guitars play the funk groove, well, it's bliss—then the entire band slowly decrescendos on that fun.

Throughout this recital, there is sonic balance. Not only are the musicians consummate listeners, but the recording itself presents the three sounds with a balanced personality. Crump sounds deep and woody as if you were listening to his instrument up close but without a pick-up and amplifier. Ellman's nylon-stringed guitar sings and flies but also can be heard clearly when he is muffling the strings purposefully or deadening his attack to create a different feeling. Fox is nearly always warm and without distortion, but not as much bell-like as he is rich and dark. If you have heard the musicians in person in a small room, then you will recognize each of the sounds and their integrity as reproduced on Outliers.

In the end, of course, each of these sketches is based on a compositional idea that seems to have been imagined particularly for this band. Crump, as a composer, makes complex or at least sophisticated music systems sound flowing and graceful. The more jagged tunes make you want to dance even if they are not 3/4 or 4/4, and the ballads sound "sung"—certainly capable of carrying lyrics.

The Rosetta Trio is devoted to a style and tradition that may have been started decades ago and hasn't had that many exponents, but the band makes it all sound up-to-the-minute. New Jazz trickery this is not—even if the players can all weave around some unconventional structures. Outliers, rather, sounds like a great ECM record that forgot to lull you into too much easy beauty. It earns its loveliness from thrilling interaction.

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