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Steve Swell: Sound Miracles

By Published: May 31, 2010
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 process—looking retrospectively at your career, you are trying out new things and constantly evolving—evolution 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.

AAJ: One of your challenges is to bring your audience into the music actively. There's more to music than pleasure—people have forgotten the avant-garde ethic that the music should be challenging and be uncomfortable and take them out of their comfort zone, and you have just the right balance of exuberance and pulling the listener out of their comfort zone, to the point where they learn something from their music.

Which brings us to your work as an educator. You teach in a number of contexts: in shelters, schools, to special needs children?

SS: Yeah. In a sense I've become the kind of teacher that—I'm covering a lot of different things. I had to do it, but it's been a very interesting way to find a variety of approaches to teaching, and finding a variety of ways to bring music to kids, and have kids be able to express themselves. It just happened that I had to do it this way, in survival way, but it's been very fulfilling to me because I've had to cover a lot of age groups and social groups. I feel I've been able to bring something different to people in the educational area that they may not have gotten in a traditional sense...It's something that's part of my life now.

If I'm leading a band now, something from my teaching creeps in, either a way to express something musically, or a way to elicit something out of my band—it travels both ways.

AAJ: Talk about your grant to teach special needs children.

SS: In 2008 an organization called the Jubilation Foundation—two teachers recommended me for that, and I was one of the lucky ones to get it.

AAJ: What was it like? Were you teaching them to play instruments? To sing?

SS: Well, this where being able to do a variety of things comes into play. A lot of times—many times I had some very severely handicapped kids, kids who (require) wheelchairs, in a hospital their entire lives; some don't live past the age of 20. And lot of these kids cannot really communicate except by what you see in their eyes, and a lot of it is just really stimulation for them. I'll come in with my trombone, and some of them are severely crippled in their hands—and they'll hold the end of the trombone when I play it, and I'll have them sort of push the slide if they can; and it's a physical and an oral stimulation for them.

So it's not necessarily that I'm teaching them anything, but I'm giving them the experience of hearing or playing. I'll have them bang on a drum. These kids can't speak. You'll play one note on a tambourine, and have them repeat that—two beats and see if they can understand that you are hitting the thing twice now, see if they can do it. It's amazing how music can communicate with these kids. You get very attached to them.

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