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Steve Swallow: The Poetry Of Music

Jason Crane By

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[Creeley's] words contained all that [music], and it was just a question of extracting what was in there already.
Steve SwallowBassist Steve Swallow and poet Robert Creeley were friends for 30 years. Swallow first read Creeley's work in the 1950s, and instantly fell in love with what Creeley had to say and the way he said it. Twenty years later, a chance meeting with Creeley led to a personal and professional relationship. Creeley's work inspired two of Swallow's albums—Home (ECM, 1980) and his most recent recording, So There (XtraWATT/ECM, 2006).

AAJ contributor Jason Crane talked with Swallow about So There and his relationship with Creeley. Swallow proved himself to be as consummate an appreciator of poetry and life as he is a master of the electric bass.

All About Jazz: What made Robert Creeley's work stand out when you first started reading it in the 1950's?

Steve Swallow: I'd say it was the same qualities that I most admire to this day. His concision, his extraordinary sense of rhythm, and what he was talking about seemed in a kind of uncanny way to be speaking directly to me. I discovered him in the mid-'50s, I would guess, and had the sense that he was addressing me personally then, and held on to that through it all. As I got to know him as a person, I felt that we did indeed share some perspectives on how life worked.

AAJ: Can you give an example?

SS: I became an avid collector of what he wrote immediately starting in the mid-'50s, and I have a pretty complete library of what he's written. I thought to make the album Home with [vocalist] Sheila Jordan. I began working on it in the early '70s and didn't record it until '79 or maybe '80. I went through everything he'd written very deliberately, with an eye or an ear for what I thought could be sung well—purely the poems that seemed to have lines to me that evoked music. I put bookmarks in all the appropriate places and then typed out all that I got. Then I looked it over and realized that all the poems I'd chosen were ones about love, the romantic ones. And that's by no means predominant in his poetry. I'd say, in fact, that it's a small piece of his whole pie.

AAJ: Was that a function of choosing things to be sung and romantic lines are a fairly common topic for lyrics?

SS: It wasn't that I was choosing the words for their meaning at all. I was really just choosing sounds and rhythms. I didn't care what the text was initially. I remember being very clear with myself about that—that I needed syllables that formed well in the mouth, and vowel sounds that produced the best vocal sound, and the rhythms that seemed conducive to musical phrasing. I wasn't looking at content. I was unaware of content as I did that in that initial gleaning for Home. I already had Sheila Jordan in mind and was thinking of her voice. Her voice had always been a very personal matter for me. She'd moved me deeply when I'd played with her over the years.

So it wasn't until stage two of the process, when I'd sat down with what I'd chosen and typed it out, that I realized that they were all love poems. I remarked on that and didn't pay it much mind. I went ahead and set the poems I liked best, and in the course of seven or eight years produced the music that would become that album.

I made that album in late '79 or early '80, and I think a week or two after it was recorded my wife split and I was devastated. As you can imagine, it was one of those big life or death events. We'd been together for quite a while and had kids. In the course of floundering around in the aftermath, I went back and listened to the album and looked at the poems that I'd selected but hadn't used, and found tremendous solace or consolation there. Several years prior to the event, [it turned out] I'd chosen a text to read to myself to get over the feeling of devastation that I was experiencing. I consider that a remarkable and quirky experience.

In fact, I was in touch with Bob. We've had a long correspondence that started in the early 70's and continued until a week or so before he died.

AAJ: You lived near each other at one point, right?

SS: Yeah, in the early '70s. Again, entirely by coincidence. It's a remarkable thread of coincidence and magic that's run through our relationship. In 1970 I moved to northern California, north of San Francisco, a bohemian enclave called Bolinas. A wonderful town on the very tip of San Francisco Bay. It wasn't until I'd actually settled there with my family that I discovered that Bob lived there. We'd corresponded, but I'd never noticed the postmarks. At that time, we got to know each other considerably better and the idea to work with his poetry took form in my mind. His daughter babysat my kids. We had a day-to-day life together—a day-to-day life near each other—as neighbors, which helped because I was so thoroughly in awe of him up to that point. I guess I never really lost that, but as I got to know him better I was able to loosen up and speak in his presence.

You can imagine how incredibly difficult it was to write to him. His letters, which had that kind of tossed-off quality that his poetry has—and he does try to toss it, I think that was his modus operandi, to achieve that rhythm you get when you just sail along as the words pile up in your mouth and you exit them as rapidly as you can. On the other hand, I would just ponder over my little three-paragraph responses to his letters for days trying to get the language right, to try to meet the standard that was implicit in everything he said. If he was talking about going to the store, there was an extraordinary song in it.

AAJ: I can imagine writing letters to a world-renowned poet must be like showing your score to a famous composer or giving your demo tape to your favorite musician.

SS: Exactly. So it was an incredibly fortunate coincidence that I was able to get to know him and just sit around and talk about the lengthening nights in November and the day-to-day stuff of living, which is a lot of what his poetry is about. To see that the line between everything one addresses in the course of a normal day and that thing you call poetry is really an illusion. That's one of his lines that I've always loved: "Is that a real poem or did you just make it up?" I think somebody said that to him at one point. I love what's implicit in that.



I got lessons from him at every turn. There's an obvious lesson for me to learn about bass playing, which is not to take it too seriously. To approach bass playing, in a sense, in the same way you approach going to the store or eating your toast in the morning.

AAJ: When you first wrote to him, was it simply as a fan of his poetry, or had the idea of using his poetry as a springboard for music already come into your head? When did you first write to him?

SS: I guess the initial letters came after I knew him in Bolinas in 1970 or '71. When I left Bolinas, we just kept in touch, and the idea that I was going to work with his poems had already arisen when we were neighbors. So we were discussing that from the outset. In fact, to go back, there was the extraordinary event of finding that the poetry of his I'd chosen was just what I needed to get over the dissolution of my marriage.

We were writing back and forth at that time, and he also very soundly and very matter-of-factly told me, "Don't worry about it, you'll find a better one. I did." And this addressed that whole immense issue of the wrenching life change that the dissolution of a relationship cause, in terms that made it seem as simple as putting a letter in an envelope and addressing it, or whatever else you do in the course of a day. The amazing thing is that my sense is that the way in which he leveled things for me didn't diminish anything. It had the opposite effect—it made all the events in a day more important and portentous and significant in ways that you had to dig deeply to apprehend. I think that's a lesson that poetry in general can teach.
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