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Steve Swell: Unlimited Musical Possibilities

Steve Swell: Unlimited Musical Possibilities
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"Free Jazz" and "Avant-Garde Jazz" are catch phrases often associated with musical pioneers such as Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
and Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
but more broadly refer to music that goes outside of the mainstream of melody, harmony, rhythm, and structure. When that happens, opinions and emotions abound. Reactions vary from disgust to excitement and enthusiasm, and it is rare to find a balanced view on the subject. The question arises, why does the same music so strongly attract and repel? To seek answers to this and related questions about music that presses the limits of the expectable, All About Jazz initiated a conversation with Steve Swell, a highly respected, accomplished, and articulate musician who is immersed in these genres but has a strong background in mainstream music.

Swell is a trombonist, composer, and arranger of exceptional resilience, intensity, and technique, whose work captures the imagination of his listeners. Since he is adept in all genres, he was a natural choice for this interview. Swell's previous All About Jazz interview (May 31, 2010 by Gordon Marshall) covered a wide range of subjects, some of which are recapped here, but the current conversation had the specific purpose of exploring jazz that pushes the limits, disconcerting some listeners and generating enthusiasm in others.

AAJ: Free jazz and avant-garde jazz sometimes are not understood by listeners, and we hope to focus here on their difficulty "hearing" what others consider the future of jazz and ways in which they can learn to appreciate the value of music that presses the outer limits.

SS: That's a compliment to your understanding and sensitivity to the problem. In truth, half the history of jazz now has included the free jazz and avant-garde, and has developed even further from its radical stage in the 1960s. So it's important that we have a writer like you to help people have more appreciation and access to it. Some critics even now say they don't understand Ornette Coleman. I think it's important to stay open. I also must say at the outset, that I am not entirely comfortable with labels, especially labels where art and music are concerned, but for the sake of an intelligent discussion I will use the definitions ascribed to the music we are talking about here.

Steve Swell and His Musical Development

AAJ: Let's go to some questions about you, and then we'll come back to this subject that we're going to focus upon. First of all let's do the "Desert Island" question for a warmup. Which music would you take to that desert island?

SS: My interests are constantly changing, so it would depend a lot on what day you asked me that! Currently, I'm reading a biography of the avant-garde composer and violinist, Leroy Jenkins
Leroy Jenkins
Leroy Jenkins
1932 - 2007
violin
, and I'm listening to some of his earliest recordings which were done with Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
b.1945
reeds
on saxophone and Leo Smith
Leo Smith
Leo Smith
b.1941
on trumpet. So I would choose a piece I like that he wrote entitled "Life Simple," and a recording that trio made with drummerSteve McCall
Steve McCall
b.1933
in Paris called "Composition #1" which was written by Braxton.

Soon, I plan to do a Bela Bartok-influenced project, so I'm listening to his "Microcosmos" and his String Quartets 4, 5, and 6. "Microcosmos" consists of 153 piano etudes that are used as technical studies, but they're also amazing music. So I'd probably take those with me to the desert island!

AAJ: OK, but wouldn't you also want to listen to some of the straight-ahead jazz?

SS: Of course! I keep a file of music I love and study in my iTunes folder on my laptop. I've got some Eddie Bert
Eddie Bert
Eddie Bert
1922 - 2012
trombone
trombone stuff there that I love. Of course, Roswell Rudd
Roswell Rudd
Roswell Rudd
b.1935
trombone
. And Grachan Moncur and George Lewis
George Lewis
George Lewis
b.1952
trombone
.

AAJ: Those are all trombonists, and I'm surprised you didn't mention J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
1924 - 2001
trombone
in that list. And what about other instruments?

SS: I grew up listening to all of J.J.'s recordings. And I love Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
trumpet
' In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) as well as the early stuff he did with Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
. I'm an omnivore in the respect that I listen to anything and everything. I love Jack Teagarden
Jack Teagarden
Jack Teagarden
1905 - 1964
trombone
. I have a video of him singing and playing "Old Rocking Chair's Got Me" that is heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

AAJ: So you're open to the tradition, even though you're reaching for the outer limits.

SS: Absolutely. My father was listening to big bands and turned me on to all that stuff early on.

AAJ: Am I right that you grew up in New Jersey?

SS: Yes, I was born in Newark, but we moved to Union, New Jersey where I went from kindergarten through high school.

AAJ: What were your early exposures to music?

SS: My father played those big band records. I also listened a lot to WRVR, a big radio station in New York at the time. The disc jockey Ed Beach had a radio show featuring Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
, Ben Webster
Ben Webster
Ben Webster
1909 - 1973
sax, tenor
, and even, at the time, "way out" players like Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp
b.1937
saxophone
. And he would play their discographies in chronological order. So you would get the whole history of one artist within a two or four hour period. That's how I acquired my basic jazz history during those years.


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