Moment's Notice

Reviews of Recent Recordings

Steve Swell
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Improviser
Swell Records SDS001

Steve Swell’s Kende Dreams
Kende Dreams: Hommage À Bartók
Silkheart SHCD 160

Peter Brötzmann +Steve Swell + Paal Nilssen-Love
Krakow Nights
NotTwo MW337-2

On the early-‘90s downtown New York scene, Steve Swell was everywhere. There were other excellent trombonists around, like Robin Eubanks, Craig Harris, Frank Lacy, Dave Taylor (on bass trombone), and almost-as-ubiquitous Jazz Passenger Curtis Fowlkes. But Swell was game for anything. A lame comedy show in a room that seats ten? Sure, he’d be half the house band for that.


Not that he wasn’t gainfully employed. His instrumental voice cuts through a pack, and he never sounds at a loss. Swell first recorded in 1984, as a (longtime) member of Jaki Byard’s Apollo Stompers, to be followed by appearances in other large ensembles headed by Jemeel Moondoc, William Parker, Alan Silva, Walter Thompson, Ken Vandermark and more. He got his first major exposure in Joey Baron’s two-horn trio Baron Down, played in Tim Berne’s sextet Caos Totale and Tom Varner’s and Phillip Johnston’s midsize bands, and bonded with downtown elders like Will Connell, Perry Robinson and Mark Whitecage. Out and About, Swell’s 1996 debut as leader, paired him with his hero Roswell Rudd. Later Roswell hired him for his Trombone Tribe and other bands.


It is good to see him getting proper recognition nowadays, partly on the strength of diverse recent recordings. Three new projects help chart his interests. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Improviser is his first solo record, putting him in the great (long) tradition of modern sliphorn soloists Gunter Christmann, George Lewis, Wolter Wierbos et al. The album’s a feast of bravura technique and brave lipping, the blues and the abstracts giving up grumbles and sneezes, shouts and murmurs, incoming choppers, bugle on a far hill, post-storm drainpipe, and strange cries from outside the tent. He makes that vibrating air column leap and dance.


A couple of titles speak to the physicality of it all: “Off the Slide,” and “Tongue Memory,” with its repeated-note riffing and exclamatory responses. On “Just on the Inside Corner,” he sounds like he’s bouncing the mouthpiece off his lip. “Bubbling Quantum Novas” combines circular breathing with sung multiphonics in near unison: a slowly undulating drone that thickens and thins. Swell brings myriad techniques into play but the 15 pieces have their own identities and dynamic levels.


Trombone is the most field-hollering of jazz horns, and “Blue Spirit” even more than “Tongue Memory” shows off his conventional technique – the chops that alerted Jaki Byard. But even riffing with a plunger, Swell won’t “do a Roswell.” One advantage of sharing bandstands with an idol: you quickly hear the ways in which you differ – hear how every voice tells its own story some kind of way. And you hear the advantages of cultivating those differences.


Hommage À Bartók for Swell’s quintet Kende Dreams is his major jazz statement, although the idea came out of the blue from producer Lars-Olof Gustavsson: a program (loosely) inspired by Bartók’s music. It’s a concept with plenty of leeway built in; the 153 piano miniatures in the Mikrokosmos series touch on so many harmonic and rhythmic strategies and folks forms, they leave the door wide open. The inter-generational all-stars include deep drummer Chad Taylor, bass elder William Parker, and Steve’s downtown ally Rob Brown on alto; the horn players goad each other well. Connie Crothers’ slamming piano may be a revelation to those who know her only as a Tristanoite. As Swell says in his notes, “She put the Bartók into the session.” By design and in the moment, she often suggests the brittle, obsessive piano sound of the Mikrokosmos.


There are other Bartók echoes. “After SQ4” bears passing rhythmic resemblance to the opening of the fourth string quartet. “Lent-Oh!” sounds adapted from the slow opening movement of the first quartet, the slowly unfolding line now a bit brisker, and reassigned to a two-horn chorale. Then comes a piano solo built on dramatic isolated chords, the Bartók sound-world in review. The tension Crothers builds, and the freebop theme that follows, set up a trombone solo that discharges that tension, propelled by three distinct strata of rhythm from piano, bass and drums.


“Attack of the Mikrokosmos” is Swell’s most ingenious recasting; short bits of mostly jaunty melody – they could almost make up a continuous tune, revealed in installments – punctuate a series of improvised duos (piano and trombone, alto and bass, piano and mbira), each clocking in around 1:15. These brief episodes hint at the composer’s microcosms in their own way. But just when you think you’ve got this composition’s number, the players move on to a lento melody that leads into a slow-motion collective improvisation so cohesive, you wonder if its seamless ending had been scripted.


The concept opens out to include a chipper “Roswellian Folk Song,” which gets much of its spark/le from Crothers doubling/tripling the catchy bassline in the higher octaves, and a dirge for Will Connell, who passed a few months before the March 2015 session. All in all, there’s plenty of flux in the free play, and frequent recombinations built into the road map. So you get jagged fanfares, focused free blowing, structure, tradition duly revered, and a band you hope comes to your town.


Krakow Nights, a club date for trio recorded in Poland three weeks before Swell’s East European homage, finds him sandwiched between frequently-teamed collaborators from outside his usual circle: firebrand Peter Brötzmann and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, who roil and roll most of the time as you’d expect. Swell fits in like he’s been in on it with them for 15 years. He knows better than to try outblow Brötz on his various reeds, or match his beyond-Bechet tremolo. But there are plenty of cracks to fill, and trombone’s burly enough not to sound overwhelmed by the saxophonist’s sheer volume. (Midway into “Scotopia,” trombone gets some fleeting, Jane Ira Bloom-like electronic treatment.)


Swell knows when to let the buddies roar on by themselves, the better to ratchet up the energy another notch when he does come in, and he’s canny enough to guide Peter in for a cadential ending on “Oneiric Memories.” Swell’s braying brass sounds great with Paal’s dry logrolling on skins behind.
–Kevin Whitehead

Cuneiform Records

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