Here’s a little gem that almost fell through the cracks from late last year. Stephan Crump, one of the most in-demand bassists of the moment (and a fiercely-skilled improviser: check out his recent session with Ingrid Laubrock and Cory Smythe as an example), put a band together in 2015 comprised of veterans Ellery Eskelin on tenor sax, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, in order to perform compositions Crump wrote to come to terms with the death of his brother, Patrick. Although the somber occasion of the music’s writing is reflected in some poignant emotional moments, the overall mood of the record is positive and life-affirming, as the irrepressible spirit of these four outstanding musicians rises to the surface again and again during the album’s nine expansive, well-constructed tracks.
The two-horn harmonies for O’Farrill and Eskelin are delightful on tracks like the opener, “NoD for Nelson” and “Grovi,” the former drawing inspiration from the Blue Note sound of the early/mid-60s and the latter having more of a laid-back, 70s funk-jazz feel. The warmth of Crump’s buoyant bass and Sorey’s active but never excessive drum parts give each cut an inviting, approachable aspect; there’s a lot of generosity in the sound of this group. Eskelin’s sinuous tone and just-so-slightly relaxed delivery contrasts perfectly with the clarion precision of O’Farrill’s lines, and there’s plenty of room in the music for each horn to complement the other during their respective solos.
Most of the tracks have a straightforward rhythmic sensibility, keeping the groove consistently at the forefront. But there are some opportunities for some interesting departures, fueled by the creativity of Sorey and Crump. Listen to the way the third cut, “Skippaningam,” which starts as a pretty conventional up-tempo piece in straight swing time, undergoes a gradual transformation as Sorey brings down the tempo and Crump follows him, allowing for the horns to meander independently for a while in loose time before Sorey and Crump re-establish the pulse and lay down another groove. An even better example may be “Birdwhistle,” perhaps the strongest cut on the record. Anchored at first by a loping, four-note ostinato line from Crump, a subtle shuffle from Sorey on brushes, and some avian-like darting interjections from the horns, the piece gradually opens up as Sorey and Crump loosen and stretch the rhythm while raising the intensity level; by the time Sorey switches to sticks and Crump locks in behind him with a driving fervor that Eskelin amplifies with a scorching solo, we’re given an exhilarating example of the fire these musicians can generate, even on a record that generally refrains from fanning the flames.
The record’s closer, “Pulling Pillars/Outro for Patty,” is the perfect finish to what is an engaging and uplifting set of music. Although the track begins with an unmistakably mournful aspect, with the hymn-like opening from Crump’s arco setting the mood, it ends with an almost dance-like coda, as the horns sing over a jubilant, bouncy accompaniment from Sorey and Crump that reminds us of the hopeful spirit that permeates this music.
A welcome release from a fine group, and one especially suited for displaying Crump’s emerging chops as a writer.