Steph Richards – ‘Take the Neon Lights’ (Album Review)

Although trumpeter Steph Richards hails from Canada, she has a deep connection with New York City. Like many modern jazz musicians, Richards’ has built a name for herself in New York City, having worked with a wide range of artists that includes indie-pop stalwarts such as St. Vincent and accomplished jazz experimentalists like Sylvie Courvoisier. Richards’ sophomore album as a bandleader, Take The Neon Lights, is an adventurous work dedicated to her musical home. Throughout the album’s 44 minutes, Richards, accompanied by James Carney (piano), Sam Minaie (bass) and Andrew Munsey (drums) play a unique collection of compositions with a healthy balance between the subtle and the frenetic.

The shifting structure of the opener, “Take The Neon Lights”, sets the tone well for the album. The tune begins with a sporadic duet between drums and trumpet which is joined by piano chords that create a captivating brooding atmosphere. What follows is an exhilarating minute of the band locking in rhythmically and accelerating before Richards’ sprawling trumpet playing is given space to roam. The next track, the impressive “Brooklyn Machine”, also finds Richards’ quartet moving through tempos together. Unlike “Take The Neon Lights”, “Brooklyn Machine” has a forceful focus on rhythm from the very beginning. Richards opens a valve on her trumpet and has a swift call and response with herself over a hectic pounding rhythm driven by the drums and a fiercely played piano.

In the second half of Take The Neon Lights, Richards takes her band into much less aggressive territory. “Rumor of War” and “Transitory (Gleams)” are intriguing exercises in sparse tension. With a creepy trumpet tone bent through a mute, icy notes from the piano and a spacious uncertain atmosphere, “Rumor of War” could be the soundtrack of walking through a haunted forest. “Transitory (Gleams)” features eerily gorgeous moments of interaction between long solemn notes from the trumpet, crystalline piano notes and reserved drumming and bass arco.

The next two tracks “Skull of Theaters” and “Stalked by Tall Buildings” are the album’s longest and arguably its best. Carney steals the show on “Skull of Theaters”, the pianist crafting a mesmerizing descending motif three minutes in that ominously accelerates before both him and Richards deliver fantastic solos. On “Stalked by Tall Buildings” the intense drumming immediately stands out. The combination of Munsey’s fascinating attack and Richards’ bold soloing captures the turbulent nature of rushing through the city. The first third of the tune plays out as if the band were running through a crowded street – skillfully avoiding people, panic and potholes on the way to its goal.

The variety on display throughout Take The Neon Lights is very appropriate for New York City. At times it can be packed and chaotic and in others, cavernous and full of mystery, but it is always interesting. Fans of avant-garde jazz should definitely give this one a listen.

Take the Neon Lights, the sophomore album from trumpeter Steph Richards, is out now.

Steph Richards (trumpet, flugelhorn, compositions)
James Carney (piano)
Sam Minaie (bass)
Andrew Munsey (drums)