Steve Swell: Sound Miracles
AAJ: What you learned from Rudd, about trad jazzwhere you're not simply just doing your own thing, it's almost a form of role playing, where you're doing something that is proper in the context of a whole, in your solos.
SS: I think that's key to making a valid musical statement, something that's relatable and something that's profound. It gives it some other kind of life.
AAJ: Tell me more about your earlier ensembles.
SS: I had tried a variety of things and a variety of approaches. I had a band with two horns and drums. I was very much trying to find my own voice, so I would eliminate piano and bass. Being someone who does incorporate collective playing, I tend to get pulled to what a bassist or pianist who may be a strong personality was doing. So I was trying to forcefully develop my own voice by eliminating those players, so I wouldn't be drawn so much into other players' sound world.
The reason I started Slammin' the Infinite and Ullmann/Swell was really I wanted a long-term band, and both those bands have been going about seven years now, and I thought it was important to have something going over the long term. But that's difficult as well. Everything you do in this music has got some kind of particular challenge to it, that some are unexpected.
AAJ: Slammin' and Ullmann/Swell are both unqualified successes. Have you been as happy with everything you've done?
SS: There's been peaks and valleys along the way but as you mature you tend to get steadier and more confident in what you're doing. But these two bands, they were very good ideas in terms of the types of players and the particular players I was usingbut of course there's always the unexpected, and the unexpected means you're going to get something extra with that that's going to be surprising and great and wonderful to discover, but you have to keep with it to keep that discovery developing.
Steve Swell (right) with Ned Rothenberg (left)
I really learned along the way you have to start with the musicians you want to work with. You can't turn people into the musicians you want. You have to start with the musicians who can give you everything you want, and everything that will surprise you also. So it's a juggling act there.
AAJ: Going back to your statement about your early ensembles where you tried to eliminate piano and bass: you went from the maximal context of the big bands earlier, to doing this minimalizing and stripping the ensembles to bare bones. One of the great things about you as a musician is your dynamics, and the way you can combine or dis-combine with the other musicians and create a very powerful solo on the one hand, and then take a step back and be a backup for another musician.
SS: I'm discovering that's a unique ability. You assume in New York everybody can do that, but there's really only a handful of people who really can.
AAJ: Your processlooking retrospectively at your career, you are trying out new things and constantly evolvingevolution is a key concept with you. And looking back and re-conceiving, reconnoitering; and above all your stamina, the way you keep pumping out strong works year after year as a leader...There's a central paradox in your work in that it's very high, unbridled energy, and on the other hand it's about musicians listening to each other and restricting themselves in the interest of a larger whole. In terms of a musician's ethical outlooks, you appear to present an ethic of restraining individual impulse for the sake of greater group coherence.
SS: Absolutely. I rarely overstep my own bounds in terms of overplaying. I know when I've soloed enough, and sometimes I'll try to push myself to get to another place, but I tend not to overdo it, to overplay. I think I'll do just enough of what is right, and not just keep going for the sake of just playing. And when someone isn't sharing the soundspace, it is the one thing that will upset me a little bit.
AAJ: You may never overplay, but you do test the endurance of yourself and your listeners in a very positive sense, in a way that is challenging, even ethically challenging. Your music is very uplifting, exuberant, and it makes a demand on the listener to share in that exuberance...Like you're leading a hike or a run, and everyone's got to keep up with you.
SS: What happens when people listen to music, I have the feeling a lot of times people listen to music and they expect a certain thing. Even today, free music, free jazz has become a part of the vocabulary. It's kind of sad in a way that we don't take the time to sit back and eliminate all those other things that are in our heads and give ourselves 100 percent to the music, and to listen. So certain things will sound a certain way to people, and they don't recognize that maybe this is something a little bit newer, a little bit different, it's pushing an envelope in a certain way, and while people say they want that, or want to be associated with that, when they're actually confronted with it they turn away from it. And that's a little bit sad.