Rhythm of Life: Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio


As a member of pianist Vijay Iyer’s trio -- one of the most acclaimed groups in modern jazz -- bassist Stephan Crump gets to play with a great drummer, Marcus Gilmore, all the time. But for his own music, the New York City-based Crump avoided drummers for more than 10 years.

“I love playing with great drummers -- only great drummers,” laughed Crump. But, he said, “with the acoustic bass, there are a lot of expressive areas of the sonic range of the instrument that get covered up really quickly in more traditional lineups, particularly with drums or piano.”

It wasn’t until Crump formed his Rhombal quartet in 2015, which released its self-titled debut last year, that the bassist hooked up with a drummer -- the remarkable Tyshawn Sorey, another frequent Iyer collaborator -- for his own jams. Before that, Crump released a series of duo albums, including two with guitarist Mary Halvorson as Secret Keeper and one each with saxophonist Steve Lehman and pianist James Carney. He also released the trio record Planktonic Finales with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Cory Smythe, and three with Rosetta Trio, featuring Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar and Jamie Fox on electric, which makes beautiful chamber jazz with touches of folk and blues. (Rosetta Trio plays Kerrytown Concert House on Thursday, May 4.)

Without drums, Crump said, the music has “a certain kind of flexibility, structurally and rhythmically. And also with these smaller groups, there’s a sense of sonic magnification. It’s sort of like zooming in on the instruments. The more you take away, the bigger each instrument can be, and even a note can take on the nature of an entire planet with its own gravity, its own topography, atmosphere -- all this stuff. The more elements you add to an ensemble, the narrower the role of each instrument becomes.”

By not playing with a drummer, or in a more crowded band, Crump can play the bass outside its traditional role.

“When you’ve got a lot of drums and piano and a larger ensemble that’s really driving, your role as a bass player is more you’re in the engine room shoveling coal,” Crump said. “You’re driving the machine with a pulse. Whereas when you strip all that away, it allows you more space to relax -- you can get into so many more subtleties of expression because you’re not just pumping. You can slide, you can pull. You have a lot more options as far as tension and release, and release and pull, and also just getting really textural. Playing with the bow allows for a lot of more vocally oriented expression and exploration of texture. Texture can almost become its own type of melody once you become sensitized to it.”

Rosetta Trio recorded its third album, 2013’s Thwirl, immediately following a two-week tour of Europe, and the trio’s interplay is telepathic. “When we recorded Thwirl, because the band was so in the zone, it just felt really natural,” Crump said. “It felt like that recording, we just stepped into it and had a conversation, and that was that. Whereas sometimes it feels like way more of an uphill climb to record some pieces.”

Crump was originally hoping to record Rosetta Trio’s fourth album after its May 2017 weeklong tour of the Midwest and Toronto, but a busy fall 2016 schedule didn’t afford him a lot of time to write. The trio began in 2005 to perform a series of original Crump compositions written in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, but Rosetta’s subsequent albums draw from a variety of influences.

“The first album came from my wife and I’s experience with loss on a number of levels at that time,” Crump said, referring to his wife, singer-songwriter Jen Chapin (daughter of Harry Chapin). “I’m not trying to stick with that by any means. I dealt with that. I mean, it’s always with me, of course, but there's so much other stuff that’s happened since then. My songs come from a lot of different sources of inspiration: a book I’m reading, a movie I saw, a tree, something one of my sons is doing -- all kinds of stuff.”

Before the Rhombal record, the last document of Crump’s music with a drummer, Tuckahoe, came out on September 11, 2001. But almost immediately, Crump felt little connection to the album.

“After the experience on 9/11 and the weeks and months after that, the music from the Tuckahoe record just didn’t make sense to me anymore,” he said. “So much had changed and things had gotten turned so inside out and backward. I was definitely in a tailspin. So, I didn’t really know what I was going to do, but I spent time at my Rhodes piano in my studio and did a lot of improvising and I would record myself. And there was a spirit to what was happening when I did that; it just came in pieces and fragments of various lengths, and I just kept working on these sounds.”

Crump wound up with a body of work that he wanted to record, but he wasn’t sure of the presentation. “I still didn’t know what the instrumentation was, and I thought, well, the music was so personal and it felt too emotional -- I don’t know what it was, but I knew that I wanted to test it out at first,” he said. “I needed to be with some close friends and people I trusted.”

The bassist called on Ellman and Fox, both of whom he had played with many times, but the two guitarists had never played together. “I had a hunch they would get along really well personally and musically,” Crump said. “Although they’re quite different players, they have plenty of commonality in their sources and their musicality and their spirit. I figured it would work, and I recorded the first rehearsals we did and that was when it struck me: the bass down the middle and the stereo guitars. It was just working, so I went with it.”

While tragedy helped drive the bassist away from drums, another one brought him back. “The Rhombal album is dedicated to my late brother, Patrick, who was a musician -- a guitarist and drummer -- who loved nothing more than a great drummer,” Crump said. “I knew it was a good excuse to re-engage with the drums.”

Christopher Porter is a library technician and editor of Pulp.

Rosetta Trio plays Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. 4th Ave., Ann Arbor, on Thursday, May 4 at 8 pm. Tickets are $5-$30. Visit kerrytownconcerthouse.com for more info.