As a composer, Stephan Crump knows how to build. His Rosetta Trio has managed to construct a moving sound as calm as a flowing river that's still powerful enough to erode the rocks in the river's bed. The smoothness of his bass anchors as much as it flies off. When dealing with Liberty Ellman and Jaime Fox's guitars, the fullness and richness is there. When playing, in all sense of the word, with Vijay Iyer's piano and Marcus Gilmore's drums, he bounces along with endless possibilities. However on his latest release, Crump sits in the middle of a quartet that doesn't have a chordal instrument. He alongside trumpeter Adam O'Farrill, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey are making the full sound all their own, carefully placing the jigsaw pieces of notes together into something richer than one could fathom, which says a lot for Stephan Crump.
Rhombal is Crump's opportunity to create through the, as he notes in the press materials, "creative freedom and challenge that comes from omitting a chordal instrument, and at times to find how the band, itself, might be that instrument". In doing so, one can marvel in the aural table setting where one can see this group shifting into place in these songs and expanding into nine neat, rich, evocative tunes. The songs, written in remembrance of Crump's late brother Patrick who succumbed to a rare and aggressive sarcoma, are as emotionally resonant as his previous offerings, if not moreso. Such has been the case with Crump's compositions-- consisting of memorable melodies of phrases not too long, able to bend and repeat as needed, and strike at an emotional core. It's hard to explain how the short, three and a half minute "Esquima Dream" can so tightly jam as if it contained the essence of a James Brown song or how opening "NoD for Nelson" can so easily strike at one's core and set a mood as 2013's "Ending" did for Thwirl or 2010's "Memphis" did for Reclamation. The man knows how to kick off a neat little album.
However, as much praise Crump is worth, and it is a great deal, the rest of his quartet are constantly fascinating. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin connects with these songs adeptly, hitting his marks. Tyshawn Sorey unwinds appropriately on the drums and never overshadows. He really gets loose in the ten minute "Birdwhistle", which jangles as much as it rides. Yet young trumpeter Adam O'Farrill may be the biggest surprise here, the clarion call that lets Rhombal really soar.
As previously noted, together this quartet makes for the chordal sounds that Crump didn't want to so obviously encompass in one instrument. In tandem, this group achieves a full sound, not necessarily acting as one unit, gears shifting into place like they're Henry Threadgill Zooid per se, but as a quartet who elegantly weaves into some unforeseen pattern, like the subtly satisfying quality of rubbing one's stomach while patting one's head.
Rhombal is a shifting, beautiful quartet that is yet another group that bassist Stephan Crump can be proud to have assembled playing music he should be proud for having written so beautifully. As a composer, the Memphis native is top notch, possibly one of the best in jazz today for his consistent brilliance. As a bandleader, he's clearly done it again, with hope that Rhombal can grow as prominent as the Rosetta Trio. As a bassist, he will always sound like he's having a ball, even in compositions where sadness is the root. As an album, this is an hour that's tight and so replayable that one could almost say it felt too short if it were so economically well made. Yes, Stephan Crump remains a constant architect-- he knows how to build, and he remains one to still check to see what material he reveals next.
Rhombal, the new album from bassist Stephan Crump, is out September 13 on Papillon Sounds with an album release show September 17 at New York's Jazz Gallery.
Nextbop editor Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current. You should follow him on Twitter.