“NYC Jazz Record”, August 2016
STEVE SWALLOW : The Vision Forward
By John Pietaro
Iconic bassist Steve Swallow has lived out his career thus far by rarely reflecting back. His path has been one of storied turns continually leading to the next stage. “I try not to pause and look backward”, he said. “Every now and then my thoughts wander to the past, but I’m focused ahead.” In his pursuit to the front line, however, Swallow made detailed investigations into the music’s heritage, if only to ratify a foray into newer ground. His place on the cusp of fusion and development of the electric bass within jazz have each left an indelible mark on the past half-century, and then some.
Born in 1940 and raised in New Jersey suburbia, Swallow’s teen years were faced with “an immense pressure to conform” socially and within familial expectations: “These were the Eisenhower years”, he explained. “Institutions like home, camp, school and church were concerned with producing a human product of a very certain kind”. Within music he found a degree of escape from the ‘home, God and country’ ethic, but his immersion into the sounds didn’t really germinate until commencing studies at Yale in 1959.
The bassist cut his musical baby teeth lugging an upright around Boston, entrenched in the traditional jazz scene then experiencing a wave of popularity among the cognoscenti. He found himself in some heavy company, primarily legendary clarinetist Pee Wee Russell. “Pee Wee was a unique voice but remarkably adaptive---this is something I’ve always aspired to. What came out of his horn was always unexpected but very firmly grounded in solid theory and the jazz idiom”. Russell’s repertoire, by the earliest ‘60s, expanded into the modern, braving adverse responses from traditional jazz aficionados. He appeared at Newport with Thelonious Monk and experimented with a pianoless quartet. That sense of adventure in one so rooted in tradition stayed with the young bassist. Swallow also worked with the woefully under-recognized drummer George Wettling. “George caught me at a point in my evolution and taught me things only drummers can know. He was a magnificent musician and an excellent painter who studied in that discipline with Stuart Davis”, he attested.
As enamored as Swallow was with some of the stars of the early style, he is wont to focus on the music’s primary attribute. “Too often we look at the famous soloists but early jazz is really an ensemble music. I immediately heard echoes of this in the so-called free jazz idiom, so later it wasn’t strange for me to abandon the expected role of the bassist and enter an ensemble approach. As you get older you’re privileged to have an overview of the cycles. There have been innovators who’ve carried the music into distinct paths, but on the other hand nothing has changed. Louis Armstrong is as relevant today as he was in the 1920s. This is the way of art”.
As a living testament to this thesis, Swallow’s involvement in new realms began in tandem to his Dixieland gigs. In 1960 he played a concert with the forward-looking pianist-composer Paul Bley that was produced by the like-minded Ran Blake. And then nothing was the same.
“Music must connect to its time and place”
“I left school and presented myself at Paul and Carla Bley’s doorstep in Manhattan, you know: ‘Your bass player is here’. Paul saw possibilities in my playing that must’ve been quite subtle at the time. I was a novice bassist and had no business going to New York then. Luckily Paul took me seriously and spent day after day playing with me”.
While on the cutting-edge, Swallow initially earned a living playing Dixieland in Greenwich Village.
His arrival in NYC occurred in a time when Village bohemianism could still be a reality. Engrossed in rehearsals with Paul Bley, he spent nights gigging in the traditional jazz venues and also playing avant works with Jimmy Giuffree and George Russell. These conceptual composer-improvisers forced Swallow to rethink the role of the bass. “I was 20 years old and working hard, but what an amazing time. I had a loft on 6th Avenue near 24th Street for $40 a month”, the bassist remembered. “Every coffee house had live music and they paid each musician $5 and all of the coffee you can drink. I was finally free of the white middle class life I’d lived till that point”. In this fledgling period, the bassist also listened to modern composers and contemporary popular music as well: “I was introduced to Erik Satie’s music by Carla; he was in the air, a presence in much of what we were doing. Carla was seldom performing then but writing music every day, all day. I’d never seen a composer up close before and she had a very strong influence on me. She also introduced me to the Supremes. This was also a great shock, a revelation”.
True to his stand against nostalgia for its own sake, Swallow laces his memories with metaphor. In speaking of personal growth, he drew conclusions about wider shifts in society. “Change is a process that involves destruction but also regeneration and rebirth. This impulse repeats itself in each generation of artists. Those coffee houses were supporting jazz musicians but in a very few years rock-n-roll and folk music descended upon that street and wiped out the jazz gigs”.
In the jazz universe the matter of radical change played itself out in a small club on the Lower East Side, where a certain artist’s residency had the industry in a tumult. “I practically lived at the 5-Spot when Ornette Coleman was there. His sound was very warm and inviting, though more than other musicians Ornette was testing boundaries. The infusion of folk sources were perceived as an assault, a challenge to everything known and played, but in retrospect his was a gentle music”.
Discussion of Ornette inevitably led to Swallow’s memories of the other principal mover of the era, John Coltrane. “At the 5-Spot one night Ornette and Coltrane sat at a table together. There was an aura of common purpose that belied the controversy going on around them. I’ll never forget it: a unified glow radiating from the table. They were deep in discussion for a long time which the entire room was aware of but dared not disturb”. Coleman’s and Coltrane’s reimagining of the milieu had a dramatic effect on the young bassist, as did the advances of Eric Dolphy, whom he played with in George Russell’s aggregation.
In the mid-60s, after touring with Art Farmer, Swallow got the call to join Stan Getz’ band, then at the height of its popularity. “The sound of Stan’s horn made me focus on how important the primacy of sound is. Hearing his sound in a room, as opposed to on records, was earth shattering”. The gig also paired him with the iconic drummer Roy Haynes for the first time as well as vibraphonist Gary Burton.
In 1968, Swallow departed Getz’ band to join Burton’s newly-formed combo, which included Haynes and firebrand guitarist Larry Coryell. The band reached forward in scope and became a feature in jazz festivals as well as major rock hubs where they opened for the likes of Cream and the Electric Flag. “I found it fascinating that jazz could move in circles so vastly different. I had been playing clubs were people wore suits”, but this Quartet wore pop culture’s fringe jackets and long hair, and offered arrangements of hits like Bob Dylan’s “I Want You”. The latter featured Swallow’s bass on melody. Steve Swallow remains a close member of the vibist’s circle.
In 1970, in what became a life-altering moment, Steve stumbled upon the electric bass guitar. Though he initially carried both instruments to gigs, his focus landed solely on the electric. “The decision was purely based on the physical essence of the instrument. I picked it up and fell in love with it: the length of the finger board, the feel of it, the presence of the frets. I didn’t want to sound like James Jamerson or Duck Dunn, I still wanted to be Percy Heath but I just wasn’t able to put the electric down. I thought ‘Oh shit!’, and was faced with having to explain using this instrument to others when it had been seen as anathema to the jazz community”. Truly secured in his ax, Swallow began touring and recording with a wide array of artists in the decades to follow including Pat Methaney, Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Michael Mantler, and also began leading ensembles of his own. And while teaching at the Berklee College of Music he began a lasting relationship with John Scofield which bore fruit in the ‘80s and continues on. The pair recently recorded an album of C&W music, Country for Old Men.
Likewise, Swallow can trace back his annual August performance with Steve Kuhn and Joey Barron. “Our reunion is really just old friends shooting the breeze”, he remarked. And this month he’ll also be performing with a new quartet, Monk Revisited. The band, playing reconstructions of Thelonious Monk works, is an experiment for all involved. “I’m curious to see how it turns out”, he said, smiling. And while Swallow claims to struggle through each piece he composes (“I’m glacial”), his writing too has grown with the years. He is now plotting a new quintet album for ECM.
Surely the most visceral of Swallow’s collaborations is that with Carla Bley, the bassist’s life-partner of many years. “There’s something that happens when you spend 56 years in someone’s music. This is something you have to wait a lifetime to experience. The wonders of it and of living with her are equally astonishing. Carla gets up every morning and asks herself, ‘what if?’”. Bley has often used the stage as a platform of protest against right-wing oppression. Of this Swallow commented with pride: “We both feel compelled to address what’s going on in this nation, this election cycle. Carla’s immediate response has been ‘National Anthem’, a drastic reworking of ‘the Star Spangled Banner’. It’s now been added to our performance repertoire”.
“Music must connect to its time and place”.