Steve Kuhn Trio: To And From The Heart

To And From The Heart.jpg

To And From The Heart, the latest on Sunnyside Records from pianist Steve Kuhn’s trio with electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Joey Baron, is a walking tour of dreams. By its guidance, we are led through one scene after another, each a step out of time. Two of the most fully rendered among them are by Swallow. “Thinking Out Loud” unfurls the set’s welcome mat into a sound so warm and inviting it feels like we’ve just stepped into an intimate jazz club. That the trio has a long performing history to its credit only adds to the live atmosphere. Such comfort as that expressed here can only come with age and experience.

In both this understated groove and “Away,” a bright and easygoing swing, Swallow’s solos are natural extensions of his comping and vice versa. Kuhn likewise stirs his own compositional palette with the concluding medley of “Trance/Oceans in the Sky.” From a sailing piano intro, it navigates rolling waves to dock on shore, where Swallow leads a long walk inland to Baron’s spotlight monologue, wherein he compresses an entire landscape into its first blade of grass. Along the way, into their joyous circle the trio welcomes Michika Fukumori’s “Into the New World,” a sunlit field dotted with Kuhn’s expository footprints while also throwing in a couple of standards—not only for good measure, but also to measure the good. Where Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” balances elegance and humility, as epitomized by Baron’s scintillations and Swallow’s robust detailing, Jay Livingston/Ray Evans’ “Never Let Me Go” shows Kuhn to be one who understands that melodies aren’t made to be broken but stretched until one can see through them. When music is this good, this nostalgic yet forward-thinking, it can only be a matter of fate.

(This review originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

The Swallow Quintet: Into The Woodwork (XtraWATT/13)

Into The Woodwork

The Swallow Quintet
Into The Woodwork

Steve Swallow bass
Chris Cheek tenor saxophone
Steve Cardenas guitar
Carla Bley organ
Jorge Rossy drums
Recorded November 15/16, 2011 and mixed and mastered at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard De Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Steve Swallow
Release date: 14 June 2013

Over a career spanning more than half a century, Steve Swallow has consistently redefined the electric bass as a jazz instrument. More importantly, he has taken any and every opportunity along the way to deepen his craft as a composer. His self-discipline in this regard has made every album seem at once a culmination and a stepping stone into greater futures. Into The Woodwork is no exception.


For this latest incarnation of his quintet, Swallow has chosen a lineup worthy of the subtlety on which these 12 original tunes nourish themselves. The tenor of reedman Chris Cheek, who made a noticeable ECM appearance as part of the Paul Motian Band on Garden of Eden, brings the smoke before the fire in “From Whom It May Concern,” a ballad that tilts its own thematic mirror toward artful reflection. Cheek also plays beautifully in “Unnatural Causes,” from the paint-by-number simplicity of which he unpacks the robustness of an unexpected spectrum. This tune is further notable for the contributions of guitarist and fellow Motian associate Steve Cardenas, whose unforced geometries settle us into the album’s intimacies by way of “Sad Old Candle.” Cardenas, in fact, proves to be the quintet’s greatest converser, whether exchanging remarkable banter with Cheek (“The Butler Did It”) or playing in duet with Swallow (“Suitable For Framing”). His lyricism pairs well, too, with the organ of Carla Bley, whose own omnipresence reveals another defining mastery in tunes like “Never Know,” “Still There,” and “Grisly Business.” The latter’s gentle carnivalesque is ideally suited to her touch at the keys.

Drummer Jorge Rossy is a constant thread to which the band looks for guidance, but especially in the more energetic turns such as “Back In Action” and “Exit Stage Left.” His understated groove actualizes Swallow’s ethos of less as more, and demonstrates that self-assured music need never be arrogant. And then there’s Swallow himself, whose first true solo doesn’t come until the album’s ninth track, “Small Comfort” fans the embers. The edge of his new custom bass sounds already finely aged over this bed of organ and cymbals, exposing a little more of his inner workings as brushed snare and tenor pull back the curtain to clarity.

In contrast to the steadied pacing of Swallow’s ECM outings, many tunes on Into The Woodwork flow into the next without break, thus keeping his atmospheric integrity in constant check. Like the title track itself, the album as a whole finds balance between the grounded and the free, always keeping one arm around the listener’s shoulder. The fact that this music doesn’t overtly challenge is a challenge in and of itself to experience its strengths as givens. Like an old friend, it may not often surprise, but its comforts are exactly where they need to be.

Carla Bley: Trios (ECM 2287)


Carla Bley

Carla Bley piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As the first leader date by Carla Bley to appear on ECM, Trios is a benchmark event. Having populated the label’s satellite ventures—notably WATT and JCOA—for four decades, there was never any need to shelter the legendary pianist-composer from the rain under the parent umbrella, for her climate is her own and here brings a quiet storm. With bandmates Steve Swallow (electric bass) and Andy Sheppard (saxophones) she hands to the eager listener a thoughtful program of original material that crystallizes decades more of intuitive collaboration.

Bley notes the oddity, if not also the liberation, of recording in the presence of producer Manfred Eicher: “This was the first time in my life that I’d worked under the direction of a producer and I wanted to know what it was like, and what I could gain from it. He had some wild ideas—like starting with ‘Utviklingssang,’ which we’d normally play after a few fast numbers, or as an encore.” Indeed, caught in the spell of the album’s opener, one can’t help but feel welcomed by Swallow’s introductory embrace. Its shape is horizontal but its feel is aquatic, adrift in a vessel fashioned from hammers and reed. Bley’s unity with Swallow is the perfect seascape for Sheppard’s quiet Schooner. The latter’s tenoring is, by turns, unbreakable and thin as winter ice, at times hiding behind a veil of bare audibility, while Swallow’s tone is more rounded and resonant to the core. The Norwegian title of this lilting theme translates as “Development Song,” and is as apt a description as any of Bley’s compositional craft, for this and every piece that follows shows evolution internally and in combination with others.

Although it would be futile to single out any one musician above the others in such an intimate congregation, each player does have moments of peak clarity. Sheppard’s silken soprano, for one, enchants in “Vashkar” with fluid moon-bursts and leaping, yet never overextended, arpeggios. Lightly stitched by Swallow’s skeletal bass line, the unit builds methodical ascent into an attic of potent melodic storage. This is also the album’s oldest partition, well worn by ECM listeners from its appearance on 1975’s Hotel Hello, the classic duo session between Swallow and Gary Burton. As writer Paul Haines, of whom the titular Vashkar was a dear friend, once noted, “Swallow seems always to be playing from within the music,” and one need listen no further than “Les Trois Lagons” for evidence. This triptych of “Plates” draws its inspiration from a 1947 book of paper cutouts by Henri Matisse entitled, appropriately enough, Jazz. That these pieces achieve the album’s deepest traction is due in large part to Swallow’s effortless continuity, which keeps Sheppard’s effervescence from touching sky by holding it to roots. Even when Bley embraces the foreground for a little while, she cannot help but coax the ever-vibrant Swallow from hiding into an interactive fairytale. The central tableau emotes a club feel. One can almost feel the warmth of a glass-enclosed candle flame flickering at the center of a corner table while the din of conversation makes way for the rustle of clothing and nostalgic gazes. Melodically unfolded and deepened by Swallow’s pliant sensibilities into a cocktail of regret and resolution, it stretches the night as if it were made of muscle. The final section boasts a wondrous economy of expression from Bley. Her spiral staircase of block chords ushers in echoes from Swallow and Sheppard and brings dark inflections into light.

The album’s second threefold suite comes in the form of “Wildlife,” which finds the pianist enamored by her artful surroundings and shaded yet fertile atmosphere. Like a child lifting a fallen tree, it revels in the wealth of life squirming beneath. Some moments are bound to remind listeners of early Lyle Mays, simultaneously grounding and singing with unwavering insight. It is the pinnacle of the album’s many achievements.

Last but far from least is one final trilogy, “The Girl Who Cried Champagne.” What begins as a tender groove of introspective proportion turns into an excursion of great distance. With the regularity of ocean surf, Bley paints waves with her eyes closed and by this rhythm Swallow is inspired to adorn the ether with his curvaceous filigree. Along with Sheppard’s language, it forges a nonabrasive ebullience that flows without impediment until the reedman leads the trio with responsive brushwork to a halt, pitch-perfect and smiling.

Trios is the virtuosity of restraint personified and is played with a breeziness that speaks of immense experience and shared knowledge. The music enacts a logical, astute progression—from gas to liquid to solid—that is so open one can lie down and float comfortably into its spell. It’s a level of comfort and freedom that only the most heartfelt journeying can bring, and its first step touches earth the moment you press PLAY.

(To hear samples of Trios, click here.)

Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961 (ECM 1438/39)

Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961

Jimmy Giuffre clarinet
Paul Bley piano
Steve Swallow double-bass
Fusion recorded March 3, 1961 in New York
Thesis recorded April 8, 1961 in New York
Originally produced by Creed Taylor for Verve
Engineer: Dick Olmstead
Remixed June 1990 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug and Manfred Eicher
Reissue produced by Manfred Eicher and Jean-Phillipe Allard

A true arbiter the chamber jazz idiom before it even was one, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre was brought back to vivid life in this much-needed ECM rescue. Engaging a then-acoustic Steve Swallow on bass and a gushing Paul Bley on piano in a twofold session of ruffled play for Verve (who showed no signs of reissuing these great works), Giuffre brought his signature silken tone to an ephemeral trio whose tuneful interactivity made for gobs of affirming music. In a wonderful encapsulating essay, Steve Lake tells us that the group had by this point reached a state of free jazz that dove past the blaring expectations of its current fashion and headed straight into the instincts beating quietly below.

We hear all of this and more from breath one in the album’s first half. While its title, Fusion, may sound tongue-in-cheek by today’s standards, Lake reminds us that the term had “nobler connotations” back then, bespeaking something tactile and ahead of its time. A couple of Carla Bley tunes stand out. Of the former, “Jesus Maria” would still the heart of a demon. With a clear and present lyricism, it traipses its way into the mind and redecorates our expectations of what a clarinet can sound like. The rest of Fusion comes from Giuffre, whose own compositions reveal a musician bent on practicing what he preaches. The lilting energy of “Cry, Want” fans its wonders like a deck in a magician’s hands, distracting us with its melody (the card we’ve been forced to pick) in lieu of a desired effect. Even more evocative is “Afternoon,” which imagines sunlit streets, walks hand in hand, and the carefree pleasures of a life given to the moment. “Brief Hesitation” is a slightly halting piece, with more enviable tone from Giuffre, who seems to grow with every breath. For all the reasons above, “Trudgin’” is, to borrow from an infamous Saturday Night Live sketch, positively scrumtrulescent and a personal favorite of the collection.

Honorable mention must also be given to Swallow, whose sheer percussiveness in tracks like “Scootin’ About” and “Venture” is so astute that, at times, one almost hears the cymbals of an absent drum kit.

The companion album, Thesis, again sports another pair of Carla Bley classics. The first, “Ictus,” sets a more freely flowing tone for this set’s second half. The fluid interplay between Bley and Giuffre is pure and subtle magic. From songs by Carla to one about, we arrive at “Carla,” penned by former husband Paul. From Giuffre’s delicate arpeggios to the confident bass support and attuned pianism, this one plunks us right into the spirit of things and is a perfect little thing. Other notables include “Whirrrr,” which puts one in mind the whirligigs of childhood, and the dynamic spread of “The Gamut.” Gordon Jenkins gets a treatment in “Goodbye,” which boasts some downright totemic interactions between Bley and Swallow and piercing overtones from Giuffre, while “That’s True, That’s True” brings dreamy groove back into style. “Me Too” feels like a lost cut from Fusion, and its sprightly energy contrasts whimsically with “Herb & Ictus,” a studio outtake that offers an endearing look at the camaraderie behind the scenes.

Giuffre’s vision spoke in shapes and colors. It was, in a word, painterly. This being my first Giuffre experience, it is one I will always treasure. Warmly recorded and remastered, it is a testament to the communicative skills and equity of the 1960s greats. The music on this essential set is sure to be forever relevant as long as there are those who listen to jazz.

“Music We Order Our Lives To”: The Masters Quartet Live Report

August 20, 2011
8:30 pm

Steve Kuhn piano
Dave Liebman saxes
Steve Swallow bass
Billy Drummond drums

A brief dictionary perusal of the word master yields variations on a theme of dominance: one who uses, controls, even disposes of that which is mastered. It’s with this hierarchical vision of mastery in mind that I entered the hallowed doors of Birdland for a late-summer performance by The Masters Quartet. None could earn such a title, of course, without verifiable skills and the countless hours necessary to hone them. As longtime collaborators, Kuhn and Swallow are strangers to neither, having made their first recorded appearance alongside Liebman on the bassist’s 1979 debut, Home, with over a decade’s worth of friendship and gigging already between them. Listening with eyes closed, one could hardly guess that Carla Bley band regular Drummond is a relatively new addition to this veteran nexus. Their blend was so seamless that by the time I stepped out into the humid streets, dominance was farthest from my mind.

To be in the presence of all four was already an honor, but the venue made it exponentially more so. This being my first Birdland experience, I finally understood why Charlie Parker dubbed it “The Jazz Corner of the World.” From its candlelit murmur, non-invasive wait staff, and intermittent tick of silverware to its top-flight roster, carefully considered sightlines, and one-on-one feel, the setting was ambiance incarnate. Though nothing remains of Birdland’s original digs, one can glimpse those glory days in the monochrome gallery of talents that adorns its walls. All the more reason, then, to bask in the present, where four incomparable musicians filled our ears with concoctions both pungent and smooth—not unlike the French martini at my fingertips—as they took to the stage and eased us into the evening’s intensities with a pair of trios.

A lush opening surge as only Kuhn can elicit swept this heart away in the standard, “There is No Greater Love.” With a sigh and a smile, he made us feel part of the band, creating music simply by bearing witness to its spontaneous unfolding. Through peaks and valleys, Kuhn navigated every turn of Swallow’s unshakable bass lines and the cymbal-happy squint of an ecstatic Drummond. The latter’s locomotive rolls opened a lyrical path for Swallow before kicking up a bit of dust as he exchanged jabs with Kuhn. His increasingly frenzied snare, along with Swallow’s leapfrogging bass, wound us into a state of high expectations. Thus did these gentle beginnings feed a dancing conflagration which, rather than brazenly overstepping those expectations, passed lithely through them like ghosts.

A milky intro stirred us into the coffee-like consistency of “Dark Glasses” (S. Swallow), resolving itself into a galactic swirl. With organic care, the music loosed ribbons of bass amid Drummond’s delicate knocking. Kuhn’s Möbius strip of a solo titillated (as a tongue, it would have rolled every “r”) and brought us ever closer to the filmic imagery lurking therein. Like its titular accessory, this joint at once clarified and obfuscated, cutting out the glare while hiding choice secrets.

“All the Things That…” (D. Liebman) marked its composer’s entrance to the stage. Inspired by the standard “All the Things You Are,” this smooth excursion was a prime vehicle for that oh-so-sweet soprano. With the magic of a mirage shimmering into shape, it showed us a level of tonal acuity that one can only dream of producing. Drummond provided sympathetic response, matching each of Liebman’s calls with joyful paroxysms of his own. Such were the beauties that awaited us also in “Adagio” (S. Kuhn). Here, Liebman’s slide into resplendence fogged our view with a long exhalation. Meanwhile, Kuhn tumbled in careful somersaults, marking the swaying rhythm that caught this listener from the get-go. Swallow traced a wide embrace with an engaging solo turn that seemed to welcome us all into its arc.

(photo by Manuel Cristaldi)

We were then treated to an unfailing rendition of “Village Blues” by John Coltrane, a “mentor to us all” as Kuhn so respectfully noted before its trio intro buttered our bread like nobody’s business. This proved a solid launching pad for a dramatic color shift as Liebman’s tenor awoke from its slumber. It, too, spoke in wooden riddles and guttural dreams, but those gritty squeals layered on the sonic paint—Van Gogh to his soprano’s Monet—and added a new dimension to surrender. His blows were softened only somewhat by Kuhn’s detasseling pianism, diving instead into an epic exchange with Drummond.

For the standard, “My Funny Valentine” (the “romantic highlight” of the show, as Kuhn artfully quipped), we were back to the smoky grain of soprano. Here the pianist’s poetry shone at its brightest, dissolving into lute-like strains of bass, as if in watercolor.

(photo by Robert Lewis)

Liebman’s robust tenor then inscribed “A Likely Story” (S. Kuhn) onto the pages of our attention. Against a grounded bass line and deep piano digs, he was lively and on point. Kuhn held a steady clip across his tightropes, tethers to an inspiring synergy with Drummond, who dotted the sky with sparks as this log was cast onto the evening’s kindling. I couldn’t help but note how “keyed in” Liebman was as his fingers mimed on the sax during a sit-out before he dove back in for the final splash.

(photo courtesy of the Montréal Gazette)

Mastery revealed itself in many guises throughout the show, but chiefly by the adroit ways in which the group always held fast to the tightly wound spring that thrummed at the heart of every tune they played. Their thematic cohesion was due in no small part to Swallow, who electrified with his unparalleled anchorage and fluid anticipations. Kuhn, ever the picture of concentration, threaded each of his needles with mindful improvising, those unmistakable octave splits crying with such epic grace that captivation was our only option. With every run of his fingers he seemed to travel miles’ worth of emotional distance. Against such broad pointillism, Liebman’s richness came across as filamented, teetering on edge, and all the more visceral for it. He was every bit the vocal performer, untangling seemingly impossible knots in a fraction of the time it took to tie them. As for Drummond, he seemed to squeeze every last drop of soul from the most delicate gestures, treating each as a gig in and of itself. He positively stole the show in its final gasps.

(photo by Albert Brooks)

In short, the quartet put the “band” back in “abandon” and proved yet again what for me is the blessing of jazz, an art form that makes the immediate effects of improvisation feel as if they have been growing inside us all along.

Furthermore, I discovered that true mastery bleeds from art into one’s countenance, one’s approachability as a human being, one’s humility offstage. In other words, it is nothing without the light of graciousness that permeated each of these four men, their loved ones, and the fans in attendance. In the end, their performance might very well have been but a flash in New York City’s overcrowded pan, but their afterimages are safe with me.

Autographed CD of last year’s gig, purchased at the club

Steve Swallow: Home (ECM 1160)

Steve Swallow

Sheila Jordan voice
Steve Kuhn piano
David Liebman saxophones
Lyle Mays synthesizer
Bob Moses drums
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded September 1979 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Quiet as is proper for such places;
The street, subdued, half-snow, half-rain,
Endless, but ending in the darkened doors.
Inside, they who will be there always,
Quiet as is proper for such people—
Enough for now to be here, and
To know my door is one of these.
–Robert Creeley, “Return”

Home is a title, and an album, of many masks. Though by the time of this recording, bassist Steve Swallow had been involved in a string of projects with Gary Burton and Carla Bley, here his creative sediments sifted into their comfort zone on a label that was to become a home in and of itself. A kindred home may be found in the poetry of Robert Creeley, whose tender colloquialism is Swallow’s sounding board throughout. With the unmistakable smolder of Sheila Jordan’s vocal warmth, its meaning is never lost. Recorded just two months after Playground and featuring three from that Steven Kuhn-led quartet (Swallow being the only substitution), Home betrays yet another of its valences through the sympathetic approach of its musicians.

Lilting and lovely are the names of the game in “Some Echoes.” The verdant synth work of Lyle Mays draws us immediately into Dave Liebman’s soprano leaps. The rasp of each inflected phrase wafts like a breeze through the open doors of the album’s cover, bringing with it the scents of a long-dead memory gradually reanimated with every freshly raked word. These Jordan plants carefully and from a safe distance, allowing Kuhn’s busy fingers to prance across the ivories in her afterglow (“She was young…” and “Colors”). During the slow-motion somersault that is “Nowhere one…,” a sumptuous horn pulls out any lingering threads from Jordan’s introductory call to melodic arms. Rather than see the battlefield as a place of violence, however, the music embraces it as a place of adoration; a landscape replete with fading lives and their instant renewals. In all of these, we feel the nostalgia that enlivens such lyrical swathes as the title track and the engaging “In the Fall.”

The album saves its most indelible marks for those moments where whimsy and mysticism entwine. The pinnacle thereof is reached in “Ice Cream.” From Swallow’s sublime opening to Jordan’s varicolored sprinkles, not to mention a cosmic turn from Kuhn, this one caramelizes to perfection. The playfulness continues in “Echo,” which not only sports Liebman’s best solo in the set, but also practices what it preaches with some didactic volleys between Kuhn’s right and left hands. The band plays us out in the throes of “Midnight,” where quotations of “Three Blind Mice” rub shoulders with a haunting drone before falling into a stream of nocturnal consciousness. The moonlight of Jordan’s voice at last cuts a soft figure from the clouds, becoming one with the dawn.

Swallow is a joy. He is always on the move, bringing a range of moods to the table. From the swagger of youthful ignorance to the pensive affair between the self and regret, it’s all here in one slick package. Jordan’s involvement makes it all the more so. In contrast to her extended poetics in Playground, here she is the keystone to the music at hand, setting the stage for every scene. One need only listen to the way she infuses “You didn’t think…” with such guttural optimism using only a couplet to gain insight into her brilliance.

This is simply infectious music, smooth and tessellated, with not a single false step to be noted.

The Gary Burton Quartet with Eberhard Weber: Passengers (ECM 1092)


The Gary Burton Quartet with Eberhard Weber

Gary Burton vibraharp
Pat Metheny guitar
Steve Swallow bass guitar
Dan Gottlieb drums
Eberhard Weber bass
Recorded November 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Gary Burton’s Passengers has it all: its frontman’s incomparable mallets, Dan Gottlieb keeping the beat, the unmistakable bass of Eberhard Weber paired with the equally unique stylings of Steve Swallow, the fluid fingers of guitarist Pat Metheny (who would soon go on to front his own super group with Weber and Gottlieb), and the all-important bow of ECM’s attentive production. Not enough to whet your appetite? All the more reason to buy it.

Chick Corea’s “Sea Journey” opens with the floating exuberance that Burton carries off like no other. Weber pulls out all the stops here, proving to be perfect complement to Burton’s sound. A stunning piece of work with a heightened groove-oriented trajectory. This is followed by three Metheny compositions. In the subtle ballad “Nacada,” vibes rest on a gentle surface tension of flowing bass, guitar, and brushed drums. “The Whopper” locks into more upbeat strides. Weber’s bass is as bright and attractive as it gets, while Metheny’s solo dances on a pinhead. Listeners will recognize “B & G (Midwestern Nights Dream)” from his seminal Bright Size Life, its fractured rhythms maintained beautifully here. The quiet background supports a glowing solo from Weber, not to mention another from Metheny himself. “Yellow Fields” (Weber) is another exuberant number, and features the album’s most incredible vibe work. The bittersweet farewell of Swallow’s “Claude And Betty” contorts its hands in shadow puppets, backlit as if by a sad and lonesome dream.

Mindfully recorded and expertly executed, the melodies of Passengers come alive with unpretentious joy. The synthesis of players forms a palette in the truest sense, its colors already artfully arranged before they are ever mixed and applied to canvas. An essential addition to any Burton library, and a must-have for any Weber fan looking to complement his brooding, handsome meditations with something more uplifting.

Gary Burton/Steve Swallow: Hotel Hello (ECM 1055)


Gary Burton
Steve Swallow
Hotel Hello

Gary Burton vibraharp, organ, marimba
Steve Swallow bass, piano
Recorded May 13/14, 1974 at Aengus Studio, Fayville, Mass.
Engineer: John Nagy
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The stirring piano and vibes of “Chelsea Bells (For Hern)” open this long-forgotten jewel among ECM’s many fruitful duo recordings. Lithe and nocturnal, its only light can be found in the sourceless reflections of its watery surface. Herein lie the beginnings of a shaded affair that shelters the most distant promise of love. “Hotel Overture + Vamp” pairs vibes with a tight constituent of guitar, bass, and Fender Rhodes for a full sound honed in metal. Swallow assumes a dual identity in the title track, playing both bass and piano. We get the only “un-Swallowed” motif with Mike Gibbs’s “Inside In,” a short and sweet number complete with wah-wah infusions, plenty of changes to keep our ears in check, and some fantastic vibe work to boot. The quaintly titled “Domino Biscuit” is a pleasant segue to the prismatic mood and lyrical bass of “Vashkar.” The most moving piece on the album, it is vividly evocative and honed to a mysterious edge. “Sweet Henry” is a more upbeat, jovial affair, sounding almost like the theme song for a seventies television show sans kitsch (or perhaps with just enough kitsch to satisfy our morbid curiosity). The “Impromptu” that follows is a lovely meditation in which each instrument blends into the other in a swell of monochrome.

Hotel Hello is a unique entry in the Burton catalogue, for it is the only one that feels as if it were painted in black and white. What it lacks in vibrancy (no pun intended) of color, it makes up for, if not surpasses, in its visceral sentiment. We feel this most acutely in the final track, “Sweeping Up,” which faithfully evokes the cleanup that follows any given event, so that no matter how beautiful an experience it is, one is bid to appreciate its refuse.

This is a consistently solid effort and arousing in its many changes. Built on the raw materials of studio trickery, its overdubbed experiments speak to the revelry of both musicians. Burton solos in such a way that while his tone and sound do soar, they always remain firmly embedded and connected to the surrounding thematic motivations. Burton plays on at least three simultaneous levels: anticipating the next note while striking the current one, having already written it in his mind during the one just passed. Swallow is equally exacting and works with a no less expansive vocabulary.

This is an album about alienation and the promise of its demise.

Soon to be reissued on CD.


Alternate cover

Steve Kuhn: Trance (ECM 1052)

Steve Kuhn

Steve Kuhn piano, electric piano
Steve Swallow electric bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Sue Evans percussion
Recorded November 11/12, 1974 at Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Perhaps no one on the ECM roster, other than Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, has as enlightened an understanding of the keyboard as Steve Kuhn. His debut album for the label only grows profounder with age. The elegant title track says it all: a trance of epic proportions etched into a set of almost impossibly modest length. Its prominent bass line lays down an airy ostinato, through which Kuhn digs straight into the album’s molten interior. The tender Fender in “A Change Of Face” lulls us into thinking we’re in for another methodical number, opening instead into some blazing percussive interplay between Steve Swallow and Jack DeJohnette. “Squirt” begins and ends with the same staccato declarations, strung together by a continual stream of sustain-pedaled galaxies and brightened by Sue Evans’s always-colorful accents. “The Sandhouse” rolls along the keyboard, collecting debris as it gathers speed toward the hip electric style of “Something Everywhere.” Kuhn lets Swallow do most of the talking here, taking charge only briefly through a series of quick key changes, all while DeJohnette keeps up his end of the bargain and then some. “Silver” is the only piano solo and shows Kuhn at his lyrical best, which hones the raunchy “The Young Blade” into an even darker edge. Kuhn plays us out with “Life’s Backward Glance,” a curious metaphysical experiment in which he intones: “It was a dark and stormy night at sea. The captain called his men on deck and said, ‘Men, I have a story to tell.’ And this is the story he told. It was a dark and stormy night at sea. The captain called his men on deck and said, ‘Men, I have a story to tell.’ And this is the story he told.” The mise-en-abyme of this tale only serves to analogize the haunting enigma of his craft.

An historic example of Kuhn’s lush, romantic style, Trance speaks of something beyond the realm of even the most intense study; beyond the possibilities of unchecked ability, technical prowess, and sheer finesse. It is a journey that has been faithfully recorded for all its hardships and triumphs alike. Kuhn fills every space with something fresh and palpable, allowing us total freedom in the listening.