The problem with the canon handed down from the academies and the critics, writes Addison Gayle, Jr. in The Black Aesthetic, is that “it aims to evaluate the work of art in terms of its beauty and not in terms of the transformation from ugliness to beauty that the work of art demands from its audience.”
Gayle is referring to the ugliness of slavery and the systemic exploitation of Africans in America. But the trauma can also be personal. Stephan Crump turned the illness and death of his brother, Patrick, three years ago into a book of music that transformed his pain into fully-realized beauty. The bassist, composer and Amherst College graduate (’94) shared the music with a rapt Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares audience at the Shea Theater on Saturday, October 7.
The concert followed the contour of his eponymous 2016 recording, Stephan Crump’s Rhombal, (Papillion Sounds). The quartet: Adam O’Farrill, trumpet, Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone and Kassa Overall, drums, were well-oiled, having logged dozens of performances in the last year, including at the Greenwich House in New York the night before coming to Turners Falls.
What a treat to hear Kassa Overall live for the first time. As you’d expect from a long-time member of Geri Allen’s trio, Overall was precise, but never stiff or too loud. The drum duties with Rhombal rotate. Tyshawn Sorey is on the record, but Crump has used Eric McPherson, Richie Barshay and Ben Perowsky, among others. Overall, who splits time between hip-hop, rock and jazz worlds, had no problems negotiating the piece’s quirky rhythmic turns, while adding texture to multiple moods and tempos.
What a stroke of genius to pair Ellery Eskelin and Adam O’Farrill, who had never played together before this project. Actually, Crump had not played with Eskelin and had only met O’Farrill when the young trumpeter was a student at the Banff Centre for Jazz and Creativity. “When they were warming up before our first rehearsal,” recalled Crump, “their sound together was amazing. They push each other, feed off each other.” Throughout the evening, the horns interwove, not only playing heads together, but conversing, soloing simultaneously.
The writing was magnificent, much of it at slow to mid-tempo. But slow does not mean simple. I had the feeling of looking through a microscope, amazed at the space that exists between things. The clear, declamatory melodies, the tart harmonies and expressive solo statements were all easily examined and appreciated.
The uptempo tunes, like “Skippaningam”, were quite welcome. Composed after dropping his two young sons off at school, the piece was a bundle of skittering energy juxtaposed with a distracted section that seemed to just wander off. Crump also shared the creation story for “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner”, which was inspired by Zacharias Kunuk’s 2001 film of the same name. Crump translated the image of the title character running naked over Artic ice into a tight flight at rapid speed. It was one of two pieces not on the recording.
Crump’s expressions were as distinctive as his compositions. Were they smiles or grimaces? Release or concentration? He moved with his instrument, strummed with flourish and at one point, rubbed his bass suggestively. He was an engaging host, generous with his spirit. Crump seemed genuinely pleased with the attentive and responsive audience, and told us we completed the connection between music and performer. When the last pieces ended, the elegiac Pulling Pillars and the ebullient Outro for Patty, there was hushed silence. Perhaps the 10 seconds that elapsed before applause erupted was prayerful respect. In any case, we were blessed to partake in the transformative power of art.