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Interviews

Steve Swell: Sound Miracles

By Published: May 31, 2010
AAJ: So you were working in this big band context. Was that a desire of yours, to work within the tradition, or was that simply where the work was at the time?

SS: When I was growing up—it's not this way anymore—it was really, not so much a rule as an unwritten rule that you spend time in those big bands, in Woody Herman
Woody Herman
Woody Herman
1913 - 1987
band/orchestra
's big band, or Buddy Rich's...

AAJ: So it was a rite of passage?

SS: Exactly. You were supposed to pay your dues in those bands before you went on to have a bandleader or solo career. That's the ethic I grew up with and I aspired to that. I tried to get in Woody Herman's band but I didn't quite get there.

AAJ: Well, Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton are as big as names as Woody Herman, aren't they?

SS: Oh yeah, of course, but when you're in your 20s and early 30s those guys were around and you just wanted to be next to them, and hear them and play with them if you could.

AAJ: Was McIntyre the first break with the swing bands?

SS: I was in Lionel Hampton's band and then I was in Buddy Rich's, and then I went to Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
Jaki Byard
1922 - 1999
piano
's big band, and through that I started to meet some people and I broke with more—I had already been into free music but it was at that time that I started to work with Jemeel Moondoc
Jemeel Moondoc
Jemeel Moondoc
b.1951
sax, alto
and Walter Thompson and eventually ended up with Tim Berne
Tim Berne
Tim Berne
b.1954
saxophone
. So McIntyre was a pivotal time for me.

AAJ: The Byard/McIntyre axis.

SS: Absolutely.

AAJ: You've worked with Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
, too, Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon
1925 - 2010
trumpet
. What was the path from big band, by way of the small units where you were collaborator, to starting out your own bands where you were leader? Was that a smooth transition?

SS: I don't think there's anything smooth or gradual in jazz. Things just kind of happen, and if you're in New York, you have exposure to a lot of different people and opinions, and ideas of how to do things and when to do things and where to do things, and the one ethos I had was to be around those earlier big bands, and when I got around to Jaki Byard and Ken McIntyre and Jemeel Moondoc, those were a little bit smaller, about 10, 12 pieces—from there it was just a natural progression to wanting to make my own music, I was just drawn to it, and inspired by all the different approaches to how to improvise and how to put your own bands together, and eventually I just had to do my own thing. And I still feel that push and that desire to do that.

AAJ: When was this that you first started out as a leader?

SS: I would say in the late '80s and early '90s I had forays into different bands. I had a band with Joe Fonda
Joe Fonda
Joe Fonda
b.1954
bass
, with Lou Grassi
Lou Grassi
Lou Grassi
b.1947
drums
, and I had a little band I was doing with Will Connell
Will Connell
Will Connell
b.1938
, and from there— those were things I was trying to do; I wasn't sure what I was doing with them, I was just writing music and playing out in front of people. They weren't recorded or anything, I was just out there doing some gigs with it and see where it took me, without thinking how to advance it, just doing it to get the experience of doing it, and try to have a good time doing it of course, as well.

AAJ: Who else?

SS: In the mid '90s, Tim Berne
Tim Berne
Tim Berne
b.1954
saxophone
—I met Herb Robertson
Herb Robertson
Herb Robertson
b.1951
trumpet
on Walter Thompson's band and he kindly brought me into the Tim Berne world, and I met Joey Baron
Joey Baron
Joey Baron
b.1955
drums
on that band and I played in Joey Baron's band, and did some touring with Hank Roberts
Hank Roberts
Hank Roberts
b.1954
cello
' band who was also involved in that circle, the Knitting Factory circle. That was about 1990.

AAJ: So there was some overlap between being a sideman and leading.

SS: Being a sideman is a thing I've always done and I still enjoy doing it and I also get experience from it and ideas, and I do grow from it also. And I incorporate some of what I learn as a sideman into my own music, and I like being a sideman because it takes some of the pressure off of everything you have to do as a bandleader. So in some senses, I won't say it's a vacation, but it's time off from some of the pressures of doing your own thing. But then you have to get back to your own thing, too. So there's a push and pull on both sides of that coin.

AAJ: Being a sideman, you would get to focus on your own solos and developing your own solo technique.

SS: Yeah, you do that in your own band, too. You just get a little more time to breathe maybe before you go back to try to put your own work together.

AAJ: So about your solos: how do you feel you relate to trombone history, modern trombone history, like Jimmy Knepper
Jimmy Knepper
Jimmy Knepper
1927 - 2003
trombone
or Grachan Moncur III
Grachan Moncur III
Grachan Moncur III
b.1937
trombone
, or Roswell Rudd
Roswell Rudd
Roswell Rudd
b.1935
trombone
.

SS: It's all very, very important to me. My whole approach to improvising is coming from a very deep-rooted jazz sense and a very definite trombone history, going back to Kid Ory
Kid Ory
Kid Ory
1886 - 1973
trombone
, and J.C. Higgenbothen- —and I loved listening to Jack Teagarden
Jack Teagarden
Jack Teagarden
1905 - 1964
trombone
when I was a kid. And, of course, J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
1924 - 2001
trombone
. I very much love the whole tradition of the trombone in jazz. I'm rooted in that tradition, but also I have a sense of—a like what's going on in the rest of the world, the Connie Bauers and the Walter Wierboses, who are European. They don't really have that same tradition, so I'm also open to that and try to incorporate all that into my improvising—very open to all of it.


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