Harvie Swartz: Urban Earth & Smart Moves

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One of the pleasures of doing a column like this is in seeing an album finally make the leap from obscurity to compact disc reissue. Additionally, I enjoy hearing from others who have taken pleasure from the records I’ve highlighted over the past few years. From this latter category, I’ve had the recent satisfaction of receiving an e-mail from bassist Harvie S. in regards to last month’s profile of the ECM album Dawn by Double Image. As a charter member of this ensemble, Harvie commented on how much he enjoyed collaborating with Dave Samuels, David Friedman, and Michael DiPasqua in defining a unique group identity. It was after reading these remarks that I was sent back to Harvie’s own mid-‘80s releases for the Gramavision label- Urban Earth and Smart Moves - which still hold up as substantial releases in an electric vein, but with a substantial mainstream leaning.

While the Gramavision imprint was the home to first-rate releases by the likes of Billy Hart, Ray Anderson, Jamaladeen Tacuma, Swartz, and many others during the ‘80s, the majority of the catalog remains in limbo since the label was taken over by Ryko many years ago. As Swartz himself stated in that previously mentioned e-mail, “unfortunately Urban Earth and Smart Moves are in a vault and they refuse to do anything with them.” I have both titles on vinyl and was fortunate enough to grab the former on used CD very recently. Upon spinning both records again, I’m struck by their excellence and a freshness that is as palpable today as when each record was released.

Recorded in 1985, Urban Earth features a core unit of pianist Ben Aronov, guitarist Mike Stern, and drummer Victor Lewis. The real star of the show here, besides Swartz’s clever originals, is popular alto saxophonist David Sanborn. Rarely has he sounded this inspired and his solos amidst a primarily mainstream structure will be a revelation to those who only know Sanborn through his own commercial ear candy. His ballad work on “Falling” is moving and heartfelt, but never too saccharine. On funky numbers like “Sweet Walk” and “Until Tomorrow” he builds logical solos that go beyond mere riffs, creating a tasteful ebb and flow.

Stern has been somewhat of a hit and miss artist over the years and he too thrives in the setting provided by Swartz and this band. “Pyramid” puts the guitarist in the spotlight for one of his best solos of the date. On “The Duke” Stern joins with just Lewis and Swartz for a lovely ballad performance which is really a showcase for the leader. The bassist also takes a solo workout on “Round Midnight” complete with double stops and some other nice tricks.

As a follow-up to Urban Earth , Swartz recorded Smart Moves a year later in ’86 and ups the ante even further with a similar band and an equally appealing set of originals and two standards. Stern, Aronov, and Lewis are again along for the ride, however Sanborn is spelled by Charlie Mariano in one of the alto man’s rare appearances of recent vintage, with John Stubblefield’s soprano added to the ensemble mainly for color. John Coltrane’s “Equinox” is a modal romp that Stern makes the most of, with Swartz’s deep and pulsating groundwork expertly recorded by engineer David Baker. By contrast, “My Romance” is an intimate duo for Stern and Swartz, the former lending the kind of lush support that makes one wish he would do more mainstream work of this type.

The highlight of the disc is Swartz’s Latin-inflected “Mexico,” a piece that was first heard on an unknown early ‘80s CTI album by guitarist Jack Wilkins. The bassist starts things off with a rubato solo that then gives way to a delicate samba groove, the bass delivering the melody throughout. The number then kicks into a psuedo Brazilian baiao, Mariano sailing over top with one of his best moments of the set. Rounding things out are the title track, “Looking Back,” and “Secret Schuffle,” all of which manage to speak in their own distinctive ways.

While Swartz went on to use the “Urban Earth” moniker as a name for his late ‘80s band, recording further albums that are also somewhat of an obscurity, these days the bassist is known simply as Harvie S. and he continues to record his own music, with Texas Rumba being his most current disc. Worthy of better treatment than they have received, both Urban Earth and Smart Moves deserve to be available once again both as a benefit to Harvie but also to fans of both David Sanborn and Mike Stern.

Visit Harvie S on the web at www.harvies.com .

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