Drops October 15 on Relative Pitch Records
For most of her career as one of the most acclaimed improvisers working in jazz’s avant-garde, trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Steph Richards worked hard to make sure that her music was considered on its own terms, rather than — as is so often the case in jazz and music as a whole — in the context of her gender.
But when she went into the studio to record her upcoming album Zephyr in 2019, Richards was six-and-a-half months pregnant. That literally transformative experience shaped the concise, visceral album both in concept and in practice, forcing the thoughtful, cerebral artist to explore a more immediate connection between her body and her work.
“I was experiencing my own metamorphosis, and thinking about the idea of breathing one breath for two bodies — moving through the world with two distinct pulses happening at the same time,” Richards explains. “It brought this a whole other color to my sound precisely because I had a different physical ability. Our bodies are full of potential, and that’s something that I just had never fully investigated.”
Alongside pianist Joshua White, Richards found inspiration in her embodied self instead of attempting to sideline it on Zephyr’s three suites, which amount to an intense 38 minutes of forcefully original sound. The first, “Sacred Sea,” features Richards playing her trumpet in water throughout. She’s been refining that technique since 2008, but here it takes on new meaning as Richards plays on the idea that she in utero child was, in a sense, breathing underwater. One of its movements, “Anza,” is named for her daughter, whose breath can be heard on that track; other movements are named for gods/goddesses of water and wind.“
What I love about water is that it’s so vulnerable and unstable — you can never know exactly what sound you’re going to make,” Richards explains.The latter two suites, “Sequoia” and “Northern Lights,” play on a similar kind of elemental rootedness, contemplating on ways climate change might shape Anza’s life. “Having a child, it makes it more tangible to try to grasp what a future might feel like,” says Richards. As a whole, the resulting record is one of the trumpeter’s most intimate to date, both in its duo orchestration and in its tactile, focused expression.
Zephyr will be accompanied by a “slow cinema” short film directed by Vipal Monga that presents the album’s focus on water and breath in another light. Almost meditative — “It’s not being dictated to you from a visual perspective,” as Richards puts it — the film will be released online as well as screened during Zephyr’s album release tour.
By expressing the rootedness and inspiration she felt during her pregnancy in abstraction, Richards hopes that her listeners will hear the universality of that experience — the beauty and richness of creation — instead of its ties to any particular gender. “Your humanity is visibly evident when you’re pregnant,” she says. “It felt that I could connect even more closely with my bandmates, and with audiences.