Trombonist Steve Swell was on a roll in midsummer 2006, as evidenced on the two discs at hand. June 15 found him in the studio with his Fire Into Music agglomeration, featuring saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, drummer Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker. Two days later, Swell's other working ensemble, Slammin' The Infinite, stormed the year's Vision Festival with a widely acclaimed set.
Steve Swell's Fire Into Music
Swimming In A Galaxy Of Goodwill And Sorrow
Swimming In A Galaxy Of Goodwill And Sorrow, on the stylish Paris-based Rogue Art label, marks the recorded debut of Fire Into Music (excepting an extremely limited edition vinyl only pressing in 2005). Aside from Swell, the frontline happily spotlights Moondoc's astringent alto saxophone, otherwise in danger of a return to undeserved obscurity. It's a sign of Swell's increasing stature that the major league rhythm pairing of master bassist William Parker and drummer extraordinaire Hamid Drake make time in their busy schedules to partake here as equals.
Four pieces from Swell and two from Moondoc all fall loosely into a head-solos-head bag, albeit of a very classy free jazz variety. The trombonist's loquacious lines confound expectation, taking inventive twists, sometimes declamatory, at others cajoling. His lustrous tone blends well with Moondoc's deep, blues tinged cry, which only sparingly hits the upper registers. Parker and Drake kindle the flames with endlessly mutated rhythmic patterns. Even when keeping time, Drake finds it impossible to repeat himself, though his embellishments never crowd the others' space.
Swell's "Manhattan Dreamweavers" is an unorthodox opener, eschewing the accessible swing of most of the other tracks for a more ambiguous improv orientated pulse, over which the horns set out their wares, though even here a more insistent rhythm ultimately holds sway.
Elsewhere Swell demonstrates his talent for orchestrating burning grooves with two cracking additions to his oeuvre. "For Grachan" has swiftly become a concert favourite with its throbbing bass, two-voiced theme and swinging vamp, and it draws excellent solos from both horns. Unaccompanied sparring between alto and trombone commences the title track, before a relaxed loping theme redolent of melancholic yearning launches an extended workout for the whole band.
Moondoc's "Blu Coo" is a sprightly bounce, with the composer's alto contrasted in suspended time, and features one of Parker and Drake's patented telepathic grooves. The saxophonist's other contribution, "For Arthur Williams" starts off as a mournful dirge over sawing arco bass and rumbling toms, before loosening up for a more joyous recollection of the 1970s loft jazz trumpeter. Swell's "Planet Hopping On A Thursday Afternoon" concludes this highly recommended outing with a funky romp.
Steve Swell's Slammin' The Infinite
Live @ The Vision Festival
Live @ The Vision Festival, issued on the Polish Not Two imprint, is Slammin' The Infinite's third release. This time customary brothers in arms, reeds virtuoso Sabir Mateen, Matthew Heyner on bass and Klaus Kugel on drums, are joined by special guest, pianist John Blum. I was lucky enough to witness this early evening set on June 17, and recorded my thoughts on these pages. Now having the opportunity to listen at leisure, I hear no reason to rescind my initial verdict: this was a killer set.
Mateen is a monstrous talent. His fluent soloing on various saxophones and alto clarinet spirals effortlessly into the stratosphere, where penetrating squeals are contrasted with stentorian honks, in a sustained aural assault. Swell matches Mateen blow for blow, and the spirited interaction between the two is one of the hallmarks of this band.
As a mainstay of NYC free jazz veterans TEST, Heyner is well versed in deploying his hard edged tone to cut through the maelstrom, whether to provide a driving pulse or textural work with his bow, while Kugel's percussive barrage ably fuels the simultaneous outpourings of the front line. Though Blum is little known outside New York, with a 1998 recording of his Astrogeny Quartet (Eremite, 2006) being his most widely available showing to date, he acquits himself spectacularly here.
The adrenalin rush of the Festival setting promotes higher energy levels than the studio outing of two days before. Kugel's busy propulsion would in any case make for a denser sound than Fire Into Music, but the addition of Blum pushes them into orbit. Three sections are delineated on the disc, with themes emerging from free form improvs or segueing one into another. A case in point is the first piece where an arco drone presages a portentous concoction of vocalised trombone, flute and cymbal washes, before Mateen switches to alto clarinet for a throaty spin over frantic arco sawing, then intertwining in two horn and piano uproar, out of which Swell favourite "Box Set" explodeswhat an opening gambit!
"For Grachan gets an extended airing here, with intense arco harmonics from Heyner leading to a muscular piano trio before the familiar vamp asserts itself. Even then, Blum's piano prances and crashes, building the tension until the horns voice the theme over piano stabs, and suddenly everything resolves into a swinging groove. Mateen unleashes a mighty upwelling on tenor saxophone, bounding into the altissimo register, ably partnered by nimble keyboard punctuations.
The last section starts with the fast walking bass line of "Patient Explorer," before morphing into the anthemic "For Frank Lowe", a frequent set closer, from the band's debut CD, by way of yet more impassioned soloing and some fierce interplay.
"Lowe" boasts a simple but effective structure, with the theme played continuously by one of the horns while the other freely testifies against this backdrop, with the hornmen continually alternating roles, until finishing unexpectedly with a drum solo. (Reed player Anthony Braxton is the only other musician I can think of who has also used this surprise tactic to end a set). You can't quite tell, but the group received a standing ovation for this performance.
Less than perfect sound is the only drawback to an otherwise splendid disc, with Swell ironically being slightly under recorded, on what must have been a triumphant hometown gig for him. But the passion, power and high octane exuberance of this band nonetheless makes for required listening. And if there are any record producers reading: please get John Blum into a recording studio. Now.
Tracks and Personnel
Swimming In A Galaxy Of Goodwill And Sorrow
Tracks: Manhattan Dreamweavers; For Grachan; Blu Coo; Swimming In A Galaxy Of Goodwill And Sorrow; For Arthur Williams; Planet Hopping On A Thursday Afternoon.
Personnel: Steve Swell: trombone; Jemeel Moondoc: alto saxophone; William Parker: double bass; Hamid Drake: drums.
Live @ The Vision Festival
Tracks: Improv/Box Set; For Grachan; Patient Explorer/For Frank Lowe.
Personnel: Steve Swell: trombone; Sabir Mateen: alto, tenor saxophones, alto clarinet, flute; Matthew Heyner: bass; Klaus Kugel: drums; John Blum: piano.