Rosetta Trio get combustible at the Vortex

Although simple, the visual spectacle is striking. Bandleader Stephan Crump is standing next to his double bass flanked by two seated guitarists, Liberty Ellman to his right and Jamie Fox to his left. It’s a people tree with outstretched branches, each one bearing ripe musical fruit. Ellman plays acoustic, Fox electric. Therein lies the ingenious premise of what is a highly original ensemble that has been in existence for the best part of a decade, though has gone relatively unnoticed. The marked textural contrasts created by the two smaller string instruments, cast against the canvas of the larger one, which is a kind of bold primary colour, makes for a memorable tableau. Light and shade are in abundance.

As demonstrated on the excellent new album Thwirl, roles are inventively cast. Genre associations would have it that Ellman’s unplugged axe makes him the gentle pastoral folk troubadour and Fox’s amplification the potent jazz city slicker. However, those clichés are upended with a skill that may have led to a communion of Seeger, Dylan and Grant Green. Ellman often deconstructs chords with raking power and Fox imbues his single note runs with a feathery sensuality. The reverse also occurs so that both men constantly shift within a wide spectrum of hardness-softness quickness-stillness forcefulness-playfulness. Drummerless ensembles often attract epithets like ‘chamber music’, but the pulse and groove here are emphatic, no more so than when Crump, who has both a deep tone and lithe, supple phrasing, hammers out percussion on the side and body of his bass, while plucking strings below the bridge to create piercing harmonics.

The meter is jumpy and agitated, and the decidedly African character of the beat is underlined by the kind of razor sharp finger picking that Bamoko-born guitarists have elevated to a high art. Yet if non-western resonances are woven in with much finesse, Crump’s own southern roots are well to the fore elsewhere. Although the purr of Booker T’s organ is absent, the bluesy sizzle and crackle of Memphis pervades, thus adding further layers to music that is intricately constructed but retains a melodic foundation that reflects a commitment to song as well as arrangement. The advanced chemistry binding Crump, Ellman and Fox, leaders in their own right and sidemen to such luminaries as Vijay Iyer, Henry Threadgill and Joan Baez, makes this possible.

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