STEPH RICHARDS – SUPERSENSE (Northern Spy, 2020)

 

The inventive trumpeter smashes more boundaries with an album that takes jazz into exciting and multifaceted territories. You can even smell it.

In the age of pandemic and quarantine, live music performances are one of many aspects of everyday life that have been largely sacrificed. Fortunately, many artists continue to write, record and release music during these restrictive times, but acclaimed avant-garde jazz trumpet player and composer Steph Richards has taken things one step further. In an official press release, she asks: “What if I could create an experience where listeners felt even closer to the music by involving their other senses?” Listener, meet SUPERSENSE.

The multitalented Richards, who’s collaborated with a variety of artists including Henry Threadgill, St. Vincent, Anthony Braxton and Yoko Ono, worked with multimedia artist Sean Raspet to create specific scents that were used as an inspirational jumping-off point for the musicians. As they played, Jason Moran (piano), Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) would be directed to open numbered boxes containing these scents that they would then respond to with improvisation. Fortunately, the listener is also allowed to share in this multisensory experience: the corresponding scent cards for the songs are included in the physical (CD or LP) copies of the album. Sadly, physical copies were not available for review purposes – COVID has caused delays in shipping – so listeners will have to use their imaginations for a little while.

While Richards has pulled off a unique, commendable trick with these scent cards, this immersive type of experience is really just gravy. The music stands up spectacularly on its own. Richards’ brand of avant-garde jazz can be a challenging listen, but the four musicians possess enormous improvisational skill that pushes insistently against the comfort zones of jazz. It’s brash, often otherworldly, and capable of producing the most unexpected sonic choices. SUPERSENSE comes out swinging with the wildly percussive “Underbelly,” as Richards’ trumpet produces guttural, low-register noise reminiscent of a didgeridoo, maneuvering around Moran’s prepared piano, Takeishi’s sinewy bass work and Wolleson’s barely controlled, unconventional percussion. It’s a clattering mess but sounds incredible.

On tracks like “Canopy,” most of the sounds that stretch the instruments’ capabilities to their limits are held back – the lightning-fast post-bop is executed fairly conventionally, but with an unhinged, twitchy pace that sets it apart from a lot of similar, more ponderous free jazz. Even when piano and drums drop out briefly and allow Richards and Takeishi and interweave their instruments, it’s done in a refreshingly gleeful, maniacal way. The title track also uses a somewhat conventional attack, going back and forth between some Bad Plus-style funk breakdowns and inspired, unmetered call-and-response improvisation between the players. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear the brilliant Moran – whose own albums tend to stick to somewhat more traditional lanes – letting loose in such an unfettered way.

But for a great deal of SUPERSENSE, the musicians use their instruments to produce unexpected, unconventional sounds, with often disarming results. “Glass” is a positively noir experience, complete with tinkling bells, drawn out notes, running water (that’s right), and odd, squealing distortion. Similar sounds are created on the utterly psychotic “Metal Mouth,” but in a faster, more intense fashion. It’s the sound of a jazz quartet trying desperately to awaken from a nightmare.

“Sleeping in the Sky” comes off almost like a field recording, with buzzing, scratching, alien mating calls and the rumble of marching band-style percussion sounding more like ambient noise than anything a jazz combo could dream up. The odd, curious “Bunker” is anchored by percussive, almost violent bass work, and once again, strange, foreign noises dominate the soundscape. There’s plenty here for the most adventurous jazz fan to chew on, but anyone with a penchant for imaginatively executed avant-garde noise will be in heaven.

SUPERSENSE comes off the heels of Take the Neon Lights, Richards’ 2019 release on the Birdwatcher label – featuring the same instrumental makeup but with different musicians. It’s a fitting follow-up in that it sees Richards continuing along the same lines as its predecessor but upping that ante considerably. Steph Richards seems obsessed with the idea of pushing the limits of jazz music while making it a unique and highly enjoyable experience.

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