Artist Feature

Stephan Crump
By Ken Waxman

Without overemphasizing the experience, bassist Stephan Crump declares that September 11, 2001, when he witnessed the destruction of World Trade Center from his Brooklyn apartment, changed his life. “My music wasn’t the same after 9-11,” he recalls. “After it happened I spent a lot of time improvising on my electric piano. I needed new rules to express my thoughts.” The thoughts have since been expressed in mature compositions, culminating in last year’s highly-praised Rhombal quartet session, dedicated to his brother Patrick, who had recently died.

Although Rhombal is a memorial and Rosetta the 2005 debut of his trio with guitarists Liberty Ellman and Jamie Fox, preserved compositions built up from sound fragments that occurred to him after 9-11, Crump, 45, is anything but morose. A long-time member of pianist Vijay Iyer’s groups, the articulate Memphis-born bassist is leader or part of other bands including a new trio featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Cory Smythe that debuts its Planktonic Finales CD in New York this month. However the link with his brother goes back to his earliest experiences as a bassist.

Crump’s father was a jazz fan, and since his bedroom was next to the room in which his father played discs by Phineas Newborn Jr., the Modern Jazz Quartet and others. “I always felt the bass line,” he remembers. He first studied piano though. (“I hated it then, but now I’m thankful for that training,” admits Crump). He got an electric bass at 13, and while he was a jazz fan most influenced by Ray Brown (“he’s like Bach. He has it all, clarity, joy, drive, support and funk”), he literally sat at the feet of the bass player during every rehearsal of his guitarist brother’s rock trio. Eventually that fellow quit and Crump inherited the position, working some live gigs. After a while though, friction with his brother Patrick, who was two years older, became pervasive and he left the group. However during his last couple of years in high school he started studying jazz theory with a local teacher at the University of Memphis. “I began making connections between my hands and my mind and the older I got the more perspective I had,” explains Crump.” An experience seeing Dave Holland play the summer after high school also made something click in me,” he remembers.

Initially attending Massachusetts’ Amherst College as a double physics and music major, Crump opted for music. Discovering a plywood bass on campus, he concentrated on the acoustic instrument as he and a guitarist friend would regularly drive to New York to gig. Later he spent a year in Paris, studying at an American school and experiencing the scene. He encountered legendary bassist Pierre Michelot, who allowed him to come to his home to “pick his brains”, and in the south of France attended a Barre Phillips-led workshop in improvising with dancers, a skill he has called on since. He also improved his technique with formal studies.

Graduating in 1994, his decision to become a full-time musician was confirmed. “If you can be happy not doing music as your main vocation, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to become a professional,” he states, But that option wasn’t for him. After a summer playing in a Tommy Dorsey ghost band, he moved to New York, began making ever session he could at Smalls and other spots and worked as an electric or acoustic bassist playing blues, rock, folk and straight-ahead jazz.

Founding his own label Papillon Sounds, he released a couple of CDs with horns before deciding he wanted to explore other situations. The Rosetta Trio, now preparing its fourth CD, was organized when Crump, who had worked with both Fox and Ellman, thought the guitarists’ sounds would jell, and after recording in his home studio found the results “delightful. “The synthesis with bass in the middle and stereo guitar lines makes it sound like one organism,” he avers. Secret Keeper, his duo with guitarist Mary Halvorson, which so far has released two CDs, had a similar origin. She accepted his invitation to kick around ideas in his studio. “We each brought in some tunes, improvised and the chemistry was there,” he notes. The Planktonic Finales trio emerged when Laubrock asked if the bassist was interested in playing with Smythe. Since Smythe is from a new music background, Crump relates his pianistic freshness to “using his intellect from another angle; not dealing with how to navigate jazz history.”

While many of Crump’s projects are drummer-less he decided he needed percussion to record Rhombal. Someone who often plays in the Iyer trio, Tyshawn Sorey was the obvious choice. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, whose sound impressed Crump after hearing him at a Banff Workshop, joined on trumpet. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin he knew through mutual friends. When the trumpeter and saxophonist first harmonized, the chemistry was there, recalls Crump.

Since it was a very personal project, he decided to release Rhombal on Papillon, and finance it through PledgeMe, which allowed contributors to pre-order the disc and he offered inducements such as in-studio performance videos for different pledge levels. “Before we recorded I didn’t tell the guys what the music was, but they had heard about it through PledgeMe and other sources,” he reports, “After we spent two days in the studio going deep into the music they had the right spirit in their playing. When it was over I cried for two days when I thought about the enormity of this project. I felt the spiritual generosity of the band which took the emotion of the story and made it into something beautiful.”

Initially Crump had been reticent about composing anything to memorialize his only sibling’s death from cancer at 44. Someone who was wired “kind of crazy” with a short fuse, his brother was a manipulative person who dropped out of several schools and would regularly take out his frustrations on his younger brother. His parents’ inability to deal with the behavior was one of the reasons Crump spent time obsessively practicing bass and why he was determined to attend college away from home. Eventually though Patrick straightened himself up enough to get married and start a successful career. Then the rare form of sarcoma struck. Operations and chemotherapy changed the brothers’ relationship, especially when Crump would sit with him over night in the hospital. “As his physical body deteriorated, I saw more of his spirit emerge and realized I had to meet him half way to end up with a meaningful relationship,” he recalls,

In retrospect what finally convinced him to create Rhombal was when he realized that he had been composing music related to his brother for a while. “How Close are You” for instance came about one evening when Patrick, befuddled by painkillers, phoned Crump to ask where he was. Once he explained he wasn’t in Memphis, but his Brooklyn kitchen and hung up, Crump realized that a melody was nagging at him. “I wrote it down and it eventually became a composition,” he says.

What better example of the seriousness of Crump’s changes serious music could there be?

Recommended Listening:

• Stephan Crump/Ingrid Laubrock/Cory Smythe – Planktonic Finales (Intakt 2017)

• Stephan Crump’s Rhombal – Rhomba (Papillon Sounds 2016)

• Stephan Crump/Mary Halvorson (Secret Keeper) – Super Eight Intakt 2013)

• Vijay Iyer Trio – Accelerando (Act 2012)

• Stephan Crump with Rosetta Trio – Reclamation (Sunnyside 2010)

• Vijay Iyer – Panoptic Modes (Red Giant 2001)

—For The New York City Jazz Record April 2017