By J.D. Considine
Almost since the beginning, jazz trumpeters have been using unconventional techniques to add to their instrument’s palette. Starting with the growl Bubber Miley brought to Duke Ellington’s band, players used mutes, half-valved notes and a variety of electronics to make the instrument’s sound less brassy and more vocalized.
On her solo debut, Fullmoon, Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based Steph Richards proved herself a virtuoso of nonlinear trumpet playing. In her hands, the instrument’s timbre is unbelievably plastic, at some points as squiggly and evasive as a drop of mercury, while at others so sharply defined as to seem almost percussive. Even better, Richards is the sort of improvisor who understands how texture and melody interrelate, so that even her strangest sounds support the compositional logic of these tunes.
Take The Neon Lights, her sophomore effort, adds a rhythm section to the mix, expanding Richards’ ideas multidimensionally. “Brooklyn Machine,” for example, takes a repeating three-note figure and tosses it like pizza dough, stretching the tempo, passing it around the band, kneading the idea until it’s fully worked. Richards drives the groove almost as much as drummer Andrew Munsey, and bassist Sam Minaie, playing arco, occasionally mimics the trumpet’s sound. There’s also a spectacular middle section with Richards’ two voices in dialogue, working a timbral context of dark versus light that cleverly brings us back around to a recapitulation of the head.
Richards has explained Take The Neon Lights as a tribute to New York, and the approaches, both compositionally and instrumentally, she and her quartet take are as varied as the city itself. It’s hard not to love the way she works wah-trumpet against the rhythmic washes of “Rumor Of War,” and the abstracted funk of “Stalked By Tall Buildings” is a vivid and whimsical evocation of the hive-like buzz of megacity life. And because the virtuosity with which Richards and her bandmates evoke this cityscape is so subtle and self-effacing, the music’s sense of scale truly lives up to the title.