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Steve Swell: Astonishments

John Pietaro BY

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Steve Swell: Astonishments
Among the trombonists of New York's downtown scene, or uptown for that matter, no one even comes close to Steve Swell. His level of artistry, ability to create within any sonic cloud, compositional strengths and sheer fortitude set a new standard decades ago. Deemed a veteran of the new music that tore up the 1970s and '80s, Swell has, too, been a tireless voice within new millennial jazz and free circles. The music industry has never acknowledged the music of tomorrow, even when first heard yesterday, so this latest release by the trombonist's Soul Travelers, recorded over several sessions commissioned by the Interpretations Series, is a marked statement on the tenacity of an artform and an artist.

This ensemble reunites Swell with another mainstay of the bold, alto saxophonist Jemeel Mondoc. A frequent partner of Swell, Moondoc's career within the avant-garde has been well documented both in the US and throughout Europe and the pairing is a noted one. Add to this a rhythm section of pianist Dave Burrell, bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver and the drive, at once jagged, expressive, impressionistic and harmonious, is vivid. The pieces herein were all composed by the leader, including the two poems that vocalist/spoken word artist Leena Conquest so movingly brings to life.

The opening title track speaks to the beauty in simplicity, or perhaps better stated, the everyday. In both spoken and sung segments, often more of a sprechgesang comfortably flowing between both, Conquest gorgeously exudes and expands on Swell's lyric. "The stunning fact of Marshall Allen/ Moonlight in Vermont/ The rain" speaks volumes in such a setting. Moreso, "the consistency of Kenneth Patchen's humanity," is a vital notion within an era of American unrest and division. In this work, Swell and company invoke memories of Gunter Hampel's sweeping ensembles with the stunning, enveloping vocalist Jeanne Lee out front. But Swell's "simplicity" goes very deep in its memories of fallen heroes: Will Connell, Roy Campbell, Garrison Fewell, Roswell Rudd, Connie Crothers, Billy Bang, Cecil Taylor and too many more, as well as "Breathing without having to do anything at all/yet no less astonishing," particularly in the eyes of a wind player. In a U.S. battered by wanton greed and power sans compassion, the statement is most necessary.

Throughout the six selections, Swell and Moondoc trade statements and each solos powerfully against the rocky, steep climb carved by Cleaver and Parker as well as the icy peaks of Burrell. This often feels like the vibe at NYC's original Knitting Factory all over again even as it moves onto new landings, with Moondoc and Swell joyously reaching for each other's stars. "For Mondays" includes a solo piano cadenza calling on the spirits of Alban Berg as well as Taylor, smoothly juxtaposing into a drum solo, the likes of which is common to Cleaver's celebrity: soaring weightlessly over a symphony of drums and cymbals.

A highlight of this album is "Being Here: America is Not an Abstract Concept," the second selection featuring the voice of Conquest. Here, she is incorporated into the ensemble more fully, not so much a "singer" out front, but a vocal instrument which claims the space within the expanded quintet. It is no hyperbole to say that the piece is one in need of international airplay. "This idea existing only in the mind," she sings amidst emergent horns and merciless rhythm, "While the reality of it/ Sees us as plundering, stealing and killing each other." Swell's poetry pointedly reminds us, "We know what the realities are/ We who live here everyday/ We who live in this abstract concept of freedom and justice and peace/ In the abstract." In the tradition of Archie Shepp's Attica-inspired music and poetry, here's a powerful indictment inequality, one lodged indelibly in the belly of the capitalist beast. Midway through, a new, slower tempo, one embracing space, is established by (Arts for Art co-founder) Parker, joined by a softly rolling Cleaver and an atmospheric, pointillistic Burrell. Conquest's voice locks into the musical statements as firmly as a metallic erector set of old, with girders swung every which way while never losing solidity. "Live it/ Be it/Do it/ Be it now.../ Beyond the words."

The closer, "Morphogenesis," is a biting piece of post-post-bop, with a slow build that never ceases. Here, Moondoc's solo reflects an aloneness rarely heard in the music. His solo calls for still newer visions of Dolphy and the lost transitional figure, Will Connell, a musician within Horace Tapscott's orbit prior to relocating to NYC's East Village, with whom Swell also worked closely. The trombonist's concept of "astonishments," never pensive, is the essence of why we persist. Such a fabric of sound and word should always stand as our collective tapestry.

Track Listing

Astonishments; Sketch #7; the Seldom Heard; For Mondays; Being Here

Personnel

Steve Swell: trombone; Jemeel Moondoc: saxophone, alto; Dave Burrell: piano; William Parker: bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums; Leena Conquest: voice / vocals.

Album information

Title: Astonishments | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Rogue Art

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