Photo from artist website
(The Owl Music Parlor, 2 March 2019. Review by Dan Bergsagel)
Deep in the heart of residential Brooklyn, Steph Richards and her quartet put together a gripping set of bass hooks, tempo shifts and multi-muted trumpet.
If you were only watching without listening you would be forgiven for seeing a haphazard collection of musicians who are not quite ready: a bassist with a clothes peg on a string, a trumpet player clasping a crackling, buzzing pie dish as if she’d packed her mutes in a hurry in the dark, and a pianist peering into the belly of the grand with the manner of someone who has dropped his car keys. As ever, looks can be deceiving.
This was the introduction to Coney, an abrupt start to an evening of careful compositions and flexible improvisation. The prelude of cautiously chaotic sounds settled into a clear theme – with clean piano and a nicely resonant bass (the incongruous peg forming an intermittent backstop to reset the loop) and a simple theme. It’s also atmospheric stuff, recalling sounds and smells from the Brooklyn boardwalk.
Steph Richards’ recent album Take the Neon Lights is very much about setting scenes. A record populated with songs named after poems of NYC, there is a clear feeling that each song has a mood and place. Location-specific music is nothing new to Richards, with collaborations with scent artists and previous ventures like the Urban Surveyor Project already under her belt.
However the title track – Take the Neon Lights, pulled from Langston Hughes’ poem Juke Box Love Song – is perhaps the best example of considered arrangements as condensed poetry. Deep mutes and melancholic piano steps ring out, developing into delicate, talkative trumpet lines, passing through walking bass moves and a composed piano solo from Jim Carney before closing in a very different feel.
Throughout the quartet demonstrated a real depth of understanding, although still Richards manages the groups across the stage keeping everyone true to the plan, and changing it as she goes. Andrew Munsey complements the group very discreetly, with excellent brushwork, mallets without overbearing; bassist Sam Minaie driving things on with a rich-sounds and cerebral no-frills approach.
Aside from the initial peg/pie soundscape, quick shortcuts for sound change were widely eschewed for experimentation with the few tools available. The body of the grand was used as a sound box for a flugelhorn to play into, and the double bass bow was occasionally used. It’s not radical in appearance, but adds the necessary texture.
Ginsberg’s My Sad Self inspired Brooklyn Machine, which opened with an uncharacteristically cool, calm start – half-muted trumpet with clear notes and little cries making it through, accompanied by poised piano punctuation – before launching into a high energy hustle and groove. If, as explained by Richards, this was the first time it’s been played live, it’s definitely a keeper for the set.
The setup at The Owl Music Parlor was a variation on some recent live appearances. At the Winter jazzfest in January the record’s double-horn sound was aided live by the inclusion of reedsman Oscar Noriega. And while he was in the building (playing with James Carney for the follow-up set after the intermission), there seems to have been a decision to stick to a quartet format for now.
The venue and concert timing at The Owl is also a different proposition to the Winter Jazzfest. While in January Richards’ set was on the stage of the dark tunnel of the Soho Playhouse at the very end of two long evenings of Greenwich Village jazz, here she was in an acoustically treated room full of friendly faces, and on at a sensible time and with the luxury of sound-checking before an audience arrived.
The Owl itself is a bit of a hidden gem, a bigger and better-lit Barbès with significantly more owl memorabilia and ropey taxidermy. Its residential backstreet location, drawn curtain separating a small bar from the rear room, and honesty-box donation approach to the covers all give it a really intimate feel. These close quarters settings – with the audience involved and part of Steph Richards’ improvisational process – is where her unique approach to composition and performance really thrive.
Take the Neon Lights is out now on Birdwatcher Records.
Categories: Live review