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Steve Swell: Sound Miracles

By Published: May 31, 2010
AAJ: Could you pick two or three trombonists who were maybe more influential than the others, and discuss why that is the case?

SS: Of course I have to start with Roswell Rudd. He's the first— I'd listened to a lot of trombone players before I'd heard Roswell, but he's the first one where I really said, "There's an approach for me." There was a way to find my own voice, the way he's approaching the trombone. And it was just so totally off the charts in terms of breaking with everything you were supposed to do—it just opened up my imagination more than anything, in terms of how to play the trombone.

AAJ: I can see a sort of democratic ethos at work in Rudd, being a member of the New York Art Quartet, and maybe a parallel one with you in your quartets and quintets. Is that the case?

SS: I think he brought back a sense of collective playing. Free improvisation was a lot of collective playing, but his position when he was playing trombone like he was with Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
was—there was a very Dixieland element to it. I don't mean style-wise, but in terms of two horns playing together, where you didn't have that in swing or bebop for a good 20 or 30 years. It had become the soloist only. And Roswell brought back, to me, a sense of collective playing in the modern style. And I love bouncing my sound off of other horns, and even when I'm soloing there's still a sense of interacting with the other instruments, the drums and the bass.

Others? I would say George Lewis
George Lewis
George Lewis
, and the same with Grachan [Moncur] give me a little more—I won't say permission—but a little more allowance and leeway to use the bebop sense in free improvising. So in that sense they contributed to my vocabulary, in terms of opening up another door. Because I was rooted in bebop and swing, and those guys—Grachan has an incredible sense of swing—and George Lewis, especially with his playing with Anthony Braxton, brought this incredible, almost bebop technique-oriented vocabulary that went right out into the free thing, and that was inspirational to me.

And then I would say some of the European players—Walter Wierbos, Connie Bauer, Johannes Bauer
Johannes Bauer
Johannes Bauer
, Alan Tomlinson—those guys opened up a whole other area, where you didn't necessarily need a relatable rhythmic sense, a relatable harmonic sense; they were completely way out there. And I use all of those types of vocabulary in my playing.

AAJ: What you learned from Rudd, about trad jazz—where 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 using—but 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.

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.

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