Meandering, Ebbing and Flowing with Slow Water: Stephan Crump and Nancy Mitchell

Meandering, Ebbing and Flowing with Slow Water: Stephan Crump and Nancy Mitchell
April 26, 2024 Mitchell Nancy



Meandering, Ebbing and Flowing with Slow Water
Stephan Crump and Nancy Mitchell



Acclaimed composer and bassist Stephan Crump had long contemplated a musical project that would honor his lifelong love affair with water, and at the same time consider societal connections to it. As he began researching the latter, he was saddened to learn that the beloved waters which had been both mentor and muse to him were endangered. While he had embraced water’s natural propensity to meander, ebb, and flow where it wants to go as a personal philosophy for his life and music, he found that human control in the name of progress had thwarted the water’s nature. However, he was heartened to learn from Erica Gies’s book Water Always Wins about a community of scientists, activists, and indigenous cultures who are championing evidence that allowing water to run its course could reverse and prevent further damage to and benefit our world.


On the eve of Slow Water’s May 3, 2024, release, Stephan and I meandered, ebbed, and flowed in conversation as he talked about how this remarkable new album came to be.


NM: Congratulations on the release of your stunningly beautiful new album Slow Water; it’s been in my ears almost nonstop for several days now, and it is a wonder!  I have the sense that the album is tracking the evolution of estuary/wetlands opening with the trumpet in “Sound” which heralds an auspicious beginning from the primordial ooze from which the wetlands emerged. To me, it seems each subsequent track becomes more textured and complex with sounds of life forms.  Was this your intention?


SC: That’s a wonderful response to the album, so much so that I’m reluctant to respond at all because it means that you’re experiencing your own version of what I intended.


As we moved through the various pieces, all of which connect in one big flow, our focus was on evoking the entire wetland ecosystem at hand, from primordial ooze, peat, and burbling gases, to water, currents, fishes, and critters within, to plants, insects, air currents, fog, trees, wind, birds and clouds above. The textures in the air (or silence, or spaces among the sounds) are just as important as the notes, themselves. It was very challenging, actually, to maintain this aspect throughout the post-recording production process (mixing and mastering), where such elements are easily squeezed out. But I kept pushing for it, and I’m thankful that, here on the album, the air itself feels alive to me, just as it might on the banks of a waterway at dusk.



NM: After I read your intention, I listened to Slow Water again on the long drive up to Cape Cod.  The silences, like white space in a poem, are so unexpected they kept me alert to shifts and the myriad, diverse, and distinct “voices” of the whole of wetland life—those frogs in “Pooling!” As a result, when I explored some of the wetlands on the Cape, my ears were more attuned to these silences, spaces within and between sounds of marsh life; the air was full of peepers announcing spring while bird calls and responses crisscrossed the sky. I noticed how the “blank spaces” between amplified both silences and sounds. It reminded me of Section V of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”



I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


SC: S This is all very moving to me. Thank you, Nancy. To work backward, thank you for including this poem. The impact of that last line on me is both chills and a sudden feeling of weightlessness, as though I jumped off some high rocks into a pool of water.

As for what you shared just before the poem, it is deeply meaningful to me that this work might rekindle the greater awareness and connection you have with nature, with life.

This is one of the main things art can offer us, no? Snapping us out of our complacency and relative deadness to the energies and interconnection in which we truly exist?

And how such a breakthrough occurs owes a lot to those spaces, shaped by our intent, which are not empty at all. They are where the energy of relation vibrates, where the life force in the poem, the painting, the song, exists. In making music, I believe we might focus more on shaping this magnetism between and among the notes than we do on the notes themselves. At any rate, I think that’s what’s actually going on, whether or not we’re aware of it. As we craft hopefully surprising and impactful juxtapositions among our materials (notes, words, lines, etc.), we are actually sculpting energy of relation. And it’s this energy that cracks things open for our audience.


NM: Can you tell us about your lifelong love affair with water?


SC: I was born and raised in Memphis, TN, so my relationship with water began with the Mississippi River. Growing up, I spent a lot of time around, on, and even in the Mississippi. Its energy is unfathomable, as is the complexity of its interweaving currents. All of it is endlessly fascinating, inspiring, and frightening.


In my early teens, I went on a couple of outward-bound-type summer expeditions, the first of which was a month-long canoe trip. This entailed two weeks of training on lakes and rivers in Vermont and New Hampshire before leaving for Northern Ontario via train for the main event. We (12 teens, 2 counselors, 7 canoes) spent two weeks navigating the Missinaibi River, which empties into the Moose River and eventually into James Bay. Each canoe carried all our personal and group gear, along with all our food. It was nothing but wilderness for two weeks. Wondrous and often brutal, this was a formative experience for me as a 13-year-old boy.


Two summers later I had a similar trip, but cycling, on the Olympic Peninsula, departing from Seattle. We biked and camped also in the San Juan Islands and spent three days sea-kayaking and camping on some of the tiny, uninhabited ones. I can still feel the vertiginous thrill of grabbing a stalk of giant kelp, surfacing next to me in the kayak, then looking down into the murky depths and not being able even to imagine how deep the plant went.


One more view, from closer to home. My grandparents shared some land in the country, east of Memphis, with a couple of other families. Growing up, I spent a lot of time out there, on the lake and in the creek that fed it. This is where my grandmother taught me to fish (well before my current vegetarian years). Granny loved to fish, and she loved to do things well (especially weaving gripping stories, on the spot). On that lake she gave me a lesson that still informs my music-making and just living, generally. This happened as Granny was showing me, one afternoon, how to explore the quiet coves along the lake’s edge, and we drifted toward a patch of shade under the half-sunken remains of a young tree that the beavers had gnawed over. She made clear, as we cast our shiny treble-hooked lures toward the shallows and ideally just under that branch or alongside the sunken tree stump that would sooner steal your rig than leave it to the big bass lazing in its shade: “Dahlin’, if you don’t get a snag, you’re not fishin’.”


NM: What a wonderful lesson from a wise woman; drifting, trusting, and going with the flow, casting into the shadowed shallows, and the inevitable “snags” that are part of the quest and journey.


In your interview with Samo Šalamon on Dr. Jazz Talks #169 you talk about improvisation, letting go, and trusting the organic process, and acknowledging fear. Can you talk about this process with Slow Water?


SC:      In building the Slow Water ensemble and repertoire, I wanted both to implement some of the lessons I’ve learned with smaller, unorthodox ensembles over the last couple of decades as well as to put myself into uncharted territories in numerous ways. As David Bowie said, and I paraphrase, with each new project make sure you swim out to where your feet no longer touch the bottom. This is the mode of growth and discovery, to move straight toward that fear (as long as it’s not a bear, or something). In this case, I wanted a larger ensemble (sextet) than I’d previously guided, and different instrumentation than I’d composed for, as well as new collaborators. Some of these players I’d never even met before our first rehearsal. The choices were based on recommendations and my own research. Also, I wanted to compose for and lead the ensemble in new ways. In this case, really allowing the concept that generated the project to inform the approach to both aspects. In other words, I really set out to scare myself with this one. And it worked in that I created a different body of music than I’d ever even imagined, and I learned and grew a lot along the way.


I’ve been increasingly interested in more collective action in building the music, rather than a soloist-based approach that is often found in jazz-oriented groups. There are almost no solos, here, but lots of group spontaneous composition (improvisation) along with through-composed pieces that also invite players to contribute sounds and textures that help us fill out the wetland environments that we’re trying to evoke. Part of my job as the leader is to clarify that vision for everyone, up front, to a point at which we can feel confident in our shared vision (even as the details of that vary per individual) enough to let go and maximally trust in one another. That letting go, an attempt at ego dissolution, is the key to breaking through, to opening up a portal for ourselves and others.


NM: Ego dissolution…I’m reminded of what the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote about the ego-annihilating effects of a true reverie—and Slow Water is certainly a deep reverie—induced by the contemplation of natural phenomenon, especially water: “There are reveries so deep, reveries which help us descend so deeply within ourselves that they rid us of our history. They liberate us from our name.”


SC: It’s so easy, and so exhausting and destructive, to fall into the rut of things being about ourselves. Whenever I’m able to remember, I try to reconstruct frameworks that help me get beyond myself, and that’s when I can truly contribute. While this project benefits from a clear directive of doing so, I find it helpful in any music-making situation, or just life situation, to create a framework that is somehow about giving, about giving over.

There’s also the inspiration that comes from learning about what water wants to do, which is to meander, slow down, connect with the aquifer, allow beneficial sediment to settle and build. So, what if we relinquish the usual agenda of control and pushing towards a pre-determined endpoint? What if we instead let go and fall into one another, over and over? What wonderlands might appear?


NM: Music and jazz have been an integral part of your life—your father’s passion for jazz, your early exposure to the greats, and your mother’s encouragement to learn the piano, via Suzuki method. Those neural pathways were laid early on, weren’t they?


SC: Yes, the music and art were flowing right from the start. In addition to all the music in my home, I recall an overall atmosphere of creativity all around me in the ’70s (my early years) in Memphis. Lots of live music and visual arts, along with theater and literature. My father is an architect, but in those early years I recall spending time with him in the backyard some weekends as he made paintings on large canvases propped on sawhorses. He also let me help him build models of the buildings he was designing.

My first stage experience, at age seven and thanks to encouragement from my mother, was as an orphan in a production of Oliver! at the main theater in town. That gave me a taste for stage performance, and there were follow-up engagements, including a stint as Tiny Tim.

My grandmother ran the hip used bookstore in town, Burke’s Books, and I spent a lot of time there. She was an avid reader and masterful storyteller, and generally a great force in my life. My uncle Stephen Crump is now retired but worked in wood, creating furniture on commission that was really like functional sculpture. Art pieces. My music stand at home is one of his pieces, made from a black walnut tree that had lived for many years in my grandmother’s backyard. I worked a lot of summers for Stephen in his shop, late in high school and into my college years. I feel that what I do is very much about storytelling and sculpting energy.


NM: You speculate in the bio on your website that your choice of the bass might have had its origins in those early childhood nights your father would spin “The Greats” on the stereo and you’d hear the “bass, especially when the low-end would creep through the old wooden walls…”


SC: Of course I cannot prove this theory, but it’s a fun one, no? It is true that my father’s stereo system was against the other side of the wall just a bit over from my bedroom. The bass, especially, would resonate through that wall, and I experienced nightly lullabies in this manner from many of the great jazz bassists. One even created a recurring nightmare (that I enjoyed, actually, in a kind of delicious fear) that came from a Modern Jazz Quartet piece in a minor key with a lurking lope to the bass. As Percy Heath’s line bounced through the wall a muppet-like long-snouted purple wolf would appear and chase after me. A nightmare that I hoped would recur and did from time to time.


NM: What a terrific dream; sort of a surreal twist on “Peter and the Wolf.” Although you had started out on the bass guitar, did it feel like a homecoming when you saw/heard Dave Holland play in Spain?


SC: I still love the electric bass and relish every opportunity to play it. Late in high school, though, as I started to get serious about studying jazz, I became increasingly curious about the acoustic bass. During the summer between graduating high school and starting at Amherst College, I spent a month backpacking by myself all around Spain. That trip was formative in many ways, and of course, I was at a major point of transition in my life, so my antennae were particularly sensitized. At one of the outdoor summer music festivals on the outskirts of Barcelona, I heard Dave Holland play, and it sealed the deal for me that I would start studying the instrument as soon as I got to college. While I wouldn’t say it felt like “coming home,” it was more the beginning of another journey, one that I’m still on. And Dave was such an enormous influence on me that at a certain point (a number of years later) I had to all but stop listening to him, as he embodied at that time everything that I thought a contemporary bassist should offer. Fortunately, there were plenty of other heroes to discover and whose work I would dive into.



NM:    It seems you always knew what you wanted to be and set out to do it at an early age. How amazing it must have been for you to be gigging in NYC at the age of 18, and not long after be well on your way to a life in jazz. Yet, unlike some jazz artists who find a niche and stay in it their entire career, you are always pushing into new territory. I think of Miles Davis, and Stevie Wonder, both of whom I ‘ve adored, particularly Stevie Wonder from the early years of the haunting Fingertips I&II on.  Do you feel an affinity with either?


SC: Thank you. Both of those artists are historically among my greatest sources of inspiration. Stevie Wonder, in particular, was my first—and probably remains my greatest—musical love. While not explicitly trying to emulate either of them, I do take inspiration from all manner of details in their work as players, composers, and bandleaders, as well as their powerful individuality and development as artists. I always hope to offer some honest and meaningful perspective through my work while also challenging myself to keep learning and growing, as both an artist and a human.


NM: Thank you, Stephan, for sharing this beautiful new album, for our wonderful conversation, and for teaching me to see with my ears. Friends, when you watch and listen to the video of the track “Eager” below, you’ll know why you need Slow Water in your life.

Links to learn more about Stephan Crump and his new album Slow Water:

Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of The Near Surround, Grief Hut and the The Out-of- Body Shop. She teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland and serves as Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume. She is the Poet Laureate of the City of Salisbury, Maryland.