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John Swana: Bright Moments

Victor L. Schermer By

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Simply put, this album is so listenable and stood out so noticeably among the many CDs I've been spinning for myself recently, that I thought All About Jazz readers ought to know about it. I first heard then trumpeter John Swana a decade or more ago when he jammed at pianist Tom Lawton's memorable long-term gig with the late great bassist Al Stauffer at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia. I was awestruck by Swana's clarity, sustained non-vibrato tone, and lucid lines where every note fell perfectly into place. He is truly a musician's musician. Somewhere along the way since that time, Swana experienced a lip problem that forced him to give up the trumpet. Alas. But soon he was playing with the same clarity on valve trombone and doing some remarkable improvising on the EVI (electronic valve instrument). But I didn't realize how much I miss his trumpet playing until I recently heard this ear-insprimg album.

In this recording, everything comes together almost seamlessly. The players are in pleasing synchronicity with one another, and the engineering affords a high definition sound, apt placement of the musicians, and realistic presence. But what really grabs the listener is the way that the music recapitulates and enlarges the "hard bop" style of the late 1950s. There are times when you have to do a double take to realize that it's not Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers that you're hearing. It's not an imitation, but it has the drive, artistry, and arc of phrasing of a Blakey group in top form. Echoes of Blakey alumni hard bop innovators such as trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, pianist Bobby Timmons, and bassist Jymie Merritt can be heard throughout.

Far from a carbon copy, Swana's quintet invokes its own sure-footed modern, uplift. The album title Bright Moments describes the drive and enthusiasm of musicians who are on a virtuosic course of their own and are secure and comfortable with one another. As critic Michael Nastos noted in his AllMusic review, "Swana is not so much looking back as he is keeping the straight-ahead home fires burning." An argument could be made that hard bop originated with Philadelphia musicians. And "Bright Moments" may be a reference to the late great Philly organist Trudy Pitts, who signed all her letters and emails that way.

The tracks, but for one, "Everything I Have is Yours," are Swana originals, yet every one sounds familiar, because each is a perfectly suited for improvising along hard bop lines. Swana switches between trumpet and flugelhorn, the latter giving a softer sound a la Art Farmer, and the two tenor saxophonists (Eric Alexander and Grant Stewart) mirror this duality: Stewart has a brighter, more punctuated sound, while Alexander is throatier and more sustained, especially in the lower registers.

The set begins with Swana's "Wilbert" featuring the hard driving drums of Kenny Washington and a bebop melody played by trumpet punctuated by the ensemble in a type of arrangement that Blakey liked to use. Alexander provides a Golson-like tenor solo followed by a more Trane-like solo by Stewart. "Chillin' Out" offers a light and bright lilting melody stated by trumpet and then tenor sax.David Hazeltine comes on with a single line piano solo, and you can take your pick of whether it reminds you of Kenny Drew or Wynton Kelly. Swana's solo on this tune is exemplary of his carefully conceived lines in which every note belongs exactly where it is. The song could have been written by Golson or his friend Jimmy Heath, and the saxophone solos are right there with them. The upbeat swing of "Road Trippin'" gives the musicians a chance to take lively, extended solos.

"Ferris Wheel" is an interesting tune that turns back on itself. Swana adds a melancholy mood with his solo. The piece is slightly jarring and seems to lament a moment in which all's well, except something is missing, maybe a lover. "Shrack's Corner II" is R&B on the cool side, resembling but more reserved than Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder." Swana plays it mellow, the way Morgan might have after a relaxing swim and sauna. The various solos toy with the bebop inflections of the tune.

The lively, swinging double-time pace of the title tune, "Bright Moments," gives Swana ample opportunity to show that he has an uncanny ability to think on his feet. The multitudinous notes are perfectly placed and paced, with rare finesse. Alexander (or is it Stewart?) plays with intervals in the manner of Sonny Rollins. "Inevitable Encounter" is a kind of musical essay or conversation, asking "what's going on here? Let's find out."

Burton Lane's standard, "Everything I Have is Yours" is done as a straight ahead ballad with some interesting block chord piano punctuations by Hazeltine. And "KD" follows up as a relaxed "kick back and enjoy" tune.

"Open Highway" is an exhilarating, jumpin' number that could easily have been written by Clifford Brown, and the arrangement has a touch of Tadd Dameron about it. Hazeltine's piano work here is textbook hard bop. The set ends with "Schracks Corner I," with an R&B sound that is so familiar, it could have been plagiarized. It breaks out into a strictly hard bop form, but a saxophone solo by Alexander borders at times on being modal, offering an inkling of post-bop developments.

Swana's tunes on this album would've been grabbed up by jazz musicians during the 1950s and early sixties. For creative jazz musicians, time proceeds in spirals rather than a straight line, and here we have an example of reaching back into the past in order to stay in the moment and project into the future. This recording is a gem, and the series of ten Criss Cross recordings with Swana as leader deserve a lasting place in the annals of jazz. They show the great value of the Europe-America connection that has always nurtured jazz, in this case a Netherlands recording company that seems to take jazz more seriously as a disciplined art form than most U.S. labels.

Track Listing

(All compositions by John Swana unless otherwise noted.) Wilbert; Chillin’ Out; Road Trippin’; Ferris Wheel; Shrack’s Corner II; Bright Moments; Inevitable Encounter; Everything I Have is Yours (Burton Lane); KD; Open Highway; Schracks Corner I.

Personnel

John Swana: trumpet, flugelhorn: Eric Alexander, Grant Stewart: tenor saxophones;David Hazeltine, piano; Peter Washington: bass; Kenny Washington: drums.

Album information

Title: Bright Moments | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Criss Cross

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