Bassist Stephan Crump‘s Rosetta Trio have a new album, Thwirl, out this week. The group features guitarists Liberty Ellman (acoustic) and Jamie Fox (electric), in addition to Crump. No drums. Consequently, the sound, though clearly jazz-derived, has a folkish feel, too, and a lot of groove. This is the Rosetta Trio‘s third album, following Rosetta and Reclamation. Nathan James Leatherman has directed a video for the title track, which you can see below:
I asked Crump a few questions via email; that exchange follows.
How did this group come together? How much playing had you done with either Jamie or Liberty prior to this trio?
I brought together Rosetta Trio in 2005 to test out some music that had come together in the weeks, months, even years after 9/11. My wife, Jen Chapin, and I saw the towers fall (from our Brooklyn rooftop), only later to find out that we’d lost an old friend in one of them. This music was very intense and personal, so I wanted to try it out with a couple of close friends. Jamie and Lib hadn’t played together before, but I’d been playing with each of them for years in other groups…various jazz gigs and Jen’s band, in the case of Jamie (he was also in my Tuckahoe band), and the same for Lib, including a long-standing weekly gig with his own trio. I had a hunch they’d have a good connection, although they’re quite different players…and the chemistry was immediate. That first album is called Rosetta.
What would you say are the building blocks of the Rosetta Trio’s music? Obviously the combination of guitars and upright bass, and the lack of drums, brings to mind hillbilly string band music, but a) is that there, and b) what else is in there?
I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by hillbilly string band music, although Fox and I had an amazing jam once in the hills of Thomas, West Virginia at a small mountaintop brewery (during a Jen Chapin tour)…everyone in the room, including eventually the bartender, played at least one instrument and sang, including five different people sitting in on the upright bass. That’s a musical culture!
I can’t really go through a specific list of our influences…each of us has a quite broad listening and music loving habit and history. The key, for me, is to make music that has its own voice beyond genre and that allows each participant to bring everything he or she is and loves to the table. Then, ideally, we come up with something truly its own.
One other thing I’d say about the sound of the group is that, while it seems unusual in instrumentation, it’s actually kind of classic…put one guitar on the left speaker and one on the right, you’ve got instant shimmer. Have them play something in unison and it’s thrilling (see: classic rock)…then have one of them break off into something else and you’ve got instant drama.
How does the absence of a drummer shape the music, in particular the trio’s rhythmic concept? There may be room for fluidity without a drum, but are there pitfalls as well?
It’s a wonderful challenge. And a deliberate one. First, let me say that I love playing with great drummers (only great ones!), and I’m very blessed to have many occasions for that. At the same time, my instrument, the acoustic bass, is remarkably vulnerable to having many of its expressive registers and timbres covered up. So on a purely sonic level, this group affords me the space to express in ways that just aren’t possible in a more traditional lineup.
Rhythmically, it clarifies the fact that, as I strongly believe, every musician in an ensemble is part of the rhythm section. Each musical gesture any of us makes, no matter the instrument, is, first and foremost, a rhythmic gesture in space and time. Only after that can we consider its harmonic and melodic relationship to other notes (gestures). But, on the first order, we must take responsibility for the gravity, or polarity, that it has in relation to each other gesture in the ensemble. This is another way of saying “feel.”
We’ve learned a lot over the years about this in our group. At first, we had to work very deliberately with each song, deciding who was pushing (or lifting) when and who was able to (and should) lay back into the others. Sometimes, though, the lead and supporting roles became simultaneous and/or constantly interchanging in our music, so this took a lot of work. But now we can mostly skip those discussions and move on to other levels of developing the music. The trick is, we’re all responsible for keeping things buoyant (I think of it as bouncing a ball in the air with one another, for instance) while still allowing it to lay back and have a good feeling.
How has the group evolved over the course of three releases? It started out as a vehicle for your writing, but have Jamie and Liberty taken on writing/co-leadership roles over time?
I was very deliberate about asking them to contribute compositions to this new album. I felt like the group had developed enough of its own identity and functioning, and also that I no longer needed it to be the main outlet for my own writing. I knew it’d be good for me, personally, to experience letting go of the reins a bit…and I knew the band would also grow from that experience. Learning to let go…
Also, these guys are great and very individual composers, and I knew they’d write some music that made sense for this band while taking us into new places and challenges. Fox’s song, “Conversate (talking-wise),” is just beautiful, and made it onto the album. We’re still working on Lib’s…just rehearsed it today for the release shows this week, and it’s sounding great. Like Jamie’s tune, it’s totally him, yet totally Rosetta Trio.
If you were attempting to describe/sell the Rosetta Trio to a “normal person” (i.e. not an avant-jazz fan), how would you do so?
I wish I knew how to sell it!
I tell people it’s two guitars with acoustic bass…all strings. It’s very melodic, colorful and has a strong emphasis on groove. It’s very much its own voice, with some through-composed material, along with plenty of improvisation. In the end, there’s just a lot of great string pickin’!