March 3, 2024

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Interview with Stephan Crump: Music, like everything, is what we choose to make of it: Video

Jazz interview with jazz acoustic bassist Stephan Crump. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Stephan Crump: – My mother, who is from Paris, plays piano, and my father is an architect and painter but also an avid jazz fan and amateur drummer. I grew up in Memphis in the ’70s and ’80s, and while there was a lot of music in the house, there was also a lot of live music around town. And creativity, in general. I was exposed to a lot of visual art as well. My uncle, Stephen Crump, who was my childhood hero, is a wood sculptor. From my late teens into early college years, I got to work for him during the summers. His attention to detail, including painstakingly working, sanding, and finishing the wood until it’s almost like skin, as well as his playful, graceful sense of form, had a huge impact on me. In my earlier years, I also got to spend time in the backyard on weekends with my dad as he worked on large-format abstract paintings, as well as “help” him make models of his architecture projects. Also, my grandmother owned and ran a great used bookstore, Burke’s Books, and I spent a good amount of time with her there and at home. Not only did she instill in all of us a love of literature, but she was an excellent storyteller, and I remember being in her lap on the rocking chair, putting in my request for a scary story. She would weave a thrilling tale every time.

Reflecting on all this, now, from so many years later, I believe the sense of storytelling and casting the spell, along with an emphasis on sculpture and form, is as relevant to what I try to do as is all the music I’ve loved … or almost!

Speaking of love, my first love was Stevie Wonder. Along with Stevie, my father was constantly spinning Monk, Trane, Miles, MJQ, Phineas Newborn, Jr., and other greats, and his system was just on the other side of my bedroom wall, so I was rocked to sleep by, say, Percy Heath more often than not. I always heard and wanted the bass, but my mother had me start with classical piano lessons when I was about 6 years old. It wasn’t until seventh grade that I got my first electric bass, which was a maple-glo Rickenbacker 4001, similar to those played by two of my heroes, Geddy Lee of Rush and Chris Squire of Yes. At that time, I also began a couple of years of alto saxophone in the concert band at the public school I attended. Let me pause, here, and register how thankful I am that there was a music program in the Memphis City Schools.

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

SC: – Like all of it, this of course an ongoing process, but given my interest in different modes of music-making, there’s quite a range that I’m trying to cover all at once. My sonic influences regarding what the bass can sound like go from acoustic and electric players, to organ players, and even Moog bass players (see: Stevie Wonder).
I’m aiming for a sound that’s full, round and shapely, like a planet whose contours are fully perceptible, punchy, rich and complex. And I need it to speak with strength as well as subtlety both pizzicato and with the bow. It’s such an obsessive journey, with string choice, setup, mic’ing and (for live) pickup and amplification. Always challenging to strike the right balance.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

SC: – My practice routine has evolved through many phases, of course, but regarding rhythmic focus there’s a lot of work with the metronome…set to 2 and 4, for instance, when playing in 4, and when playing more complex meters I’ll also set it to just a couple of beats within a cycle…never every beat, as then you’re not learning to feel the shapes at play. I also work on rhythms while I’m walking around, when my body is in motion, I’ll sing and clap and feel the patterns against the cadence of my legs’ movement. But it’s really about distilling the shapes within any given groove, the DNA of it. It usually comes down to two gestures, a lift and a landing, within the cycle. I work to internalize those shapes, get them into my body, that way I’m able to communicate them to other people’s bodies, which is the first order of business. Also, this helps me open the music up, because I’m not thinking about every note having equal meaning. Instead, I realize that there are really usually two targets (that DNA, or lift and landing) that I need to be responsible for, and everything else is working tension and release around that polarity.

JBN: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

SC: – I don’t really think about it that way. It all comes down to tension and release, always, on different planes, simultaneously. So, in the moment of making the music, I’m just focused on building and releasing tension in various ways I find interesting or pertinent to the situation. Similarly, when I’m working on a composition it’s about honing various means of balancing tension and release, whether in regard to structure, harmonic relationships, melodic development and variation, rhythmic relation.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

SC: – I try to bring everything that I love into the music. My influences include many musicians of all instruments, but also so much that is extra-musical. But I think you’re asking about specific players, my heroes. I don’t worry about it too much, as I’ve always been driven by a need to bring my own voice or perspective to the conversation, without any illusion of reinventing music or anything else. All my heroes are in everything I play, and I fully embrace that. At the same time, I’m always trying to hone my own voice and offer a new perspective on things.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

SC: – 37.4%. No, thankfully there’s no way or reason to calculate this. Perhaps the intellect as you likely mean takes a more apparent lead in the practice room, when I’m thinking through things more methodically and working on various approaches to a problem. In performance, though, I’m hopefully not thinking in that manner at all, just feeling and flowing through the music, but that doesn’t mean the intellect is gone, just operating in a different mode.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

SC: – I don’t think I see this the way I feel you’re suggesting. Yes, there is, critically, a two-way relationship when things are working. It’s a communion, an infinity flow of energy between the musicians and audience. That’s very important to me and I’m very attuned to it. As far as giving people what they want, though, I don’t even know what that really means. Serving up what I might imagine they would expect? Even if it were a goal, that seems impossible to know and therefore a waste of time to try. I hope to move and inspire people, which includes challenging their assumptions rather than playing to them. I hope to take people to a different plane so that we might reveal some fundamental truths to one another.

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

SC: – Well, about a few of the groups I’m currently working with…

Back in 2004 when my Rosetta Trio (with guitarists Liberty Ellman and Jamie Fox) began putting our first music together, we had to work very deliberately on who had what role when, and who should give more push or lift, so that the others could lay back a bit. Often, whoever had the melody or lead solo would be given more leeway to lay back into the time, to be more expansive and expressive, while the others would give a bit extra push to keep things afloat. It got really complex in moments when we were sharing multiple roles, simultaneously, but exploring this was critical in giving the music the right feel and life, and it’s beautiful how now (we just recorded our fourth album, to be out later this year) we don’t have to discuss these kinds of functional issues when working on a new piece. It’s just become part of the organism.

There are a couple of principle reasons I began exploring drummer-less duos and trios over the last decade. I wanted room to explore the seemingly infinite sonic and textural possibilities of the acoustic bass, much of which are quickly covered up in more traditional lineups. Also, there’s an expansion of roles and responsibilities that happens as one reduces the number of ensemble members. It’s a magnification of perspective, allowing the fewer remaining elements to take on more meaning. Taken to its extreme then, one note could become a planet. Mary Halvorson and I actually have a Secret Keeper tune called “Planets,” because this is the very concept we were pursuing. The Planktonic Finales trio with Ingrid and Cory, to me, has a sort of magnificent, fertile fluidity that engenders a continuous shape-shifting of roles within the group.

But I don’t think about it as my approach changing in groups with or without drums. I don’t perceive it so categorically. It’s more about dealing with each context, the music, the spirits and sounds.

When we stop hampering ourselves with orthodoxies about what’s deemed correct in a particular musical context, and just focus on what we feel the music needs in order to feel alive and communicate something real, it pushes us to expand our own sense of possibility and grow.

An example that comes to mind is the first song of the Borderlands Trio album (with Kris Davis and Eric McPherson), Asteroidea. It’s about 26 minutes long and develops into many different areas, but I remember in the studio how Kris started things off with this riveting left-hand ostinato, then Eric joined in on the groove. It was my turn, and I was absolutely gripped by what they were offering. In that flash decision-making, I realized Kris already had the bass function covered, so I guessed I was the lead and I’d better make it work! I grabbed the bow and jumped in. That’s scary stuff, but it’s exactly where we want to be, diving straight into the fear and willing something right to happen. Borderlands Trio is an example of a traditional lineup that can be extremely expansive sonically and functionally, owing to the broad, open sensibilities of Eric and Kris, and how deeply they each think and hear on the level of composition and orchestration.

In regard to my Rhombal quartet (with Tyshawn Sorey, Ellery Eskelin, Adam O’Farrill), I knew I wanted drums and breath, and that my role would be a bit more “traditional” perhaps, so I created other challenges and left room by omitting a chordal instrument. This creates a magnification and allows the band to become that instrument, sometimes in an additive, linear fashion, and at other times, vertically, together as one. It also places an emphasis on shifting geometries and just, simply, vibration.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

SC: – Take them to hear a great band, live. Let them feel the energy, the connection, the spirit and creativity, the moment.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

SC: – That plane I referred to earlier is the spiritual plane on which we are all connected. That’s the fundamental reality about which we all need constant reminding. I try to exercise and expand that understanding within myself, each day, and I hope to bring it to others through what I do.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

SC: – I lament the fact that the business is moving to a winner-take-all formula like the rest of the economy. Opportunities are fewer and far more difficult to find for all but those at the very top of the industry. It’s unhealthy for the scene, for the music, for society.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

SC: – A lot of different music, but I must say Meshell Ndegeocello makes one brilliant and inspiring record after another, so she’s always a great source.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

SC: – Music, like everything, is what we choose to make of it. When I walk my kids to school in the morning and look up at the early light sparkling in the trees, I can chose to take that for granted or, in my better moments, allow it to fill me with wonder, gratitude, and the clarity that everything is connected.

Music can be a technical, surface-bound enterprise, or it can be a portal.

No matter how many degrees of complexity we travel down the line in perceiving what the music is comprised of, I like not to lose sight of vibration as its fundamental. There is critical tension and release operating at that molecular level, just as there should be at other levels within a piece (rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, structural, etc.).

When we offer a sound, we send waves that alter the environment in which we co-exist, waves that engage and vibrate with people’s bodies. We change each other’s bodies. The question then is, again, one of opening, on the part of musicians and audience.

Regarding the audience, if we establish for them an environment of trust from the start, and if they are capable, they might open themselves and allow the organized tension and release, or magnetism, of these vibrations to reach them at deeper levels.

For the musicians, as we seek higher levels of music-making, there’s no limit to the amount of opening we could pursue. We should all but turn ourselves inside-out, exposing what is most sensitized and real within us. That’s a scary place to be. It’s dangerous to allow such vulnerability, and it takes trust. It takes giving. It takes love. When we find ourselves with other musicians, other humans who are also willing to take this risk, we have a chance to commune on another plane.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

SC: – I’d probably go hang out with Debussy at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

SC: – What do you typically teach students in workshops?

Of course, I try to read where people are and determine what might be best to offer in our limited time together. I’ve discovered that in school settings young musicians are usually plenty involved with learning, transcribing and analyzing music, and I’ll encourage them along that important path, as well as implore them not to create barriers for themselves in regard to genre or fabricated notions of what they’re supposed to like or not like. We should explore whatever it is we love, musical and otherwise, as that is who we are, and bring all of it into our music-making. If we’re not on a path of opening, of breaking down barriers, internal and external, and discovering who we are and who we might become, then how can we expect to offer something true and meaningful in our art?

All the rigorous work of learning and developing a vocabulary of notes and chords and rhythms and songs is essential, and should be ongoing. If it makes sense to deal with that, I’ll jump in, but I try to look for angles that they don’t necessarily emphasize in most school settings. Encouraging them to simplify what’s happening, conceptually, is often helpful. I often hear way too much “chalkboard,” too much of the music never getting beyond people’s heads.

A focus on connecting and grooving with each other is essential and often gets lost in attempts at sophistication or complexity. The music needs to communicate on a visceral level, first. My order of communication priorities: booty, heart, mind. I care deeply about reaching all of those elements, together, but for me it needs to happen in that order. We have to internalize feels or grooves, really feel them and dance with them in our own bodies, before we can expect to transmit them to other people’s bodies. With that goal, I have a method I often share of simplifying and internalizing different feels as shapes with a lift and a landing, which helps prioritize the essential gestures within a music figure and frees us up for expression and development. I try to get them dancing. I try to get them out of their own heads and beyond the imperative of playing the baddest solo imaginable, but instead focus on opening up and really committing with their bandmates to building something together. All of the aforementioned musical building blocks (notes, etc.) are merely opportunities for this connection. We need to focus on what we offer of ourselves through these notes, which are really vessels, and on the relation and magnetism we create between them and that which is offered by our bandmates, even everything around us, including the audience. Again, the musical gesture is merely an opportunity for this to happen.

I try to get them to groove together and, instead of rushing from one idea to the next in an endless stream, to slow down and magnify the importance of each gesture, to hang out on one idea and explore it, turn it inside-out, balance it on its nose, all of which gives the rest of the band time to key into what’s happening and throw some elbows and energy into that, then things can start to build up and out into a meaningful sculpture, instead of just a two-dimensional game of follow-the-leader. When we realize that, no matter who has the lead at any given moment, it’s always a collective endeavor, always about what the group is creating together, with every single gesture of critical importance to the whole, then we have an opportunity to experience real communion, and we might learn that for this to happen we have to reach deeper and make ourselves more vulnerable to one another in the collective effort. And we see that the journey of developing one’s craft and one’s self must be holistic.

JBN: – Thanks for answers, but you did not understand our question, you should have asked your question to us if the current was …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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