During a decade long association with the Criss Cross imprint, John Swana has produced an impressive aggregate of achievement, 15 discs in all, as a leader or featured sideman. On his own records, Swana usually adheres to the label's practice of utilizing a select pool of New York area musicians, ranging from young firebrands like Eric Alexander and Chris Potter, to respected veterans such as Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller. For his latest release,Philly Gumbo
, the trumpeter alters the pattern by employing a band of notable players from his native Philadelphia. In large measure the sound of the disc is based on the precedent set by the classic hard bop ensembles of the 50s and 60s. Despite the strong pull of its origins, the music of Swana and company manages to assume a distinct identity, featuring a combination of memorable material (most of which is penned by the leader), an exceptionally responsive rhythm section, and soloists with singular voices.
'Blues For Hicks' gets the disc off to a fine start, not by grabbing the listener, but by rewarding scrupulous attention to each member of the band. As bassist Mike Boone and drummer Byron Landham create a shifting rhythmic floor beneath him, Swana's solo exhibits circumspection not always present in his work. A series of fat, pointed quarter notes during the first chorus signals a willingness to take his sweet time in telling an engrossing tale. Tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes is delightfully elusive, promising to excite by displaying a broad, full tone, then retreating to a middle ground between passion and emotional reserve, without ever seeming to work up a sweat. Mindful of the bassist and drummer's unwavering groove, pianist Sid Simmons begins a somewhat sparse, blues-drenched monologue then shakes things up with hard, persistent chords and equally flinty runs executed by his right hand. What initially sounds like Landham accompanying Boone's walking solo turns out to be the opposite: the drummer impresses with precise sticking, infallible swing, and a structured commotion from beginning to end.
The airy sound of Swana's muted trumpet is prominent during most of the melody of Boone's 'Old Head,' with Barnes handling the bridge before the two complete the tune by playing an eight bar section as the piano, bass, and drums lockstep like a mini marching band. Swana's gorgeous lyricism is reminiscent of Miles Davis; moreover, it's easy to get lost in his full sound and impeccable way of melding ideas into an entirety. Right before Barnes' solo begins, Landham switches from brushes to sticks and seems to stiffen the tenor's resolve with a chain of snare, cymbal, and tom tom explosions. Although his playing is always orderly, it never pays to get too comfortable with whatever notion Simmons is working on, for another strikingly different one is always on the way. The entire band returns to the tune and seems about to march off into a long fadeout when Boone appears out of nowhere, at first almost miserly in doling out tones then hitting his stride, alternately moving with and ignoring Landham's tenacious processional rhythms.
Swana's ability to adapt to the capabilities of the rhythm section and vice versa partially accounts for the intriguing differences in his two solos on the waltz 'Soulful One.' During the first one Boone provides unobtrusive counterpoint and Landham makes the music pop with strokes to the snare and light cymbal crashes. Swana is still clearly the prominent voice, and they do nothing to detract from the melancholy-tinged beauty of his playing. In the trumpeter's second time around, Landham takes a more assertive stance. His forceful, complex blows to the entire kit both stand apart from and convulse the entire band. Swana responds in kind to this upheaval by first playing epigrammatic variations of a three-note phrase, then moving on to edgy double-time passages and squeezing out a few pithy high notes before long drowsy tones bring the solo to a standstill.
Perhaps a sign that Swana's future projects may sound very different fromPhilly Gumbo, the recording ends with its most unusual selection, 'Tot Ziens.' Accompanied by Boone and Landham (using mallets) who play without a fixed pulse and apparent harmonic indicators, he sounds out the doleful melody with little adornment, giving the impression that this will be an uneventful farewell. Then the music abruptly veers into something freer and more challenging. Sounding at home amidst bashed cymbals, the seemingly haphazard click of wood on drum rims, and a shower of bass tones, Swana's brief, skittish melodies are almost a parody of everything he's played on the earlier tracks. Cluttered and unfinished, they nonetheless work, and he soon returns to the theme leaving us thinking that there's a lot more to learn about his music.