Steph Richards - Take The Neon Lights

Label: Birdwatcher Records, 2019

Personnel – Steph Richards: trumpet, flugelhorn; James Carney: piano; Sam Minaie: bass; Andrew Munsey: drums.


Following up a knotty experimental debut album in which electronic and percussive components played essential roles, rising star trumpet player Steph Richards returns with an outstanding sophomore disc. Having New York City as backdrop and named after some of her favorite poems, the eight tracks on Take The Neon Lights were acoustically shaped in the company of pianist James Carney, bassist Sam Minaie, and drummer Andrew Munsey. The four artists pour a great deal of feeling into each tune as they tour musical paths with sincerity and courage. The trumpeter, a practitioner of Butch Morris’ conduction language, has collaborated with jazz greats such as Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton, as well as iconic indie rock bands like Talking Heads and Pixies.

Take The Neon Lights and Wear a Crown” is sonically rich and Richards gets plenty of mileage from pure, contrasting timbres, extended techniques, and verbal accentuations. There’s depth of feel in every note she plays, whether round or spiky, and in the aftermath of an intense rhythmic commotion, the band adopts a more reflective posture, veiling the scenario with subtle musical shadings.

Producing a different sort of sparkle, “Brooklyn Machine” thrives with mechanical-like automation in the rhythm, yet the pace varies along the way. The piece suggests a happy marriage between psych-rock and manic electronica with dialoguing horn lines at its center.

Time And Grime” incorporates trumpet punctuation, prepared and conventional piano playing, and some whirling and growling moments of pure sensory pleasure. It also shows the band’s propensity for probing texture with a wide sense of synchronization and unity. The same philosophy is put into practice on “Rumor of War”, whose abstract platform, launched by cackling muted trumpet, subdued piano notes, and deep percussion, gradually reshapes into lyrical.

Extremely satisfying, “Skull Of Theaters” allowed me to find pathos and experience some nostalgia in its refreshing crossing between old and new jazz. The music takes tentative directions as it progresses, providing us with moments of hope, exuberance, and some humor, mostly thanks to Carney’s livelier intervention. It ends peacefully, being immediately followed by “Stalked By Tall Buildings”, where the competent rhythm section, whether operating under agitated or calm environments, creates propitious conditions for Richards’ inventive stretches. An attentive listener won’t have trouble in detecting odd ways of swinging, a slick facility in changing dynamics, and spectacular details in the rhythm department.

At once erudite and powerful, Richards’ new body of work takes us to places of avant-jazz merit where ambiguity and tension are created with open-mindedness, subtlety, and finesse. There’s definitely good music here, in sufficient quantity to keep the listeners engrossed in what’s going on.

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Take The Neon Lights ► 02 - Brooklyn Machine ► 07 - Stalked By Tall Buildings