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Newcomers Welcome: Steph Richards Debuts in the Valley

After more than 30 years of producing creative music, it’s rare for me to host a concert where I’ve never met any of the performers. But that’s what happened on Tuesday, Oct. 12th when Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares gathered again at the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen.


Trumpeter Steph Richards led her band Supersense: James Carney, piano, Brandon Lopez, bass and Max Jaffe, drums, in a 60-minute immersion into a very personal sound world. I had poor answers to pre-concert questions about the music. I had never seen any of them perform and knew them only by name and reputation. What an opportunity then, for me to expand my musical universe.


Although there were long-standing connections between individual band members, this foursome had never worked together. In a music that emphasizes improvisation, that’s not as daunting a prospect as it seems. It also helps to have four nimble musical thinkers with chops. I suspect that as the tour continued on to Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Ottawa, the band grew into an even deeper understanding of Richard’s vision.


Richards is one of the rising stars of the trumpet with a big vision for what is possible. For this concert, she collaborated with flavor and fragrance artist Sean Raspert, who created scratch and sniff cards that corresponded to the compositions. Richards also screened abstract video by Vipal Monga that played above the heads of the quartet during the first part of the performance.

Beyond engagement with our other senses, the musicians wove a tapestry of sound around loose themes provided by Richards. Despite Lopez’ muscular pulse, the band leisurely explored nuggets of melody with an open-ended mindset. Richards’ tone was gorgeous and full-bodied, with flecks of bravado and vulnerability in equal measure.


Carney seemed to hold back, only occasionally asserting himself within the group. His shining moments came during a couple of passages when he had the stage to himself. I heard shades of Jarrett and Debussy in his approach, and the understated beauty of his solos served as a wonderful respite to the evening’s general busyness. Over a meal, Carney regaled us with stories of an afternoon spent with Wayne Shorter in 1999 when he won the Thelonious Monk Institute Competition in composition, as well as tales from his career as a high-end piano technician.


I’d been hearing about Brandon Lopez for a number of years. He’s a New Yorker, barely in his mid-30s, who was nurtured by William and Patricia Parker and grew up in the Arts for Art family. I love this line from his bio: “His music has been praised as ‘brutal’ (Chicago Reader) and ‘relentless’ (The New York Times).” He playing wasrelentless, emphatic and physical, as well as quite musical. Small of stature, Lopez’ kinetic approach to the bass reminded my wife, Priscilla Page, of Joe Fonda, an apt comparison.


Max Jaffe, a member of vocalist Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones and a collaborator with Jessica Pavone and Peter Evans, received his Masters from CalArts last year. Richards and Carney also have degrees from this venerated hotbed of innovation. They laughed about the irony that the school’s two most important benefactors are Walt Disney and Herb Alpert. Jaffe is a strong player with just the right amount of off-beat to make things interesting. He has devoted a lot of his recent energy into combining drumming with various digital technologies. Hopefully we’ll get to hear that side of his talent soon.


I’m so thankful I got to meet and share the music of Steph Richards, James Carney, Brandon Lopez and Max Jaffe, four creative souls who I now know. Connecting the dots, making the connections, expanding the known universe through music and love, that’s what motivates me. “Peace and rhythm,” as my friends Andujar and DJ Bongohead put it. I feel grateful every day that I am in a position to facilitate rich exchanges of music and fellowship between artists and my friends and neighbors.


Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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