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Steve Swell: Kanreki: Reflection & Renewal

John Sharpe By

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To mark his sixtieth birthday (December 6, 2014), trombonist Steve Swell, long the pre-eminent trombonist on the NYC free jazz scene, invokes the Japanese custom of Kanreki. Although it is said to signal both a rebirth and a handing on of responsibilities, Swell shows no signs of allowing the occasion to inhibit his ambition. Over the course of two discs, Not Two proffers a broad survey of recent outlets for his expression, encompassing seven distinct line ups recorded between 2011 and 2014. While the range covered in a program which includes examples of both Swell's composition and uncharted explorations, is remarkable, what's even more noteworthy is how he so thoroughly inhabits each of the different terrains.

All the pieces chosen favor the more experimental side of the trombonist's output. "Dragonfly Breath: Live at Zebulon" spotlights a collective which is the only unit here to have already released an album, via its eponymous debut (Not Two, 2013). As with that outing, the half hour plus selection here presents not only the mayhem expected given the pedigrees of drummer Weasel Walter, violinist C. Spenser Yeh and saxophonist Paul Flaherty, but also more measured, though still energetic exchanges. Swell's gale force trombone effortlessly pierces the veil, as well as taking a solo interlude before being subsumed by the guttural muttering tenor and violin. Some editing might have removed the applause, announcement and chatter which comes part way through the otherwise acceptable audio vérité recording.

"Essakane" stands as the only number which refers to the free jazz tradition in which Swell first came to prominence with his acclaimed Slammin' The Infinite outfit. After a catchy head, the leader floats soulfully over interjections from Magnus Broo's trumpet and Ken Vandermark's tenor saxophone, before giving way to some fiery interaction and a surging drum break from Michael Vatcher. It's a great cast and one which would grace a full length session. Rounding out the first disc are two rather more ascetic offerings. "Schemata and Heuristics for Four Clarinets" on which Swell doesn't play, showcases his writing instead which mixes piping colloquy with percolating unison lines, while "News from the Upper West Side" matches his trombone with the voice of Tom Buckner for an intimate freeform dialogue.

Swell engagingly combines the raucous bluster of his mentor Roswell Rudd with the nuanced manipulation and timbral adventure of later generations of avant-garde performers. It's the latter aspect which comes to the fore on the unaccompanied "Splitting Up is Hard to Do" which is a study in circular breathing, drones and overtones. Three animated cuts from Chicago's Hide Out follow in which Swell navigates the push pull tension of whether to listen, respond, break out or rein in, in the company of two other consummate improvisers in cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio.

The closing 20-minute plus "Composite #8" stems from a commission performed at Roulette and features what might be characterized as a chamber instrumentation, were it not for the spiky interplay Swell elicits from his comrades. Alto saxophonist Darius Jones' anguished cries burst out of the confines of the accompanying ominous ostinato, while cellist Jonathan Golove enjoys a soaring passage against the fidgety rhythmic flurries of James James Ilgenfritz' bass and Omar Tamez' prickly guitar. Swell himself seems willing to let his chart do the talking, until he finally cuts loose before the concluding theme, in what proves one of the highlights of a rounded celebratory package which also reproduces copies of Swell's painting and prose poetry.

Track Listing: Dragonfly Breath: Live at Zebulon; Essakane; Schemata and Heuristics for Four Clarinets; News from the Upper West Side; Splitting Up is Hard to Do; Live at the Hideout #1; Live at the Hideout #2; Live at the Hideout #3; Composite #8.

Personnel: Steve Swell: trombone; Paul Flaherty: tenor saxophone (1); C. Spenser Yeh: violin, voice (1); Weasel Walter: drums, percussion (1); Magnus Broo: trumpet (2); Ken Vandermark: tenor saxophone (2); Joe Williams: bass (2); Michael Vatcher: drums (2); Ned Rothenberg: clarinet (3); Guillermo Gregorio: clarinet (3, 6, 7, 8); Miguel Malla: clarinet (3); Zara Acosta-Chen: clarinet (3); Tom Buckner: voice (4); Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello, electronics (6, 7, 8); Darius Jones: alto saxophone (9); Omar Tamez: guitar (9); Jonathan Golove: cello (9); James Ilgenfritz: bass (9).

Title: Kanreki: Reflection & Renewal | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Not Two Records


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