Press On: The Culprit’s Blues


The jazz tradition is a deep well to draw from, but the fear is that many modern players only skim its surface. The Culprit’s Blues, which is both Culp’s debut album and the inaugural release on his new Gutbucket Records label, is the Bay Area artist’s attempt to plunge a little deeper.

From the five original pieces that comprise the album to the analog techniques used in its recording, all the way down to the design of its artwork, The Culprit’s Blues evokes the glory days of post-bop. The hot but cool swing, impeccable musicianship that embraces both virtuosity and emotional expression, melodies that worm their way into the listener’s ear while sparking piquant improvisations from the musicians who play it – all of these harken back to a classic mode of jazz that sometimes gets lost in a headlong race toward innovation.

Which is to say, this is not a “throwback” or “retro” album; it’s a celebration of the best aspects of a classic style with all the vitality and immediacy of the present moment. Where some bands settle on stodgy recreations of an era, Culp and his quintet speak a language accented by the past but conversant with the here and now. Fashion may discard what’s come before, but an artist may find a rich vein to tap by lingering when the trendy have already moved on.

To realize his vision, Culp has assembled a stellar quintet made up of like-minded musicians centered on the scene at San Francisco’s Club Deluxe. Tenor saxophonist Danny Brown, trumpeter Jay Sanders, bassist Robert Overbury, and drummer Rob Mills all speak the language fluently, able to navigate the intriguing curves of Culp’s pieces with fluid momentum and sharp wit. Bud Powell casts an inescapable shadow over Culp’s playing, but his style is also laced with accents that echo great hard bop pianists like Sonny Clark, Bobby Timmons, and Horace Silver.

The simmering opener, “Division St.,” makes reference to the classic Otto Preminger film The Man With the Golden Arm, which starred Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict. The tune is infused with the shadowy noir atmosphere of the film and its genre, laced with the gritty edge of the titular L.A. thoroughfare. The darting, weaving melody of “Tic Tac Toe” finds Culp parrying with the horns like opponents in the game, while the title track unspools as a melding of the elegant and the down-home. Opening with a burst of tympani-like mallets, “Fanatic Dance” is primal and angular, while “Blossom,” penned in honor of Culp’s niece prior to her birth, ends the album on a tender, heartfelt note.

The warmth of the vintage albums that Culp loves was captured by recording live to 2” tape via a two-track analog recorder at Oakland’s 25th Street Recording studio. By forsaking digital technology and smothering production techniques, the classic feel of the music expands into the very sound of the recording itself.

The album’s title is a nod to Culp’s late father, a scientist and engineer who developed more than 30 patents based on his observations of insects, and whose beautiful collection of morpho butterflies graces its cover. “Blues” being an oft-used nickname for the genus, the title boasts a double meaning referring both to the lustrous insects and the equally gorgeous music contained within.

Culp’s parents were key to pointing him on his trajectory in music. Like many children, he was forced to take piano lessons beginning when he was 4 years old; unlike most, the lessons stuck and a lifelong passion was awakened. His studies carried him from the San Fernando Valley to Paris, where he found himself at the turn of the millennium. His first teacher in the City of Light was Bernard Maury, who ran a small institution called the Bill Evans Piano Academy; Maury then pointed him to the more classically-oriented Ecole Normale de Musique.

Already familiar with the small but thriving post-bop scene in San Francisco and Oakland, Culp settled in the Bay Area upon his return to the States. It was through working on that scene that the pianist encountered the musicians that now form his quintet, and that he hopes to spotlight through future Gutbucket releases. The name of the label stems from an early quote attributed to Horace Silver, who described his own approach as reaching for “that old-time gutbucket barroom feeling with just a taste of the backbeat” – as good a mantra as any for Culp’s deep-rooted sound.

– Shaun Brady

JazzTimes, Philadelphia Inquirer

Philadelphia, October 2015