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Steve Swallow: The Poetry Of Music

By Published: February 12, 2007
AAJ: Where in this process did the idea of bass, piano and string quartet emerge?

SS: Quite early. Actually before I began the work. That's just how I do it. I seem to work best if I know before I begin whom I'm writing for and what instruments, what kind of sound. Previous to this album, I'd done a series of trumpet/tenor [sax] quintet albums, just because I wanted to address that very classic Horace Silver Quintet sound. I felt that was something I needed to do in the same way that my best friend Carla Bley decided at some point that she needed to confront conventional big band instrumentation. It's the elephant in the room, and you need to acknowledge its presence. So I'd done a bunch of trumpet/tenor quintet writing over a period of eight to 10 years.

Then I brought that down further to just a trio—the trio with [saxophonist] Chris Potter and [drummer] Adam Nussbaum. Again, before a note hit the page, I'd decided that that's what I wanted to do. I made that decision primarily because my work up to that point had relied on harmonic information, perhaps too much, to generate a structure and provide the soloist with a structure to use.

AAJ: That sounds like the reverse of what happened with So There, where you had a suggested structure and built the rest on top.

SS: Exactly. And as an interim thing, the trio with tenor [sax], bass and drums was an attempt to come to terms with counterpoint. The absence of a chordal instrument made me confront the dynamics involved in two single-note lines interacting. After that project was done, there was a period of reflection that lasted several months. The end result of that was a decision to return to Bob's words and to elucidate further the stuff that I had learned from him over the years. I felt that since I'd done that first album, I had a better handle on what he was doing. I'd gotten better as a reader. And he'd written a lot of stuff that I thought was an advance on his part as well and I wanted to explore that stuff.

I decided at the same time to move in the opposite direction. Instead of narrowing down even further from the trio music, I decided to bite off something that I'd wanted to do for some time but had been afraid of doing, which was to write a lot of notes on the page. This led me to string quartet and to non-improvising musicians. Again, I'd been listening to that genre for years, but I really intensified my listening and bore down on Beethoven and Shostakovich and Haydn. Of course, the most I listened, the more thoroughly intimidated I became. I nearly bagged the project several times and felt that it was the height of presumption to write string quartet music.

But I kept returning to it and decided very early in the process, before any notes got written, that I wanted [pianist] Steve Kuhn to be involved. In part because he's a very good friend and a friend of long-standing. He'd become a friend of Bob's as well, and I liked that connection. Beyond that, I felt he was the right guy for the job. He'd done some projects with [composer] Gary McFarland many years before that I greatly admired. One was called October Suite (Impulse!, 1966). Gary McFarland is a vastly under-sung great jazz writer. His career was incredibly brief, and there's not enough evidence of how remarkable his ears and his skills were. Steve had done some stuff with him that ventured into that very murky grey area between improvised and written music, or jazz and classical music, whatever you want to call it. I wanted to go there and saw that Steve was ideally equipped to do that. I knew also that he had a considerable knowledge of the music and the idiom that I was, with great trepidation, approaching.

I was lucky that I had these poems to give me so much in very concrete terms—structure, phrase lengths, rhythm feels, all that kind of stuff. It's really scary to write for musicians who don't normally play together and to find the music that works to bring musicians of disparate backgrounds together. You never know until you do it whether it's going to work or not. I think I was the recipient of a certain amount of good luck, for which I'm very grateful.

Steve and I went to Oslo [Norway] and met with the Cicada Quartet. Neither of us knew them, nor did we know their work. Luckily, we all enjoyed each other's company very much and found ways to work together and to work out whatever problems arose in playing together. It was a great stroke of luck. I contacted them on the advice of Manfred Eicher, the head guy at ECM. I sifted through the people I knew who might steer me toward the right string quartet, and eventually settle on Manfred and put myself in his hands. I asked him to get me a quartet, the one he thought would be best. He took that very seriously and made me send scores. When I asked him, I was about halfway through the project, so I sent him about 30 minutes worth of string quartet writing. He took a careful look at it and suggested that quartet, and I'm very grateful to him.

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