Ever since she moved to San Diego to take a position at UCSD, I’ve been trying to experience as much of trumpeter Stephanie Richards as possible, which has been challenging because she doesn’t gig often in town. That personal void finally got some relief on Thursday night (Nov. 3) when Richards lead a quintet of world-class improvisers at the Loft in a free concert.
Assisting Ms. Richards on this evening were Michael Dessen on trombone, Chris Speed on reeds, Mark Dresser on bass and Andrew Munsey on drums.
The night began with “Black & White,” as Richards spewed and sputtered in the manner of Wadada Leo Smith while Dessen responded with guttural blasts and Speed obsessively repeated melodic fragments over the crackling snare drum of Munsey and free-ranging bass of Dresser. Dessen soloed first, maintaining a deft balance between brutal staccato and comic glissando followed by Richards, whose extended range and techniques cued the band into a sort of free-dixieland vibe.
Next was a three-tune medley that opened with the soft and ominous mallet rolls of Munsey, as Speed, Richards and Dessen explored the sound of a single held-tone. Then it came down to a duet between Richards and Speed, exchanging ideas and finishing each other’s thoughts over the parade rhythms of Munsey’s ebullient dance. The second piece continued in a dramatic and joyfully melodic fashion with Speed unwinding on his first formalized solo opportunity -- lightly sailing over the explosive minefield of Munsey and Dresser. Dessen followed, embracing the chasm between mortally wounded prey and mocking predator while Richards answered in full Lester Bowie-mode, with smears, trills and half-valve gymnastics over the primal drum choir of Munsey.
Speed began the last of the trilogy with a burnished soliloquy that reminded me on Wayne Shorter’s work in the great mid-'60s Miles Davis Quintet -- Dresser’s solo creaked like the timbers of a ghost ship and Dessen sounded like he was chortling water through the bell of his trombone.
The last tune carried on in the modern music continuum with Dresser hitting first, churning bits of burning pizzicato broken up by bi-tonal tapping and violent strumming as the image of a funeral dirge came into gauzy focus. Richards used an aluminum pie-tin as a mute for gorgeous, ethereal textures as the band improvised down into a consensual exit.
That, as they say, is the way it’s supposed to sound. Richards needs to do this more often.