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Steph Richards: Take the Neon Lights (Birdwatcher)

A review of the multi-instrumentalist's album with James Carney, Sam Minaie, and Andrew Munsey

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Take the Neon Lights by Steph Richards
The cover of Take the Neon Lights by Steph Richards

The musical headspace in which rising Brooklyn-via-Canada trumpeter Steph Richards operates stretches far beyond avant-garde jazz—an area she’s explored with visionaries such as Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and John Zorn—and into art-pop territory (she’s logged studio time with Yoko Ono and David Byrne too). On last year’s entrancing, electronics-heavy FULLMOON, the composer, trumpeter/flugelhornist, and percussionist came into her own; now Richards is showing off her versatile skillset by taking on the all-acoustic, avant-leaning jazz rush of Take the Neon Lights with ease.

Augmented by a muscular group made up of pianist James Carney, bassist Sam Minaie, and drummer Andrew Munsey, Richards goes for broke on this set’s eight hectic and hyper tracks, drawing on ever-shifting, adventurous sounds that are hard to pin down. Traces of hard-charging bebop and groove-heavy swing seep through, but ultimately the album is genre-defiant.

Intended as a love letter of sorts to New York, Take the Neon Lights borrows song titles from poems about the city by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Langston Hughes, and others. Up-tempo, subway-rumbling numbers like the title track, “Brooklyn Machine,” and “Time and Grime” capture the obligatory breathless pace. Richards leads the way with dizzying lines, playful salvos, and piercing screams, while the polyrhythmic intensity of Minaie and Munsey and the dazzling keyboard work of Carney keep the music surging forward with abandon. Chaos, hustle, grit, surprising beauty—it’s all here. With her second stellar effort as a leader in as many years, Steph Richards has become a cutting-edge jazz star in a New York minute.

Preview, buy or download Take the Neon Lights on Amazon!

Originally Published