Review: Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio at the Vortex

Liberty Ellman with Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio at the Vortex
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2014. All Rights Reserved


Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio
(Vortex, 4 February 2014; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)


The intelligence, sensitivity and sheer understated finesse of the late great guitarist Jim Hall live on in the music of the trio led by the bassist Stephan Crump which performed at at the Vortex on Tuesday night. Crump was the central anchor for the symmetrical placing of acoustic guitarist Liberty Ellman seated to the left of stage, and the lightly electric guitar of Jamie Fox, stage right, The compositions, mostly penned by Crump, were imbued with complexity, wit and respect for the area of repertoire where jazz overlaps with contemporary classical, rock, gospel and blues.

But that's not to take away anything from the trio's own essentially unique voice and their mesmerising, lo-fi brilliance. Their material was drawn from all three of the Rosetta Trio's albums, with the main focus on their latest release, ‘Thwirl’. Crump had incidental anecdotes to make links with the inspiration that he found in subjects ranging from the greening of New York, the architecture of that city, his hometown, Memphis, and the circular perambulations of his son expressing affection. He made a passing reference to architecture and it is interesting to note that his father is an architect and a jazz devotee who shaped his early musical interests. Maybe some of that influence comes through in his multi-faceted approach to composition.

Crump's bass playing has captivated the Vortex on several occasions with Vijay Iyer's trio, and in this setting his Czech-Ease acoustic road bass looked the part, its squat body every bit the anchor shape. He's one for developing musical relations over long periods - his association with Iyer is over 17 years, the Rosetta Trio is in its eighth year, and continues to flourish and evolve. Crump's partners have US West Coast roots - Ellman's are via London and New York - and he and Fox are, like Crump, now based in New York.

It's rare to hear seamlessly synchronised, intricate dual guitar passages delivered with a combination of relaxed confidence and technical brilliance, but Fox and Ellman had such a strong shared sensibility, and empathy with Crump, that both sets sparkled with marvellous highlights and interplay. Every so often it would be difficult to tell apart the two guitarists, as their fingers ran around the fretboards with practiced effortlessness, and rhythm and lead roles were exchanged with remarkable fluency.

Crump used the percussive potential of his bass – slapping and knocking it to turn it in to a wood-framed beat box, or twanging the strings to interpose a snare sound. He'd dwell on its innate chunky resonances in solo episodes, draw out melodic passages to complement the guitarists, and find liminal spaces which could flip in to bossa rhythms or a loping, languorous backdrop.

This was astonishingly beautiful playing - never a note out of place, and yet no suggestion of being hamstrung by formality, and supported by a delightfully balanced acoustic mix at the Vortex - an open and technically glistening performance which exuded a delight in detail. This gig was also captured by BBC’s ‘Jazz on 3’ for broadcast on 17th March.

Stephan Crump - acoustic bass
Liberty Ellman - acoustic guitar
Jamie Fox - electric guitar

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