“Swallow is an ingenious melodist who leaves a lasting
impression by economical means.” — The Guardian
Praising a previous incarnation of Steve Swallow’s quintet, The Times of London described the band “as near a perfect display of small-group jazz – robust yet exquisitely poised.” The description holds true for the latest edition of the bassist’s quintet and its album Into the Woodwork. Swallow leads the group – including his longtime partner in music and life, Carla Bley, on organ – in multi-hued performances of a dozen original compositions from his pen. The album accommodates atmospheric grace and loping grooves, wry humor and understated virtuosity. Hushed opener “Sad Old Candle” reveals the subtle beauties of this band, with Swallow and Bley joined in ensemble intimacy by saxophonist Chris Cheek, guitarist Steve Cardenas and drummer Jorge Rossy. “From Whom It May Concern” sees Cheek sing a sad-eyed melody on his saxophone, with a limpid solo from Cardenas to follow. It’s Rossy to the fore in “Back in Action,” with his funky solos defining the track. “Exit Stage Left” begins with the ever-distinctive fluidity of Swallow’s electric bass – a sound that has propelled him to the top of critics and readers polls year after year. Into the Woodwork is jazz of character, with ingrained melody and warmth.
The Steve Swallow Quintet will be touring Europe July 11-25, playing a dozen cities across Italy, Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland and Spain. With fond memories of the group’s winter 2011 European tour – which led directly to the studio sessions in the south of France for Into the Woodwork – Swallow says he and his band are excited to return to the road on behalf of this new album. Ever the affable, involving conversationalist, Swallow has plenty to say here about the album and its making…
What makes “Into the Woodwork” distinct in your discography as a leader?
Steve Swallow: Well, this album is very much about what this cast of characters provoked in me as I was writing the music. First, there was Carla on the organ. I’ve always thought of her as such a distinctive organ player, but she hadn’t played the instrument much lately, having concentrated on the piano. I really wanted hear her sound on the organ. Chris Cheek and Steve Cardenas have shared histories with me in Paul Motian’s bands and with Carla in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. I heard their voices as I composed. For the first few gigs, the band was a drum-less quartet. But Jorge Rossy was a friend of Chris and Cardenas, and he got wind of the group and wrote asking me to consider adding him to the mix. Everyone was enthusiastic about that, and it immediately made sense to me, so I started adding Jorge’s sound and style to the music I was developing.
I had in mind a small band but one with interesting textural possibilities, a diversity and variety of sound. The knee-jerk reaction to a band with electric bass, electric guitar and organ is that it’s going to have a jazz-rock fusion kind of sound. But I wanted to show that you can go beyond those sonic models, that electric instruments can yield a more varied textural palette. All of the musicians in this quintet are lyrical players, even Jorge has this sweet lyricism to his drumming. I consider myself a lyrical musician primarily – the breath in music is always paramount for me. Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye are two of my great influences. I think lyricism in music comes from emulating breath in a melodic line, like that of a singer. Musicians who play their instruments with fingers and limbs have to take care not to play too many notes – to respect the breath in a beautiful line of music, to phrase with a certain simplicity and economy.
Tell us more about Carla’s contribution.
SS: Carla and I spent a long time playing this music with just the two of us. She brings a composer-arranger’s sensibility to things – she painstakingly revised her organ parts during this initial process. It thrilled me how intently she took to the music. But there’s a paradoxical element to her playing. She takes her preparation so seriously, yet when it comes to performance, she improvises wild and woolly, fully in the moment. In that, she has a partner in crime with Jorge. He’s another wild card on the bandstand. You never know what those two are going to do. Chris and Cardenas and I are spontaneous, but we operate within parameters that we like to leave more or less in place. I think these two different musical sensibilities give the band a balance.
There’s another way Carla contributed. I think of myself as essentially a miniaturist, a songwriter. But I enjoy the virtues of long-form writing by others, and Carla’s flair for that was an influence on the ebb and flow of the music. The album is made up of 12 discrete songs, but many of them are linked so that they flow together and cross-reference each other, almost as medleys. That sort of thing keeps you into a record more, where you can just put your head down and not raise it for 15 minutes at a stretch – I like that as a listener and wanted to imbue the album with an element of that.
Where does the album title come from?
SS: Well, the phrase `coming out of the woodwork’ is used to mean things coming out of nowhere. It’s a play on that: I wanted to evoke a sense of going into somewhere, somewhere slightly unusual.
And what about the dedication of “From Whom It May Concern (for Paul Haines)”?
SS: Paul Haines was a poet who wrote the libretto for Carla’s Escalator Over The Hill. We spent a lot of time together in the Sixties in New York City. He was a witty, smart man and a close friend to me and Carla. He was part of a loose confederation of non-musicians on the scene who placed a great value on music and who were greatly valued by musicians in turn. He was especially close with Roswell Rudd and Evan Parker. And Paul figures into a real piece of jazz lore: He had this rare and excellent reel-to-reel tape recorder that he used to record the soundtrack to Mike Snow’s film New York Ear and Eye Control – which is one of the great albums of free improvisation from that time, 1964, with Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, Gary Peacock, Sunny Murray. Paul died in 2003, but he lived a diverse, far-flung life. Paul was an avid writer of wonderful letters – a lot of art came in the mailbox from him. He signed one of his letters “From whom it may concern,” and that always stuck with me and came to mind when I finished that piece of music.
What was the atmosphere like in the studio with the Quintet?
SS: We recorded the album at the end of a three-week tour of Europe, and because we enjoyed each other’s company so much and were glad for it not to be coming to an end, we hit the studio in a kind of party mood – which really helped the record, lending it a certain lightness of spirit. That’s important, because the isolation and pressure of the studio can become claustrophobic very quickly. We recorded at Studios La Buissonne in Pernes-les-Fontaines, near Avignon in southeastern France. The guy who runs the studio is a bright-eyed, buoyant, music-loving eccentric, and the studio atmosphere reflects that – it has a post-hippie vibe, but with state-of-the-art technology. It’s a remarkable-sounding room, and I’ve worked there a lot over the years. The town is a classic Provençal village, and we would have lunch brought into the studio along with the local wine, which helped bring good humor to the music. That helped defuse the tension inherent in any recording project, where you know the results will inevitably be held against you for centuries to come. Good humor before and after the red light goes on is very important. Music-making should be fun, after all. The memory of the pleasant circumstances of touring last time and then making the record is what makes us really look forward to going back on the road again together and playing this music for people.
Interview: Bradley Bambarger