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
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
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)


Steve Swallow

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.

Karen Mantler: Farewell (XtraWATT/8)


Karen Mantler

Karen Mantler vocals, harmonica, piano, organ, synthesizer, harmonium, glockenspiel
Michael Evans drums, frying pan, oven rack, whisk, refrigerator pan, ankle bells, bean pod, vocal (on “Arnold’s Dead”), glasses, chains, sheet metal, alto saxophone, vibraphone, tabla, Indian bell, snake charmer, whistling, “electrical” sounds
Special guests:
Carla Bley C melody saxophone (on “The Bill” and “Con Edison”)
Scott Williams vocal (on “The Bill”)
Recorded and mixed December 1995 by Tom Mark, Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
General co-ordination: Ilene Mark
Produced by Karen Mantler
Release date: June 1, 1996

Karen Mantler (insofar as we can know her through a musical persona) is a soul struggling to stay upright in a world that has lost its balance, yet who always returns to center no matter how many times she is led astray. Given the fact that she loved her cat Arnold so dearly, as attested by the two albums preceding this one, and because her songs so often deal with the inevitable sting of hardship, it was only a matter of time before the death of that beloved feline would break her in two. The glue holding her together, it seems, is the music pouring from within, and which finds its way into the duo session recorded in this, her most insightful and musically rich creation to date. Emoting via keyboards (and her ever-cathartic harmonica), she is joined by Michael Evans on an array of percussive objects, spanning the gamut from drums and bells to frying pan, oven rack, whisk, and refrigerator pan. That so many of these involve the kitchen, where we imagine many cans of cat food for Arnold were surely opened, speaks to the breakdown of Mantler’s domestic space in the wake of a gaping absence.

This time around, we may divide the songs into three tiers. First are those dealing with broken relationships and emotional detachment. Sitting on the throne of this category is the emotionally raw title track. Balancing the sardonic and the sincere, Mantler forges a mood that extends to kindred spirits of affliction in “Brain Dead” and “Arnold’s Dead.” Evans speaks in the latter, feigning an empathy that is impossible to sustain against the depth of Mantler’s grief. As “the only cat I ever truly loved,” Arnold is a martyr for the lost. Second are Mantler’s paeans to survival, which tend to deal with money (or lack thereof). In “The Bill,” guest vocalist Scott Williams plays the role of bill collector, while “Con Edison” is offered as a prayer for the eponymous company to turn her electricity back on. (Her mother, Carla Bley, plays C melody saxophone on both.) These sentiments culminate in “I Hate Money,” which lines up romance and fame alongside this most material of woes. A third ilk of songcraft deals with fear and uncertainty, as epitomized in “Mister E” (a stalkerish nightmare), “Help Me” (icily arranged for harmonica, harmonium, tabla, and resonating water-filled glasses), and “Beware” (a ritual of organ and drums). Even the droll outlier, “I’m His Boss,” is swiftly undermined by the gloom of “My Life Is Hell,” over which the unpaid rent looms like a specter of modernism.

Anyone wanting to know the crystal-clear atmospheres Mantler is capable of creating may wish to start here, but how much more fascinating to trace the journey back to the beginning, when Arnold still shined his light into Plato’s allegorical cave.

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)


Steve Swallow

Steve Swallow bass
Steve Kuhn piano
Carla Bley organ
Karen Mantler synthesizer, harmonica
Hiram Bullock guitar
Robby Ameen
Don Alias percussion
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.

Karen Mantler And Her Cat Arnold: Get The Flu (XtraWATT/5)

Get The Flu

Karen Mantler And Her Cat Arnold
Get The Flu

Karen Mantler vocals, harmonica, organ, piano
Eric Mingus vocals
Steven Bernstein trumpet
Pablo Calogero baritone saxophone, flute
Marc Muller guitar
Steve Weisberg
Jonathan Sanborn bass
Ethan Winogrand drums
Michael Mantler trumpet (on “Mean To Me”)
Carla Bley C melody saxophone (on “Mean To Me”)
Steve Swallow flugelhorn (on “Mean To Me”)
Recorded and mixed Summer 1990 by Tom Mark and Steve Swallow, Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York, NY
General co-ordination: Michael Mantler
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: November 1, 1990

Nothing is as bad as the flu
Torture would be nice compared to this…

So begins the second album from Karen Mantler who, in her inimitable blend of melody and spoken word, goes on to tell us of her battle with a virus her doctor dubs “Shanghai A.” In relating our own experiences to her feverish delirium, evoked with filmic veracity by keyboardist Steve Weisberg and baritone saxophonist Pablo Calogero, we find ourselves connected to the strangely brilliant goings on. The band’s voices, as well as Arnold’s meow, emerge as a chorus, sending us off into the remainder.

Within that remainder, noteworthy vignettes abound. Foremost is “I Love Christmas,” which contains some of her cheekiest dialogue. From its opening line (“Everybody knows that Santa Claus is dead”), through its evocation of holiday blues (“Don’t you know it’s just a scam to make you spend your cash, and more suicides are committed then”) to Mantler’s banter with vocalist Eric Mingus (to whose derision she retorts, “But they make you eat moldy fruitcake”), this is a sly antidote to what is for some the loneliest time of year. The carnivalesque “My Organ” is another standout for expressing an in born love of music, and in it Mantler emotes via the titular instrument with the conviction of one who puts her money (what little of it she has) where her mouth is. Organ and harmonica play vital roles in “Au Lait,” stitched together by the rolling snare of Ethan Winogrand and guitar of Marc Muller. And then there’s the unsettling “Waiting,” an attractively woven tapestry of impatience and secrets.

If not already clear, the clouds hanging over these tunes are not quite as dark as they were the last time around, though the scenes played out in “Let’s Have A Baby” and “I’m Not Such A Bad Guy” remind us of past relationships. Whether exploring sickness as a metaphor for irreconcilable tensions in “Call A Doctor” or sending the everyman packing in “Good Luck,” Mantler is a constant voice of reason in an unreasonable world. Like the harmonica that sings so resolutely at her lips, her words cut through the noise to the cold reality of things. Neither is she immune to poking fun at herself, as in a new version of “Mean To Me,” in which her band derides very harmonica solo, when in spite of it all we know just how clairvoyant it can be.

Orchestra Jazz Siciliana: Plays The Music Of Carla Bley (XtraWATT/4)


Orchestra Jazz Siciliana
Plays The Music Of Carla Bley

Nico Riina, Massimo Greco, Pietro Pedone, Faro Riina, Giovanni Guttilla trumpets
Salvatore Pizzo, Salvatore Pizzurro trombones
Maurizio Persia bass trombone
Orazio Maugeri alto saxophone
Claudio Montalbano alto and soprano saxophones
Stefano D’Anna tenor saxophone
Alessandro Palacino tenor and soprano saxophones
Antonio Pedone baritone saxophone
Ignazio Garsia piano
Pino Greco guitar
Paolo Mappa drums
Sergio Cammalleri percussion
Guest artists:
Gary Valente trombone
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded direct to 2-track Digital Audio Tape at Brass Group Jazz Club and in concert at Teatro Metropolitan, Palermo, Sicily, May 11-16, 1989
Recording engineer: Lillo Sorrentino, assisted by Pino Passalacqua
Post-production by Steve Swallow and Carla Bley, November 1989, at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York, NY
General Co-ordination: Michael Mantler
Executive producer: Ignazio Garsia
Release date: October 1, 1990

Interpretations of a jazz composer as highly respected as Carla Bley can proceed one of (at least) two ways: either as springboard for idiosyncratic adlibbing and personal expression or as opportunity for an adoring homage. In the case of this recording by the Orchestra Jazz Siciliana under the direction of Bley herself, we get an instance of the latter. Each of these pieces has been re-orchestrated for big band by Jeff Friedman from their original versions and, with the exception of “Egyptian,” will be familiar to those who’ve kept an ear planted in her robust discography.

The sizable Italian ensemble, joined by special guests Gary Valente on trombone and Steve Swallow on bass, hits a line drive right off the bat with “440” by virtue of a faster pitch compared to its first appearance on record. Artisanal textures keep the melodic strengths of Bley’s writing front and center, while selective solos from altoist Orazio Maugeri and Valente serve to emphasize the smoothness of the undercurrent at hand. This gives way to the blues in “The Lone Arranger.” For this version, the banter is delivered (even by Bley herself) in Italian, making it a delightful standout. All of which feels like a grand prelude to the centerpiece: “Dreams So Real.” The present arrangement, compared to its siblings, is probably the most divergent from its source. With oodles of soul to reckon with, Valente’s trombone blasting across the airwaves with conviction, it evokes the title with gusto, and all of it framed by the beauty of guitarist Pino Greco.

The album’s remainder is taken from a May 1989 live recording at Teatro Metropolitan in Palermo. A tasteful reverb lifts the sound closer to the stratosphere, where some of the soloists like to spend their time. If Valente was the star of the first half (though one can hardly bat an eyelash at his solo in “Baby Baby”), this second half extols the wonders of tenor virtuoso Stefano D’Anna, whose backbone heightens the flexibility of such tunes as “Joyful Noise” and the outlying “Egyptian,” which lights Orientalism like a fuse and watches it explode with glee. In closing, we get hit with the cinematic flair of “Blunt Object.” The drums and percussion by Paolo Mappa and Sergio Cammalleri, respectively, along with Maugeri’s muscular turn at the plate, make this a solid home run.

The audience is into it, as should we be. Bravos all around.