Scofield/Stewart/Swallow: Swallow Tales (ECM 2679)

Swallow Tales

John Scofield guitar
Steve Swallow bass
Bill Stewart drums
Recorded March 2019, The James L. Dolan Recording Studio at NYU Steinhardt, NY
Engineer: Tyler McDiarmid
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 12, 2020

Over 40 years of friendship and collaboration exist between guitarist John Scofield and his mentor, bassist Steve Swallow. But everything that happens here is in and of the moment. Playing the room with drummer Bill Stewart, they slowly unwrap one candy after another in the form of Swallow’s own timeless compositions. About them, Scofield says in this album’s press release: “They’re grounded in reality with cadences that make sense. They’re never just intellectual exercises, and they’re so melodic. They’re all songs, rather than ‘pieces.’ They could all be sung.” And sing the trio does in its own wordless way, drawing out less obvious nuances from familiar melodies and vice versa.

Between the laid-back groove of “She Was Young” and the slicker lockstep of “Radio,” an understated allure wiggles its way into the heart and nods to every beat. Along the way, each musician lays out a personal reflection of his métier. Scofield abounds in contrasts, bringing a hardened edge to the shadows of a ballad like “Away” just as comfortably as he dances light-footedly across the terrains of “Falling.” The latter is also a showcase for Swallow’s unerring sense of purpose and Baroque approach to syncopation, as is “Hullo Bolinas,” in which his soloing embraces retrospective charm.

Scofield Trio

But while the guitarist and bassist are true masters of their craft, it’s Stewart who holds my attention most throughout this swiftly realized session (the result of only four hours in the recording studio). The drummer’s glittering cymbals and rustic snare strike just the right balance, catching every detail of “Portsmouth Figurations” and extending its effect before it fades, luxuriating in a decaf version of “Awful Coffee” (a normally peppier tune), and bringing freshness to “Eiderdown” (the first tune Swallow ever wrote). But his grandest slam is in the opening breaks and leaping denouement of “In F”—a performance only decades of experience could yield.

And while each track comes preloaded with its own history (“She Was Young” being originally sung by Sheila Jordan on 1980’s Home and “Portsmouth Figurations” dating back to 1967’s Duster by Gary Burton), they make new history here in the present arrangement. And here we are, sitting on what feels like the wrong side of the fence, trying to make things right by holding on to that which shines a light on the inside. Thankfully, music like this hands us a match, already lit and waiting for our attention to lend it a fuse.

Steve Swallow with Robert Creeley: So There (XtraWATT/12)

So There

Steve Swallow with Robert Creeley
So There

Steve Swallow bass
Robert Creeley voice
Steve Kuhn
piano
The Cikada Quartet
Henrik Hannisdal violin
Odd Hannisdal violin
Marek Konstantynowicz viola
Morten Hannisdal cello
Recorded August 25, 2001 at The Make Believe Ballroom, West Shokan, NY (Engineer: Tom Mark) and August 27/28, 2005 at the Kunsthogskolen, Oslo (Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug)
Edited at Flymax Studio, West Hurley, NY (Engineer: Pete Caigan)
Mixed at The Make Believe Ballroom, West Shokan, NY (Engineer: Tom Mark)
Produced by Steve Swallow
Release date: November 7, 2006

If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit…

These words, borne by a vessel of strings, begin a transportive musical experience meshing the music of Steve Swallow with the poetry of Robert Creeley (1926-2005). Though the latter’s readings were recorded in 2001, it took Swallow four years to gather momentum for the project, by which time Creeley had passed. This left Swallow no choice but to construct his playing around the words, by which time what started out as a dedication had turned into an elegy. Fans will know this not to be Swallow’s first brush with Creeley, as he had already set the poet’s words to music on 1980’s Home. As on that ECM project, he is joined here by pianist Steve Kuhn, but adds to themselves the metallic whispers of the Cikada Quartet.

Creeley’s aphoristic observations go down like sweet tea, and linger in the mouth all the same. For the most part, Swallow takes his time to set up each with an intimate context forged in bass and piano, the Cikadas breathing life into the periphery only when necessary. In this manner, the simple explorations of scenes like those described in “Indians,” “Return,” and “Blue Moon” take full shape before a single word is articulated. Only in tracks like “Later,” in which Kuhn rhapsodizes ever so subtly through sentiments of emotional delay, and the closing “A Valentine For Pen,” do instruments and words cross paths more continuously.

Swallow’s lyricism is suitably matched to Creeley’s. In the anthemic undertones of “Sufi Sam Christian,” the bassist evokes the very uplift of which the poet speaks; in “Miles,” he adds a jazzy nuance to a title that, in this context, has more to do with distance than with the elusive trumpeter; and in an excerpt from “Wellington, New Zealand” (which blends into “Eight Plus”), he personifies saintly patience. Interestingly enough, the music almost never belies a conscious attempt to match the rhythm of speech (as, for instance, in composer Scott Johnson’s settings of I. F. Stone, How It Happens). Such freedom compels the listener to fill in the gaps with personal histories, moments of reflection, and quiet appreciation.

…for yourself only, in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will likewise all have places.

Steve Swallow: Damaged In Transit (XtraWATT/11)

Damaged In Transit

Steve Swallow
Damaged In Transit

Steve Swallow bass
Chris Potter tenor saxophone
Adam Nussbaum
drums
Recorded December 2001 by Bill Strode
Mixed by Tom Mark and Steve Swallow at The Make Believe Ballroom, West Shokan, NY
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York City
Produced by Steve Swallow
Release date: October 7, 2003

Following two successful quintet outings, bassist Steve Swallow pared down his traveling show to a trio with tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Adam Nussbaum. Recorded live during a December 2001 tour in France, the present tunes are numbered as a series of nine “Items,” each marked “D.I.T.” (per the album’s title), allowing listeners more than the usual freedom to interpret them as they will. The same holds true of the performers themselves, who answer the call to interpretation with layer upon layer of phenomenal exposition. Not to say that such impulses weren’t already there in the larger band, but like a finely distilled spirit the clarity of notes speaks to the palate more directly.

The shedding of guitar and trumpet means Potter is left to bear that much more weight as melodic and improvisational leader, and he takes to the role without so much as a hiccup. The verve of “Item 1” is duly representative of all to follow, organically mixing the studious and the unchained. That same creative spirit abounds in “Item 5,” for which he unravels two knots for each one tied. And while Potter is known for his ability to navigate the most kinetic environments, he really stretches his wings in the blues of “Item 2” and downhome sweetness of “Item 7.” Nussbaum’s breadth of coloration ranges from the incendiary (“Item 5”) to the delicately supportive (“Item 6”), and indicates a deeply listening ear behind every choice at the kit. As for Swallow, he shows depth of character as setter of boundaries (cf. “Item 8”), soloist (“Item 4”), and painter of dreams (“Item 3”). In each capacity, and beyond, he proves the value of preparing for one’s journey to ensure that nothing gets damaged along the way.

Steve Swallow: Always Pack Your Uniform On Top (XtraWATT/10)

Always Pack

Steve Swallow
Always Pack Your Uniform On Top

Barry Ries trumpet
Chris Potter tenor saxophone
Mick Goodrick guitar
Steve Swallow bass
Adam Nussbaum drums
Recorded April 1999 at Ronnie Scott’s Club, London
Engineer: Miles Ashton
Mixed and mastered at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Steve Swallow
Release date: June 5, 2000

For this live expedition, recorded at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London in April of 1999, Steve Swallow carries on the nascent legacy of his quintet with drummer Adam Nussbaum, guitarist Mick Goodrick, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, and (replacing Ryan Kisor) trumpeter Barry Ries. A quiet monologue from Swallow keys open “Bend Over Backward,” an 11-and-a-half-minute suitcase of a tune. A brief nod to “Heart And Soul”—that perennial favorite among those who can’t play an instrument—reminds us we are in the presence of those who can…and then some. Potter and Nussbaum saunter onto stage like they own the place, shoes shined and hats cocked playfully askew. After Goodrick completes the picture, Ries comes in only at the end, foreshadowing his headlong dive into “Dog With A Bone,” a standout in both name and content that gives Potter plenty of leg room to dance without compromise. Energies thus spent, they deserve the downtime that casts its spell in “Misery Loves Company.” Ries is on point from start to finish, exuding a tonal quality from his trumpet closer to that of a flugelhorn. Goodrick blesses the proceedings with a graceful run of his own, skating across every patch of ice smoothed by Nussbaum’s brushes.

Any Swallow fan knows that sunset is when he comes alive, and in “Reinventing The Wheel” he gives us precisely that kind of flavor, spiked by the golden rays of Ries’s muted lines. “Feet First” then takes us on a night drive through empty streets before seeking solace in “La Nostalgie De La Boue.” And while everyone gives it their all, it’s Potter who stands out for his tightrope run between class and fortitude. Already flirting with mastery by this point, he cracks open every tune like a child hoping for that one rock that might turn out to be a geode. And that he finds, each note a facet of light reflected off the crystals within.

Steve Swallow: Deconstructed (XtraWATT/9)

Deconstructed

Steve Swallow
Deconstructed

Ryan Kisor trumpet
Chris Potter tenor saxophone
Mick Goodrick guitar
Steve Swallow bass
Adam Nussbaum drums
Recorded, mixed, and mastered December 1996 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Steve Swallow
Release date: June 2, 1997

On Deconstructed, bassist Steve Swallow treats listeners to a set of relatively straight-laced bebop with an outstanding new quintet. Flanked by trumpeter Ryan Kisor, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Mick Goodrick, and drummer Adam Nussbaum, he composites a new species around the chordal DNA of Tin Pan Alley, and from those rafters hangs a tangle of original melodic vines.

Swallow sets up the picnic table of “Running In The Family” before introducing the full band spread, which hits you with padded gloves before setting loose the session’s first major solos from Potter and Goodrick. Equally sanguine developments abound in “Babble On,” for which Swallow and Nussbaum pave the way, leaving Kisor to run as far as his horn will allow (as he also does on the closing title track) while Potter stands firm, reeling with joy. “Bird World War” is another upbeat gem, this time with a blazing solo from Goodrick.

Not all is fun and games, however, as Swallow turns down the lights one click at a time between the unassuming “Another Fine Mess” (a tune so aching it begs for words), the smoldering “I Think My Wife Is A Hat” (a highlight for me), and the bluer “Viscous Consistency.” Even “Bug In A Rug,” a calypso-inspired slice of life, soothes as much as it titillates. As Swallow locks step with himself, Goodrick and Potter harmonize synergistically with Kisor. The same description might just as easily apply to “Lost In Boston,” which moves from uncertain to frantic in “Name That Tune.” In each of these, as he is wont to do, Swallow reminds us that every exhale needs a deep inhale to say everything it needs to say.

Steve Swallow: Real Book (XtraWATT/7)

Real Book

Steve Swallow
Real Book

Tom Harrell trumpet, flugelhorn
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Mulgrew Miller piano
Steve Swallow bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded and mixed December 1993 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Steve Swallow
Release date: May 1, 1994

Even though Steve Swallow’s name is all over the original Real Book (the tome of jazz standards that came out of the Berklee scene in which he once served as teacher and clinician), none of the tunes featured on this album named after it appear on its pages. Either way, Swallow could hardly have asked for a more ironclad band to interpret them. Tom Harrell on trumpet and flugelhorn, Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Swallow himself on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums make for a killer combo. Collectively, they play with every intention of unpacking heads, charts, and solos. Individually, they make good on that promise while interlocking their signatures as often as possible. At its highest octane, the quintet soars, as in the brightly lit “Thinking Out Loud” and the joyous “Let’s Eat.” Swallow and DeJohnette are a wondrous (if all-too-rarely seen) rhythm section, as evidenced in the charged opener “Bite Your Grandmother.” Additionally, Harrell and Lovano make a great pair, as complementary as they are distinctively individualistic. Like adroit lawyers, they know how to twist every phrase in their favor.

Lovano’s playing spans the gamut from bluesy (“Second Handy Motion”) to unchained (“Muddy In The Bank”), while Harrell shimmers in the relaxed strains of “Better Times” and the balladic “Wrong Together.” To the latter he adds just enough smoke to imply the fire that bursts into life in “Outfits.” This is the kind of tune that Swallow does best: exciting and forward-thinking. Harrell shifts into overdrive, inviting Lovano and Miller into the fast lane without hesitation, only to find that DeJohnette’s pace car has been ahead of them the whole time. On their way to the smoother destination of “Ponytail,” they take time to stop over in “Willow,” an intimate trio for Swallow, Miller, and DeJohnette that’s sure to rejuvenate.

If anything about this album nags me, it’s that I find it to be played a little too cleanly at times. Then again, with so much plush haystack to wade through, why waste time looking for a needle?

Steve Swallow: Swallow (XtraWATT/6)

Swallow

Steve Swallow
Swallow

Steve Swallow bass
Steve Kuhn piano
Carla Bley organ
Karen Mantler synthesizer, harmonica
Hiram Bullock guitar
Robby Ameen
drums
Don Alias percussion
with
Gary Burton vibes
John Scofield guitar
Recorded and mixed September-November 1991 by Tom Mark and Steve Swallow, Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Additional recording by Robin Coxe-Yeldham at Berklee Studio, Boston, MA
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound
Synthesizer programming: Harvey Jones
General co-ordination: Karen Mantler
Produced by Steve Swallow and Carla Bley
Release date: March 1, 1992

In this self-titled set, bassist and composer Steve Swallow proves his strengths in both capacities. Leading a septet that includes Steve Kuhn on piano, Carla Bley on organ, Karen Mantler on synthesizer and harmonica, Hiram Bullock on guitar, Robby Ameen on drums, and Don Alias on percussion, along with special guests Gary Burton on vibes and John Scofield on guitar, he adds yet another hue to his spectrum of colors. Swallow has always been a lively player, and here his ability to bring high-energy grooves into focus sings with vibrancy. That said, a recumbent “William And Mary” pans the camera to Bley’s organ, as do “Thirty Five” and the Scofield-centric romance of “Doin’ It Slow,” for a more touching mode of expression.

Swallow pulls out all the stops in “Belles.” Kuhn introduces the tune, and the album proper, as an experience in which to luxuriate. Swallow’s nylon-rich five-string bass sounds more guitar-like than ever in its navigations of a soothing improvisational climate. Ameen and Alias give us plenty of beat to bite on, while Mantler’s synthesizer draws a humid undercurrent. Those electronic strains carry over into “Soca Symphony,” as does a certain emotional uplift—a cloud on which Swallow will ride until he lays his head in the pillow of Burton’s vibes.

“Slender Thread,” another quiet seduction, strikes that balance of kitsch and sophistication Swallow walks so well. Mantler’s harmonica rings out across the night, while the bass swims its own waters. But it’s Swallow’s crafting of tunes like “Thrills And Spills” that brings a pulse to every note. In addition to being another moment in the sun for Ameen and Alias, it finds Scofield tearing a hole in the atmosphere with scalpel precision. Swallow matches him lick for lick. “Ballroom” is another swinging excursion with clever chord changes and geometric guitar work. Grooving somewhere between those two poles is “Playing With Water,” a bossa nova of intimately epic proportions. Like the fadeouts in some of what precedes, it could potentially go on forever and, either way, resonates in the heart long after silence puts a finger to its lips.

Steve Swallow: Carla (XtraWATT/2)

Carla

Steve Swallow
Carla

Carla Bley organ
Steve Swallow bass
Hiram Bullock guitar
Larry Willis piano
Victor Lewis drums
Don Alias percussion
Ida Kavafian violin
Ik-Hwan Bae viola
Fred Sherry cello
Recorded and mixed Winter 1986/87 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound
General co-ordination: Michael Mantler
Produced by Steve Swallow and Carla Bley
Engineered and co-produced by Doug Epstein
Release date: October 1, 1987

This timeless love letter from Steve Swallow to Carla Bley belongs on the shelf alongside Sextet, as both albums emerged from the same sessions. The core band of guitarist Hiram Bullock, pianist Larry Willis, drummer Victor Lewis, and percussionist Don Alias applies, but is augmented by DW-6000 and DW-8000 synthesizers, played by the lifelong lovers of the hour, and a bona fide string trio. Those extra forces enhance the underlying mood with such a high level of atmospheric integrity that the music they wrap themselves around is elevated to an emotional state far beyond nostalgia.

The quirky cover photograph makes more sense once the luxuriance of “Deep Trouble” unravels its melody like an unwanted cigarette. The tension between bliss and self-deprecation is real, and reminds us how falling in love is sometimes the greatest threat to everyday equilibrium. Bley’s fresh-out-of-the-oven organ—both here and in such tracks as “Fred And Ethel,” “Afterglow,” and “Last Night”—is as romantic as it is mysterious. Yet her spotlight is only as bright as Swallow’s compositions, which have the strength of a full moon. Whether coaxing a head-nodding rhythm from Alias and Lewis in “Count The Ways” or deferring to his partner’s sense of humor in “Hold It Against Me,” Swallow assures the listener of total comfort through slick key changes and unforced propulsions.

His ability to craft an environment is especially complex in “Crab Alley” and “Read My Lips.” With every shift of gear, he drives deeper into the chambers of his psyche, sticking a hand out of the window every now and then to take a Polaroid in his search for an authentic sense of self to lay down at his lover’s altar. And as Willis’s pianism propels the band into the stratosphere, we realize there’s still so much to discover within ourselves.

Carla is a crowning achievement for Swallow, through and through, and is about as enchanting as jazz gets. Something our hearts have heard before, because it hears us so well.

Carla Bley/Steve Swallow: Are we there yet? (WATT/29)

WATT-29-front

Carla Bley
Steve Swallow
Are we there yet?

Carla Bley piano
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded live on tour in Europe, October 1998
Engineer: Bill Strode
Mixed and mastered at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: June 21, 1999

After expanding their sonic universe over two phenomenal duo albums, pianist Carla Bley and bassist Steve Swallow now make that metaphor explicit in their choice of cover art. From the first licks of “Major,” one of a handful of Bley originals, it’s clear we’re inhabiting a galaxy that is indeed far, far away. Recorded live during a 1998 European tour, it’s the first of an artisanal selection of performances that tickle the ear and the heart alike. Other Bley gems include “King Korn,” in which Swallow’s delicate propulsions copy themselves like sentient DNA, and a gloriously bare-boned “Musique Mecanique,” in which the appearance of something so simple as a metronome shows mature reconsideration of the past.

Swallow lets us in on the secrets of three magic tricks of his own. Between the bluesy undercurrents of “A Dog’s Life” and the flatland ballad of “Playing With Water,” we witness especial thoughtfulness in “Satie For Two.” An elegant homage to the French composer, it spreads its butter across an expansive slice of proverbial bread. The brightness of Swallow’s solo climbs the ladder of Bley’s chords until he reaches the very clouds.

The set rounds out with an interpretation of Kurt Weill’s “Lost In The Stars,” for which Swallow embraces the full range of his instrument, moving with guitar-like fluidity. As throughout the album, it’s a vibrant embodiment of life itself, photorealistic and honest to the core.