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A rigorous experimenter, trumpeter Steph Richards has a résumé that names avant-garde jazz stalwarts Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton and John Zorn, as well as rock and post-rock adventurers St. Vincent, David Byrne and Yoko Ono. Whereas her 2018 debut recording as a leader, Fullmoon, was an outing for solo trumpet and electronics, the new Take the Neon Lights sets her trumpet and flugelhorn within an acoustic quartet. Intended as “a lyric poem to New York City,” the program draws titles from a variety of New York-set poems by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Maya Angelou. The title track comes from a line in Langston Hughes’ “JukeBox Love Song.”
Expansive, impressionistic, untethered to strict tonality or fixed meters, Take the Neon Lights shares an affinity with “free jazz,” but of the more transparent and lyrical variety. There are all manner of “extended” effects here. Richards deploys swooshing atonal breaths, puckered kissy sounds, tongued flutters and wah-wah mutes. But she also assays a rich, sighing vibrato, swing articulation, and, as a composer, an attention to the specificity of unfolding events. The results are spontaneous, “free,” but never random.
Key to that sense of spontaneous form is Richards’ ongoing dance with her quartet partners. In “Transitory (Gleams),” she ventures kisses and flutters with drummer and co-producer Andrew Munsey’s soft pattering mallets; Sam Minaie’s delicate high, bowed bass; and pianist James Carney’s spacious chords. Often as not, tonally and rhythmically ambiguous environments coalesce around an arpeggiated piano figure or bass riff. On “Stalked by Tall Buildings,” the cityscape comes to life with Richards blowing extended lines in her warmest tone over a “stalking” groove. The fluctuating accelerations and decelerations of the mechanistic rhythms of “Brooklyn Machine” reflect the pace of city life, whether it’s a crowded A train or the assault of varied stimuli contained in the city’s grid. The busy variety of an urban existence is, it seems, ultimately reassuring — even beautiful. — Jon Garelick
Featured photo by Clara Pereira.