Bassist and composer Stephan Crump is always keen on making music in a familiar environment—he has long collaborated with his wife, singer-songwriter Jen Chapin, for one. His latest project as a bandleader, Rhombal Quartet, also has a familiar source. In 2014, Stephan’s brother Patrick died after a courageous battle with sarcoma. Over the last few months of his brother’s life, Stephan composed music, not out of sadness for his brother’s death, but in honor and commemoration of a death well-confronted. With the Rhombal Quartet in tow, Crump will celebrate the release of the group’s debut album, Rhombal, at the Jazz Gallery this Saturday. We caught up with Stephan by phone to hear about working on such a personal project and how he assembled this band of multi-faceted players.
The Jazz Gallery: This show is a record release for your new album, Rhombal. Can you talk about the album and how it came to be?
Stephan Crump: This album is the first album by this quartet, and I put the quartet together around a body of music that I wrote for my brother Patrick, who passed away a little over two years ago, after battling a very aggressive and rare cancer for about a year and a half. So short story is the music was borne of my experience with him and the inspiration of how he dealt with what he was confronting.
TJG: The other members of this group, Ellery Eskelin, Adam O’Farrill, and Tyshawn Sorey, you’re all playing together as a group for the first time on this album.
SC: Yes. Tyshawn and I have been working together for over a decade. I guess maybe it was 2003 or 2004 that we did a record together with Vijay Iyer, with whom we both still play. So we’ve been collaborating a lot with Vijay since then, for over a decade, and in some other groups as well, and that includes a lot of touring. So we’ve had a lot of experiences with each other and have a deep connection.
I met in 2013 when I was on faculty at Banff, the creative music program in the summer. That’s where we first connected, and I was really drawn to him, as just a beautiful person but also I was just knocked out by his musicality. After that summer, we stayed in touch, and I invited him over to my studio to play on a number of occasions with various other people. So I had in mind wanting to put a group together with him. And then Ellery is someone who I didn’t really know before putting this group together, but I have certainly had a lot of respect and admiration for him from afar, for many years, and I introduced myself to him with this project in mind. So he was the only one who I had never really played with, and we got together, just the two of us, a couple of times, just to check out playing the music together. Then we started getting together as the band. That was a year and a half ago, when the band first played. Our first gig was in January of 2015.
TJG: How did you decide that this was the instrumentation that you wanted?
SC: Well, over the last ten years or so, for my own projects, I’ve been doing a lot of drumless groups. Largely because in some of the other bands I play in as a side person, I play in a number of bands with drums, and I’ve just been wanting to explore some other things with my own music of late. But I knew I wanted to try, I knew I was ready to lead a group again with drums and explore certain grooves with drums, and also my brother, who was also a musician and we grew up learning to love music together and eventually playing music together, he was a guitarist and drummer, and was obsessed with music and especially loved great drummers. So it just made sense, I was ready for drums and it made sense, and putting a band together in tribute to him it made sense to get a great drummer in there.
With the horns, I had been dealing in my groups with my Rosetta trio for instance, which has acoustic guitar and electric guitar and bass, and we’ve done a number of records over the last ten years, and I have some duo projects, with Mary Halvorson on guitar, and others—I’m in plenty of groups with chordal instruments. I wanted to explore a palette that didn’t include a chordal instrument, that the band could, at times, become that instrument, sometimes in a vertical fashion where we’re moving together through harmonic implications, and sometimes in a linear fashion or even a more additive fashion where things are implied in a more abstract way. Different approaches, and a different kind of openness, but also a different challenge and a different responsibility.
TJG: How do you feel about leading a band from the rhythm section?
SC: Well, it’s interesting, it’s something that I think about, for instance, spending so much time working with Vijay Iyer in his trio. I can see how, for him, from the vantage point of the piano, he’s able to have a lot of control over the music. That’s the way our sets unfold, he takes us from one song to the next, and it can be pretty much continuous if he wants it to be. He starts to imply another song in the middle of one, and we’re all listening and we’ll hopefully catch it, and melt into another song. Whereas from the bass perspective, you don’t have your arms wrapped around the music in quite the same way, as far as how much information you can thrust into the mix. Onnce you unleash something, I think that there’s more work up front in communicating certain things, in rehearsal and whatnot, and get some common ideas and some understanding and trust going. When you’re on the bandstand, once you count something in, it’s a lot harder, from the bass, to take sharp corners.
TJG: What’s your compositional process like?
SC: It varies. It’s interesting, this particular project is like my first Rosetta trio from 2006. That was actually borne of our experience here on 9/11. We were here watching the towers fall from our rooftop and later found out we’d lost a friend there. It was a lot of things turned upside down for me that day and ongoing. And it shook me up into a place where I wasn’t composing in such a deliberate manner, I was just spending time getting things out on the piano and recording them and then later revisiting and transcribing and adjusting things from there. That was something that happened in a particular way for the Rosetta album and that did happen again on this one, partly because at first I rejected the notion that I would write an album for my dead brother, you know? It just seemed too obvious and too neat, like, oh, I’m a musician and composer and my brother died so I have to do this. So it wasn’t deliberate at first. Stuff started coming out, and as much as I hadn’t thought that it was something I needed to do… I guess I didn’t want to feel like it was my responsibility to do that, because it would feel contrived, but the music started coming out, and so there was a lot of that and a lot of time spent at the piano and recording my improvisations, and later revisiting and editing and transcribing.
Some of the other things were more deliberate, one piece, a ballad on the record called “How Close Are You” came after a conversation I had with him, in the last few weeks of his life when he was actually hallucinating from the synthetic opioid pain medication that he had to take. The trick was to stay ahead of the pain, but if he took too much, then he would hallucinate and get manic and paranoid and would be miserable. I called him one day when that was the case, and he was hallucinating, he was thinking that I was around the corner, calling him, and he was in Memphis, where I grew up. I was able to visit him a number of times, but on this occasion I was in my kitchen in Brooklyn. So what he said to me, when he picked up the phone, was “Hey man, how close are you?” And it was heartbreaking, on the one hand, but also so beautiful, I felt in his voice how much he wanted to be with me, how excited he was to think that I was almost there to visit him, and yet, for the same reason it was really heartbreaking. So I just sort of managed him on that call and tried to help him through this difficult moment that he was dealing with with these drugs, and when we got off the phone the melody for that tune started to come to me. There were just three simple phrases and I wrote them down quickly and left it, and it was that for quite some time, just the melody. And I thought that was maybe just what that would be, and eventually I spent time with it, in my head, at the piano, walking around, and the counter-melody came to me, and that led me to certain harmonic implications that gave root motion to it, and eventually the piece started fleshing itself out.
So a lot of times, pieces come to me when I’m walking around. Being in motion is very helpful. Then I’ll jot something down, and start to flesh it out at the piano. Sometimes I’m feeling like just sitting, usually late at night, when I record at the piano, but sometimes I just feel like playing and getting something out, and I’ll record it and revisit it. And sometimes I’m more deliberate, where some nugget of something will come to me and I’ll say, well, okay, I’m going to try to work this out.
Stephan Crump performs with the Rhombal Quartet at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, September 16th, 2016. Mr. Crump will be joined by Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Ellery Eskelin on tenor saxophone, and Dan Reiser on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.