A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Album design courtesy of the artist.

This weekend, the collaborative Borderlands Trio celebrates the release of their debut record, Asteroidea (Intakt), with four sets at The Jazz Gallery. The group features three standout improvisers—bassist Stephan Crump, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer Eric McPherson—exploring the full expressive ranges of their instruments through spontaneous composition. We caught up with Mr. Crump by phone and spoke about the group’s origins, the recording process, and how their music morphs from gig to gig; excerpts of our conversation are below.

The Jazz Gallery: How did this trio form?

Stephan Crump: Kris and I got together at first as a duo just a couple of times to try playing together and see what happened. I want to say that was three years ago. It was immediately thrilling to play together, and very interesting, and we looked into doing some duo gigs. While that was underway, the stuff we were looking for didn’t quite pan out, but meanwhile, we got together in my studio with some other people here and there and just kept playing. Eric McPherson and I have been playing for quite a number of years, in Rez Abbasi’s Acoustic Quartet, and Eric has also done some gigs with my Rhombal quartet, and we’ve also just gotten together with different people, to play in my studio. He and I have always had a really powerful connection. He’s one of my favorite drummers.
There’s a really strong rhythmic concept and focus to how Kris approaches music and how Eric approaches it, not necessarily in the same way, but I feel in both of them a strong rhythmic pull. I thought it would be worth investigating for the three of us to play together. The first time we did that was at Korzo, the Konceptions series, a couple of years ago. We just did a few gigs before recording. It was just a year ago that we did a weekend at The Jazz Gallery, like we’re about to do. We did a Friday and Saturday night, and then Sunday morning we went in to record the album. It was a good plan, cause things were popping.
TJG: And this show is to celebrate the album release.
SC: We all three of us really love what we captured on the album. Every performance takes us to different places in various ways, but a lot of aspects of the group are well-represented on the album, as far as the way we all share, like I said, an absolute dedication to the groove, always leaving the door cracked for it to develop and keep morphing, but maintaining a tightness and a cohesion. There’s also a trust where different members of the band can be orbiting that same groove from different perspectives, and we don’t have to follow each other in a linear fashion all the time to feel like we’re connecting. There’s a trust in each other, if we each stick to our own orbit, as long as it’s related powerfully it’ll wind up in some interesting places and it’ll keep growing.
I think we all share an orchestral sense, a sense of structure, as far as each member has a broad conception of the range of possibilities on his or her instrument, and the various colors and textures and overtones, and thinking about what one can offer to the music that orchestrates it properly at any given moment based on what the others are offering. That might take each of us into areas that aren’t necessarily traditional areas on the instrument, but everybody in the band percieves the music on that level as well. I think of it as orchestration. So that’s really satisfying, because on a simple level it means that everybody’s always making things work. Whatever anybody offers to the music, the rest of the band will contextualize it instantly so it works, even as things are always morphing.
TJG: You mentioned a rhythmic focus; is that on your mind when you go in?
SC: We compose music together, in the moment. We don’t write things down later so far; it’s what we most often call improvisation, but I like to think of it as spontaneous composition, because I think that is a way of framing it that speaks to the fact that we perceive it that way. We are composing and thinking about all the aforementioned aspects of structure and development.

TJG: With that spontaneous composition, what does a typical rehearsal look like? Do you have ideas going in?
SC: A typical rehearsal is a gig or a recording! [Laughs]. We don’t rehearse, we play. Onstage, there’s no discussion of what we’re gonna do. I think in the studio when we made the record, we did a few longer pieces, such as the opening piece on the record, which is 26 minutes or so long, without any discussion. That was just us playing. But there was one piece where we said, let’s do a really short, like a five minute piece where we’re all in from the get-go. We counted it in, which normally we don’t count the pieces in. That was one example, and that’s “Carnival Hill,” and it wound up—I remember, we were laughing, because we’d said, let’s do this five minute piece where we’re all in, and then it ended up being two and a half minutes or something. It wound up ending because it needed to end where it did. We were laughing because we came up with that simple parameter, and we couldn’t even stick with that.
TJG: Are you sometimes setting up parameters to break them, or is it just not interesting?
SC: I think that was the only time we did set up any parameters, and we weren’t trying to break it, it just happened. Normally we’re not deliberately setting anything up. Improvisation is about constantly making choices and decisions. That can happen on the fly, within a composition, where you’re feeling like you percieve a certain parameter developing. And then the decision is, am I going to carry this forward and frame that further from my own perspective, or am I going to push against it and take the lead on opening up into whatever next realm it might develop into?
TJG: You’ve talked about this band having a kind of magic.
SC: Did I use the word magic? I know I’ve used the word magnetic, but yeah. I would say if I did use the word magic at any point I would stand by that, in that there’s something special going on when we play together. It’s not just another grouping of three musicians. There’s a real complicity and empathy and shared vision from our own perspectives somehow, that really creates arcs. The term magnetism comes to mind very powerfully in this group too, as far as that rhythmic focus, especially. But magnetism comes from things other than just rhythm, it comes from conceptual focus as well, and really caring. The rhythmic thing—Kris and Eric are such powerful rhythmic players, and that’s something that really appeals to me, it’s something I share, that dedication.
TJG: The name of the group, Borderlands, where does that come from? 
SC: Another aspect that creates magnetism is embracing danger, embracing fear and pushing through it. It’s a great challenge to create coherent, logical, thrilling, beautiful pieces of music in the moment. That takes a willingness to dive into the fear of screwing it up. For instance, the very first piece on the album starts with a fast, repetitive run that Kris does low on the piano, and she started that and I immediately felt it. It just charged my whole body when she started doing that. And then it’s on me to either come up with a next thing or wait until Eric declares his move and see what I might feel about interjecting there. That moment of having to come up with your decision of when to dive in, and what you’re going to offer, is really scary, especially when the people around you are creating something so powerful. You don’t want to mess it up. You want to take it to the next level.
Then once you get in there it’s about exploration. I’m taking the long road to answering your question [laughs]. But it’s really about exploring and being wide open. I talked about how each of us has a broad concept of the possibilities on his or her instrument. That allows us to explore extremes of texture, and color and shape, and to develop the music in a lot of ways, not just melodically and rhythmically and harmonically but many other ways. To me, that’s the borderlands, when you’re out on the edge and you’re embracing that danger of failure, and perhaps other dangers. Really pushing yourself into unknown realms. Riding the edge.
So that’s the name of the trio. The name of the album, Asteroidea, that’s a starfish.
TJG: I love that. First I saw it and thought asteroid, and then looked it up.
SC: Right! That’s part of what I love about that, what appeals to me, it makes you think of the stars, it sends you up into the celestial bodies, which again brings in gravity, and magnetism, and constellations. Adding story and meaning to that gravitational tension and organization. It evokes that to me, but also the starfish is one of the few creatures who can regrow limbs. To me that’s appropriate to this band, just evoking that spontaneous composition, that shape-shifting and morphing and development.
The Borderlands Trio celebrates the release of Asteroidea at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, December 8th, and Saturday, December 9th, 2017. The group features Stephan Crump on bass, Kris Davis on piano, and Eric McPherson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.