Meet Steve Swallow

Craig Jolley BY

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To let all of that go and to trust that your hands know what they're doing on their own is not as easy as it might appear to be, but it's absolutely necessary in order to direct your ears out toward the other guys on the bandstand.
From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in October 2000.

Touring this summer

As is often the case I've been touring Europe during the dreaded festivals. I did the July circuit with a band of [drummer] Bobby Previte's called Bump the Rennaissance which also contains [trombonist] Ray Anderson, [reed player] Marty Ehrlich, and [keyboardist] Wayne Horvitz. This is a band I've worked with on a couple of occasions in the past and have an ongoing relationship. We have another tour in November also in Europe. It's a real good band, a party band. I need to have some fun every now and then. It can't always be serious intent. Of course it's a party with a purpose. What was difficult as always was not the playing—the little kernel of pleasure—but the intensive summer travel. We were out there in the airports of Europe with all the other Americans trying desperately to get to our planes and succeeding only most of the time. The skies of Europe are as bad as the skies of America. We actually missed a gig on the tour, which hasn't happened to me in years. The Italian air controllers brought us to our knees, actually brought us to a hotel in Rome for an unexpected night off. After the Previte thing I went out for a wonderful tour with John Scofield and Bill Stewart, one of my favorite bands. Scofield is kind of a category bender himself. He's one of those jazz guys who has no problem with the electric bass. The three of us try to do a yearly tour. It's John's occasion to play song structures that are a little more involved (with more harmonic content) than those of his regular band. It's not so much rhythm vamps—a little more treacherous than the music he plays with his regular band. That's not for an instant to imply one's better than the other. I've had a sort of ongoing relationship with Sco since the mid-seventies when I taught up at Berklee in Boston for a couple of years. He subsequently played in Gary Burton's band. When he went to New York we formed a trio with Adam Nussbaum in about 1980. We had two or three good years. Sco and I have kept a strong musical relationship going one way or another throughout the years. I've produced a whole bunch of his albums. Every now and then I play on one. It's kind of like Wednesday night bowling, going out with this trio. We really get to just play. It's a joy.

Acoustic bass vs. electric bass

I enjoy especially a variety of musics. I always have. My listening habits are extremely broad ranging, and I like for my playing also to have as broad a range as possible. That's difficult to do because you're constantly being typecast. Especially playing electric bass I tend to be falsely accused of belonging in certain area. I spent the first years of my life as an acoustic bassist. I didn't play the electric bass until I was twenty-nine. When I made the transition from acoustic to electric bass I had no intention of changing the idiom in which I was playing. I didn't take up the electric bass to become a rock 'n' roll or blues musician although I found myself interested in those musics in a way I hadn't been before. When you heard me with Gary Burton's band in the late '60s I was playing both instruments. That was a lovely band. [Guitarist] Jerry Hahn was helpful to me as a teacher. He's a prodigious guitar technician. I played them both for about a year and a half, but the day was too short to maintain them both. They each required a day every day. I was wracked by guilt every time I played the electric with the acoustic standing there forlorn in the corner. I've completely given up the acoustic bass. In 1971 I just gave it to a good friend, a bassist named Jack Gregg, in order to get it out of my sight and to emphatically resolve the conflict of what to play. My acoustic bass now lives in Beirut, which is where Jack Gregg is. I think it's having a very nice life. It's playing in a symphony orchestra so it's being bowed a lot which is very good for it.

Bill Evans vs. electric bass

I think my favorite performances of my music by another musician are the several that Bill Evans did. Over the years he did five or six of my songs, a great honor to me. He always played with a depth of understanding that exceeded my own—what more could you ask. In particular there's a solo recording of a waltz, "Hullo Bolinas" [Tokyo Concert, 1973]. It's very beautiful. Also a remarkably insightful performance of the song that's sort of my Real Book standard, Falling Grace [Intuition, 1974]. He really got that song. I played with Bill for a night in the band with Paul Motian. It was a great night and a memory that I cherish. Curiously, so does Paul Motian. He remembers it vividly. In fact Bill remarked on it several times over the years when we'd run into each other. I hoped to play with Bill at some point, but he was uncomfortable with the electric bass. There have been several people I would have liked to play with who were unable to adjust to the electric bass. On the other hand I suspect the obverse is true—some people I got to play with because I played the electric bass. The electric bass is a difficult pill for many jazz musicians to swallow.

Introduction of rock into Gary Burton's band

I think it was kind of a shared enthusiasm. A scene that I recall vividly: the two of us (Gary and I) were playing in Stan Getz's band. We were on a tour in South America, playing in a hotel in Rio de Janeiro for several days. Technology was primitive in these days. We had a record player we carried with us on the road, and I think it was Rubber Soul, the Beatles album, or a selection of Beatles music we had. We just played it incessantly for a period of several days. We were obsessed with it and learning a great deal from it. Subsequently when the band was formed in the mid-to-late '60s there was a wonderful disregard for category in the audience, at least in the audience we were discovering. There were wonderful FM radio stations where there were no play lists or autocratic managers. Disc jockeys were encouraged to exercise their tastes. Many of them had really catholic tastes. You'd hear a Jimi Hendrix record, then Miles Davis, then Shostakovich in dazzling succession. When Bill Graham started the Fillmores there was usually a jazz band as the opening act. For instance the Burton band played opposite Cream and the Electric Flag. This was a revelatory experience for me—just breathtaking. It was just in the air that categories could be disregarded and redefined daily. I think what happened historically was the pendulum swung with a vengeance in the opposite direction. Since that time there's been a very stern reimposition of categories in the music market place. I regret that that's happened.

Dialog between bass and drums

I should say right off the bat that it's mysterious. Part of the fascination is the mystery. For instance it's a mystery to me that some drummers whom I admire greatly are not as comfortable for me to play with as some other drummers who might be less admirable but who seem just a better fit. The old cliche about listening to each other is extremely important and more difficult to achieve than one might think. It's very difficult to remove your attention from what you're doing to what somebody else is doing. Playing a musical instrument is not all that easy (although it's not all that difficult either).

There's a lot to it—letting your right hand know what your left hand is doing, remembering the chord of the moment, hundreds of other considerations that are flying by as the song is in progress. To let all of that go and to trust that your hands know what they're doing on their own is not as easy as it might appear to be, but it's absolutely necessary in order to direct your ears out toward the other guys on the bandstand. It's a kind of act of faith. I know that I'm most thoroughly in sync with a drummer when I'm inside his right hand rather than my own. It has to do with letting go. And what prompts you to let go is the spirit of fun and good times when a groove gets going. The sense of exhilaration allows you to abandon all of your concerns for your own playing. The sense of unease that you might be playing the wrong note or playing the right note at the wrong time just vaporizes. At the moment you ask yourself, "Am I swinging?" you can be sure you're not.

Steve Swallow bands

The reason I have a band is I write a fair amount of music that I want to hear and watch develop over a period of time. I tend not to place the bass in the forefront—the bass tends to be the bass. What makes the band mine is the repertoire. I write all the music—unlike other bands where there's a democracy and players are encouraged to bring their tunes. I'll have none of that. I lead a band infrequently enough that I really need that—to monopolize the repertoire. I think I'm having my strongest effect on music as the guy who defines the repertoire. I tend to keep my mouth shut as far as asking or even suggesting specific tactics or approaches for the players. I'm interested in what the written music evokes in the players, and I don't want to distort that process by talking about it. I'm barely present as the guy who leads the band except that the music I've written is speaking on my behalf. I'm mostly concerned with having a good time. My experience is that's what elicits the best results. I'm picking musicians to play with who are my good friends and whose playing I know well. There's a strong bond of trust between us all. I haven't gone out with my own quintet since we made the live record at Ronnie Scott's [Always Pack Your Uniform on Top, XtraWATT 10]. My next planned venture under my own name is an abridged version of that quintet, a trio with Chris Potter and Adam Nussbaum. We haven't played a note yet. I'm going to get the repertoire together, and then we'll give it a try. We have a tour planned, but it's not until the fall of next year [2001]. It'll take me that long to assemble the material for it.

That's what I've been focusing my writing attention on since last December. I've thought about what to do—whether to continue with the quintet or not. The last three albums have been that classic trumpet-tenor frontline quintet, the only wrinkle in it being the inclusion of Mick Goodrick on the last two on guitar instead of the usual piano. I was very conscious in writing the music for these quintets of the classic paradigm: of Horace Silver's band, Cannonball Adderley's band, Bird and Dizzy, and all that. I thought it would be best to move slightly away from that to jar myself loose. What was challenging to me about doing the trio and what ultimately led me to decide on that format was the absence of a chording instrument, an instrument to state the harmonies overtly. As I looked at the writing I'd been doing for the last several years I saw that I'd become very much a vertical writer, that I'd focused in on harmony as the prime element. That makes a certain amount of sense because the harmony does provide a field in which to improvise in a very direct and clear way. But I felt I'd been remiss in examining counterpoint as opposed to harmony, that I needed to go there. In writing for essentially two melodic voices (although I must say Nussbaum's a very melodic drummer), for tenor and bass really, I've brought things down to the bones of counterpoint in a way that I've found very challenging—so challenging that for several months I was hardly able to write anything. It's the closest I've come to utter block. I knew as it was happening that it was happening because I'd placed myself on some difficult terrain. My usual reliance on harmony wasn't going to work on this project. After several months the gates opened, and ideas began to come. Essentially what I'm doing is teaching myself counterpoint. Every song I write is kind of a record of what I've learned in a given month. It usually takes me about a month to write a song—I'm very slow. It's always struck me as a little precious to title things. The titles always come after the fact. I never think first of a great title which is evocative of a certain phrase. It's always the other way around—I hope the tune evokes a phrase.


I'm playing the bass so much these days that I don't expect to get to write for the next two or three months.

But then I've roped off a period of about three months where that's what I'm going to do. It's difficult to accommodate both playing and writing when days are so short. I know you interviewed Carla a couple of weeks ago, and she faces the same dilemma. She's a writer who plays, and I'm a player who writes. We're approaching it, each from a slightly different perspective, but the problem is the same—we're both slow. I find it irresistible to play—I really enjoy it. I've always said "Yes" more often than I've said "No" when the phone rings. Carla in fact has been trying to teach me to mouth the word "No" with only moderate success.

I just start with a blank page and a kind of grim, despairing feeling. My experience is similar to Carla's—every piece is like reinventing the wheel. I think that's a good thing. I'm not writing to a deadline or for a specific purpose—for instance to accompany a TV show. Often I'll sit there for days on end. I've learned that I have to punch in—go to the piano. My theory is somewhere there's a big book that says, "Swallow has to sit at the piano for twenty hours, and an idea will come." I'm a pencil and paper guy. At some point an idea passes quickly through my mind that seems worthy of writing down after hundreds that didn't seem worthy. Having committed just a very small phrase, two or three bars, to paper I start to breathe a little easier. From that point on it becomes a science project and a lot more fun than the initial stage. It's a matter of slowly recognizing and elaborating the possibilities implicit in this little phrase. Slowly the pages kind of fill up. Characteristically I'll get two or three more pages of scrawl. It's usually still in the nature of fragments until the floor is strewn with them. Then the process turns toward assembling the fragments in a coherent way and figuring over a period of a few weeks what it all means—what I'm learning from the process I'm engaged in. What I'm really looking for is coherence. That's what seems to take the time. When all the elements finally lock into their perfect position there's a snapping sound in my head, and I know I've got it. It helps to know for whom I'm writing. In the present case I'm not hearing tenor saxophone; I'm hearing Chris. I'm not hearing drums; I'm hearing Adam. I'm intimately familiar with the way they breathe, with their touch, and with their sensibilities. It's as if there's a Chris wind-up doll and an Adam wind-up doll up in my head, and I can set them in motion and imagine what they'd do with the materials I'm working on. That seems to make it easier for me to get results. The process of settling on writing for this trio took a few weeks of pondering. I wasn't writing music during that time even though I was concerned with writing. I knew I needed to know for whom I was writing before I got to the point of actually conjuring notes. As soon as I knew the process began to roll.

Music set to poetry

My music is just music—there is little programmatic aspect. Having said that I'll contradict myself. The music I've written to poetry qualifies as programmatic in a sense. Most especially I wrote music to poetry by Robert Creely (Home, ECM Records). He's been my favorite poet for all my adult life. That was another instance where I was having trouble writing. The stuff wasn't flowing, and it occurred to me that his poetry which I was reading intensively might jump start the writing process for me. I typed out some of my favorites of his poems—this was in the days of typewriters. In fact I went through all of his poetry and culled a dozen or so poems, the most amenable to being set to music, and pasted them up on the piano. Sure enough in short order they did start to provoke melodic phrases which also implied harmonies. I was off and running. I've returned to writing music to poetry periodically. I've also written to poems by Ishmael Reed and Allen Ginsberg (The Lion for Real, Island Records). It was one of those typical Hal Willner projects where he threw a bunch of us including Ginsberg into a studio together and told each of us to come up with two or three settings to poems. It was a disreputable cast of characters: Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Gary Windo. I went through a two-or three-inch thick book, a collection of Ginsberg's poems, and picked out the ones that seemed best for setting to music. When I was finished I saw that they were all love poems. This was also the case with Creely. The language that was used to write about love seemed the most musical. The phrases already had the kind of lilt and breath that the more abstract poetry didn't. The more abstract poetry often used bigger words and made all kinds of rhythmic difficulties that precluded them from my list. Some of the time Ginsberg read over my music, and some of the time he was kind of caterwauling. He has this very enthusiastic singing style that's not so much accurate as expressive. As I saw this I would fashion his parts in a way that gave him an indication of the contours of the melodies. If there was any specific melodic content I needed in a piece I assigned it to one of the instruments that were on the date. I thought this worked out really well. His enthusiasm for his own words was really contagious—he was a spark plug in the studio. In the Creely project I just used his words and gave them to Sheila Jordan to sing. The melodies were literal and specific. She spent a long time learning them. Some of them were very challenging, and she was very generous with her time. I expect I'll return to writing to words periodically because I enjoy it, but for now I've got my hands full of counterpoint.

The Duets band is dead because the pianist feels she is not accomplished

Horse shit! The duet thing is probably on protracted hold. I sense life there still just because we enjoy playing together so much in private. It's only when we bring it out into the real world that it starts getting difficult because Carla is very uneasy about performing before an audience. The more people there are on the bandstand the better she feels. She's OK with the trio because Andy's up there deflecting attention. She's even more comfortable with the eight-piece band (the 4 X 4) because she barely has to take any solos at all. It goes even further with her big band—she's almost written herself out of it. With [the opera] Escalator over the Hill all she has to do is stand there and wave her arms—she has a wonderful time doing that. It's a question of numbers. When it gets down to just the two of us on a stage it's immensely difficult for her. Part of what makes our Duets so wonderful to me is the extreme price that's paid when we do it. I think the music comes out deeply heartfelt because it's born out of such difficulty. I'm glad we have three CD's worth of music. The thing I like most about Duets is it's a chance to hear Carla's music before the guys in her band get their hands on it. She's always hired players with a strong individual stamp on their playing. Gary Windo springs to mind or Gary Valente. But over the years I've heard what these songs sound like before that happens. I hear Carla writing them. There's something that's lost when the guys get their hands on this music. In the Duets that something is restored—the clarity that exists in the music in her head. She's a very severe pianist. She hates classical pianists who swoon when they play. I think her ideal is much closer to Monk who also kind of approaches the piano as a typewriter. He's giving you the notes. That's very much Carla's point of view as well, and that's what gets communicated when it's just the two of us playing. It's terrific—you're able to focus on the content in a direct, clear, and undisturbed way.

Grog Kill Recording Studio

I tend to do most of the producing that happens in the studio. In fact I'm sitting in it right now. There was a point at which I could actually do it—come down here, turn on the machines, and record albums. I did record a couple of the Duets albums all on my own. I've stopped doing that because there are not enough hours in the day. I felt I was swerving away from playing the bass. At this point we always use our good friend and favorite engineer, Tom Mark. I'm very much involved in the mechanics of recording. I think in a way that's an extension of what happened to me when I became an electric bassist. I realized my instrument was not only the thing I was touching with my fingers, but it was also the amplifier I was playing. My sound was effectively a chain of events that began with my brain, proceeded through my fingers, a piece of wood, a cable, a lot of circuitry, then caused a speaker cone to flap. It was a logical and easy next step for me to see the entire chain of the recording process leading up through the mastering of the record was also a part of making music. On those terms I took to it right away. I enjoy being involved in the production of records—in the end you end up with a thing in your hand. We used to do more recording of other bands than we do now. The last thing we did that wasn't our own was Carla's daughter Karen Mantler's latest album [Pet Project, EMI], which was great fun and occupied about three weeks. Since then all we've done down here is mix some of our own recordings. There's the odd bit of recording. It's kind of nice to have it here.

Computers vs. music

We're neophytes, but we're trying. We expect to have the website (wattxtrawatt.com) up in a month or so. It's more Carla and Karen. I'm an emailer—I figured that one out. Neither Carla nor I have any immediate intentions of writing music in any other way than with paper and pencil. We're both shy of notation software or sequencing. We're comfortable with slow. I find that the difficulty and the deliberation involved in writing music with a pencil serves effectively as a great editor. If it's not worth the effort it takes to write something down it's not worth remembering. I'm concerned that using sequencers and other aids of that sort make the process too easy.

Reunion with Jimmy Giuffre and Paul Bley (Conversations with a Goose, Soul Note)

Paul and I visited Jimmy yesterday. Jimmy has Parkinson's disease, and I don't think he's going to be comfortable going on the road. It's a wonderful trio—we had a great time yesterday, the three of us. To me the sound of the recent band is similar to the sound we had in the 1960's. There's a weird and wonderful sense that those thirty years we took off were really just like a day—as if 1962 was Monday and 1995 was Tuesday. I don't think that would be true of the other bands I've played with.

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