Steve Swallow's music for the new L'Histoire du Clochard
is mostly soft watercolor, ranging from subtle pastels to more complex, light shades, but nothing much stronger. Writing for brass, reeds and strings, Swallow shows off his mastery of harmony here, but doesn't try to leave us with any infectious melodies. He's more interested in putting us in a certain mood than getting us to tap our feet or whistle a snatch of a tune later. The absence of drums helps to seal the music's somber fate. If this is a bum's tale, it is that of one who has learned a few things and is only mildly melancholy as he recounts his vagabond life.
L'Histoire du Clochard just avoids drowsiness thanks to an unmistakable note of wry playfulness throughout. The musicianship is nearly unassailable, though I am no great fan of electric bass. Swallow's five-string instrument gives him considerable range, but not much warmth, and at times he sounds more like a guitarist who has lost all but one string. The conscious use of instrumentation mirroring Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale" gives this music a decidedly classical vibe.
Perhaps the real hero here is arranger Ohad Talmor, who is presumably to thank for the lovely voicings of horns and violin that give the record a large part of its value. On "Ladies in Mercedes," a trumpet/violin call-and-response vamp opening provides the liveliest moment on the disc, leading to a light-as-paper bossa nova run for a lively clarinet solo. L'Histoire du Clochard is pleasant late-summer listening.
Personnel: Steve Swallow: bass; Chad Talmor: tenor saxophone; Russ Johnson: trumpet; Meg Okura:
violin; Greg Tardy: clarinet; Jacob Garchik: trombone.