Countless men and women find themselves seduced by the lure of unfettered musical expression only to find their efforts greeted by ambivalent ears. The creative hinterlands of jazz are notorious for swallowing talented players up in a fog of anonymity. Trombonist Steve Swell knows this reality well. He’s been working his way in from the fringes for years, in the process amassing a body of work that stands strong in the company of his progenitors on the instrument such as Rudd, Mangelsdorf and Moncur III.
CIMP has served as a central agent to this documentation, releasing sixteen discs featuring his brass to date. His latest project continues the streak of chance-taking brio that’s become sustaining pabulum for his music. Swell’s interpersonal demeanor may be taciturn and serious, but when horn meets pursed embouchure passion pours forth that’s difficult to best.
The assembled sextet serves as ample proof of Swell’s skill as talent scout. Campbell is arguably the most influential. Norton comes in second thanks to prodigious gigs with Anthony Braxton and ever-widening folio of albums under his own belt. Not so with Connell, Burnham and Grillot, each of whom have paid heavy sideman dues dating back since the 70s. Together they approach the context of Swell’s long form Suite with audible relish. According to producer Bob Rusch, Swell was composing and reworking the piece up to the actual recording date. All the meticulous fine-tuning shows in the well-oiled machinery of the pieces. The scripting enhances rather than stifles the elements of ebullient improvisation that regularly crop up in Swell’s chimerical architectures.
Energy and density align from the opening “Prelude to a Prelude” as horn polyphony gains steam on a rushing tide of hard thrumming bass and eddying drums. Burnham’s spindle-thin strings suffer a bit in the swirling onslaught, but gain sonic girth when the garrulous horns aren’t erupting around him. He also employs amplification and tone-twisting electronic effects to further embolden his sound.
Connell’s instrumentation coincidently mirrors that of Dolphy, though his approach on horns is hardly similar. His dry ferrous alto launches first, plowing through the turbulent patterns summoned by his partners with a pungent potency. Norton regularly morphs between loud piston-firing engine and spacious texturizing color palette. His press rolls and cymbal showers complement the locking legato horn harmonies with nimble precision.
If there’s one qualm, it’s the length of the disc that to the casual ear might seem long-winded. Moments of indecision and stasis do arise, but lulls in the action are infrequent. The band spends the bulk of its time in focused collusion. Grillot’s stout anchoring ostinato on “Groove Merchants,” Swell’s cantankerous slides and slurs on the same, Campbell’s soaring stratospheric runs on “Calling All Travelers, Connell’s acrobatic alto figures on “Sailing Home.” All of these building blocks fit together into a sum that is at once satisfying and thankfully not easily digested in a single sitting.
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Personnel: Steve Swell- trombone; Will Connell- alto saxophone, flute, bass clarinet; Roy Campbell- trumpet, flute; Charles Burnham- violin; Francois Grillot- bass; Kevin Norton- percussion. Recorded: July 16 & 17, 2003, Rossie, NY.