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John Swana: In The Moment

David A. Orthmann By

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The trail of splendid hard bop influenced recordings extends well beyond the genre's heyday of the 1950s and '60s. A case in point is trumpeter John Swana's appropriately titled In The Moment. The 1996 release on the Criss Cross Jazz imprint merits the exalted status of its celebrated predecessors. Captured in a one-day studio session, despite the familiar stylistic lineage it sounds fresh, spontaneous and unsullied. A sextet of intrepid, strong-willed individuals fully commit themselves to a program of compelling material and evince a stunning chemistry. Throughout the nine tracks there's a noticeable absence of the usual less-than-stellar moments to rationalize or ignore. Not unlike any great jazz record, In The Moment is in a class by itself, defying any notion that it can be equaled or successfully imitated.

While the record's triumph hinges on a marriage of striking original compositions (primarily by Swana), conscientious ensemble execution, and soloists who exercise individualistic voices, the taut foundation of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington (no relation) draws the music into a realm that's both stable and flirting with disorder. Even while loosely staying within the boundaries expected of bassists and drummers in a conventional, straight-ahead context, neither of them plays the role of dutiful accompanist. As trombonist Steve Davis's sprawling composition "The Lonely Ones" unceremoniously moves from one segment to another, the Washingtons persuasively connect the tune's cycle of shuffle/swing/Latin/swing rhythms. There are times, such as Swana's up-tempo "Le Barron" and his slow-to-medium paced, bump and grind blues "946 North Randolph," when Peter Washington's walking line virtually carries the sextet on its back. On these tracks as well as the rest of the record, his bass always sings out with a deeply satisfying amount of emphasis. Any more weight and he'd sound bearish; any less and he'd run the risk of sounding feeble in the face of his extroverted colleagues. Peter's irregular, almost contrapuntal line forms a satisfying partnership with pianist Kenny Barron's "Martha" improvisation.

At this point in his career, Kenny Washington made the transition from a fresh, bebop-oriented stylist to something much busier and assertive, often making demands on the music and everyone around him, yet knowing when to lay back and play relatively unadorned time. During Swana's "Le Barron" solo, Kenny's snare and bass drums spit out punctuation, and later on he jumps all over Barron prior to the track's fade out. As volcanic as his drumming is at times it never interferes with the band's brisk, purposeful momentum. Fills and accents during the muscular, middling tempo "Teeko" often resemble the ruckus made by an object being pushed and shoved from one hard surface to another, adding an edgy, impatient dimension to the track. Though he mostly stays in character, Kenny isn't all slash and burn. Peppery strokes fall in a volume way below Swana's trumpet during the ballad "Martha," and he subsequently makes the listener work to hear a bar or two of multiple hits to the snare that mimic Barron. Sly, almost inaudible taps on a closed hi-hat fill in gaps in the melody of "946 North Randolph."

One of the pleasures of listening to In The Moment is discovering the individual voices and the differences between soloists in the front line. While the sound of Swana's full, brassy tone is satisfying in itself, the constant play between order and spontaneity informs his distinctive style. His solos expand and contract in ways that aren't necessarily showy or dramatic, and he seldom feels the need to reach for a rousing climax in predictable places. Swana is capable of subtle shifts in emphasis within a few bars ("The Lonely Ones"); utilizes a variety of voices within the course of an improvisation ("Teeko"); and sometimes briefly pauses to regroup without jeopardizing a continuously evolving statement ("946 North Randolph"). He often executes terse, swaggering lines that dig into the rhythm section, and follows with musings that sound like afterthoughts ("Teeko" and "946 North Randolph").

Steve Davis is an efficient, straightforward stylist who seldom shouts to make a point, even on the lively blues "946 North Randolph." Generally speaking, everything is pared-down to essentials—no affectation, clichés, decoration or filler. Solos that invariably sound forthright, honest, and unpretentious overshadow a range of ideas that feels somewhat narrow and risk aversive compared to Swana and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. Throughout "The Lonely Ones" Davis easily adapts to the twists and turns of the tune's form without hesitation, yet he's not in any rush. In contrast, throughout "I Wanna Be Happy" and several other tracks Alexander often gives the distinct impression of a man in a hurry to push notes out of the horn. At various points during "Teeko" he takes enough off of his fastball to make a comparatively nuanced impact. Alexander's wily treatment of the blues "946 North Randolph" comprises his most impressive work of the set. He adroitly and unpredictably fuses an "I'll get there when I get there" pace, earthy declarations, pregnant pauses and bullet train runs.

Simply stated, In The Moment is a marvelous record.

Track Listing

The Lonely Ones; Le Barron; Teeko; Martha; 946 North Randolph; I Wanna Be Happy; Troubled Times; Ballad Of The Sad Young Men; Esther's Step.

Personnel

John Swana: trumpet; Eric Alexander: saxophone, tenor; Steve Davis: trombone; Kenny Barron: piano; Peter Washington: bass; Kenny Washington: drums.

Album information

Title: In The Moment | Year Released: 1996 | Record Label: Criss Cross

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