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Steve Swell: Appreciating the Avant Garde Today

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Having been a trombonist myself, your technique on that instrument seems to me to be incredible, one might almost say outlandish! How did you develop your exceptional technical repertoire?

SS: As I was choosing the path that I chose, I studied with Ed Herman, a trombone player from the New York Philharmonic. I got to study with Jimmy Knepper. I went to Jazzmobile a few times, and Curtis Fuller was the teacher there. Then I went to Jazz Interactions, and studied with Roswell Rudd. And sometimes Grachan Moncur III would substitute for him. When I practice, I do a lot of bebop phrases, using double and triple tonguing, and of course I go away from the chord structures and practice improvising that way just off of the melody. So I've acquired quite a wide range of both technical and creative input. But I think young musicians might get too hung up on the technical aspects and should focus more on the creative process.

AAJ: How would you describe your own creative process?

SS: For me, bebop is part of the language, and then I go and make different sounds with the instrument, maybe the way early Dixieland players did, playing along with recordings of a wide variety of musicians and then just trying things on my own. But I'm also listening to a lot of European and modern music as well as European improvisers like trombonists Paul Rutherford and Wolter Wierbos. I think all these influences inform what I'm doing now.

AAJ: So you stay open to new influences.

SS: Absolutely. There's a great interview with Miles Davis where Dick Cavett asked him, "What gets you going every day? What's important to you in life?" And Miles said, "Learning something new every day." The learning never stops. You can't know everything in one lifetime.

AAJ: My thoughts are going in a couple of directions, and one of them is about sound. I think that sound or sonority is very important in music. When I first heard Ornette Coleman, I was put off by his sound, his use of a plastic saxophone. Now, I'm beginning to understand why he did that and appreciate it more, but personally, I love a sound that's rich, full, like trombonist Urbie Green. But there are so many other sounds that are valuable in jazz. What are your thoughts about taking the sound to different places to make it meaningful in particular ways? I think of Don Cherry playing a pocket trumpet. All the different sounds that are possible. Jazz has contributed enormously to exploiting all the different sounds of the instruments.

SS: Well I think that sound is the basis of everything else in music. You have to give yourself over to your own sound, live in it, understand it and be close with it, absorb yourself in it and the sound of the group you are playing with. I remember reading that when John Coltrane joined Miles Davis, some of the critics said Trane had a "thin sound," and now we don't even think of that, we just think of Coltrane as a genius giant of the saxophone. They said he had a "smaller sound," but it was his unique sound, and he used it to great effect. Sound is everything

AAJ: I never thought that Trane had a smaller sound. That's not the way to describe it. It's not "fat" like, say Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, but it has a very rich timbre, and much like the human voice. Speaking of the sound of that era, the bebop players like Bird and Dizzy Gillespie sharpened the sound, omitted vibrato, made it very crisp.

SS: Right. I think that is what they meant, they were comparing Coltrane's sound to a Ben Webster and it was very different from what listeners were used to. And what you say about Bird and Dizzy got codified, sound-wise, technique-wise and that's mainstream jazz now.

AAJ: Earlier you said that last night, you and the group played "free improvisation?" What do you mean by that?

SS: We improvised an hour long set, no written music, no discussion about what we were going to do: myself on trombone, Michael Bisio on bass, and Gebhard Ullmann from Germany on tenor saxophone, who also played bass clarinet. No drums or piano. I've been partnering with Gebhard for twenty years.

AAJ: So there are no tunes, key signatures, or pre-determined harmony?

SS: No, not at all. Are you surprised? We do have what I would call a vocabulary each one of us delves into when we play together. We're not entirely in the dark about what we're doing!

AAJ: But you're just playing whatever comes to your mind, wherever you want to go?

"Spontaneous Compositions"

SS: Exactly. And by listening to each other we string together what many people now call "spontaneous compositions."

AAJ: OK, let's say I'm your average Joe. I'm sitting in the audience, and I'm thinking, "What the hell are these guys playing!!?? I'm open-minded enough to give it a chance. Could you say what you are trying to accomplish when you don't have this familiar structure to work with?

SS: Well, to begin with, we're not thinking of those things. We're just trusting all the experiences musically and in life that we've had up to that point, and we're responding to each other in a sensitive way. Whether that sensitivity is raw or quiet, or whatever volume or emotion it is, we're responding to each other. Maybe one of us starts to play something and then I'll respond to it, and then -the main thing that we were just talking about -is the sound. And we're also taking into consideration the space itself. The sound of the space. The space in Kingston had very live acoustics, so I discovered that the softer I played, I could find some ideas that were more fragile and kind of deep, maybe sad in spots. And then we got pretty raucous at times! But I found with those live acoustics that I didn't have to play very loud to get a lot of emotion across. The space and audience are actually part of the band and the music.

A Comparison with Jackson Pollock's Art

SS: If you're an audience member who is confronted with this sort of playing, and say the music was entirely new to you, I'd suggest doing what I do when I'm exposed to a new kind of music. I close my eyes, and I just listen and let it take me from there. It's a bit like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting for the first time. He's dripped some paint in one part of the canvas, and then does something else in another place. It seems random, but then when you look at it for a while, it becomes meaningful and alive for you, as it has for so many art lovers.



With music, it's not all drips, you can hear some kind of melody, chords. It's very important to hear where it starts. You wait for the moment of the first sounds, and then you're ready to take the train on the journey with the musicians. Maybe stepping back and listening to the whole "picture" you might gravitate towards a specific sound or musicians and focus in on that. Many times listening back to something I did or listening to someone elses music I got turned on by a specific sound and don't recognize it then I go looking for its source. Where is that sound coming from? Who is making it? is the source two or more musicians making it? That's what I love about this music, discovering a unique sound or interplay of sound that is happening spontaneously.

AAJ: So that journey has something to do with the collective experiences of musicians and listeners. It's got some kind of structure underlying it. It's not total chaos. Like with Jackson Pollock, you begin to see how organized it is beneath the apparently random drips of paint.

SS: Of course! As raw as they may be to some, his paintings are beautiful. And the same thing can happen with a group of musicians with sounds. They're listening very hard to what they're contributing at each moment. And what you'll find is that a freely improvised performance will go through many different permutations. The musicians know how to move between the parts or movements to develop their ideas. So if you listen carefully, and with an open mind, you're going to have a very rich and rewarding musical experience. But you do have to overcome any prejudice that you have. You just have to follow along and see what you might be drawn into, just as you would with a new work of art of any kind. And with recordings, you have a chance to go back and listen again to see what else pops up. I discover new things each time I listen to one of them.

AAJ: Jazz is different from paintings, in that jazz takes place in time and can never be repeated, while a painting is "frozen" in time. It takes place in space rather than time.

SS: Yes, but you can think of jazz as a kind of "action painting," where you watch the artist or artists going through his or her process. Its fascinating for me to see, hear, be involved in that as a musician and/or listener. In fact, there's quite a bit of combined music and visual arts being done today. Jeff Schlanger creates paintings in response to the music as it's played. Another artist in New York, Bill Mazza, does computer generated colors and lines while the music is taking place.

AAJ: It seems that jazz has really entered the multi-media age.

SS: Maybe, but that's not my point. I was just making a comparison between visual art and music. For me, it's more than enough to focus on the music and how I'm relating to it. Listening with your eyes closed is sometimes very rewarding: let the music paint the picture for you. That is called "acousmatic" listening, sound one hears without seeing the originating cause, which we all do in some form or another.

AAJ: How can someone tell whether music that's very experimental or lacks conventional structure is likely to be meaningful and important as opposed to a gimmick cleverly designed to get attention?

SS: That's an interesting point. Great musicians can play junk, whether they play the same old familiar stuff to please their fan base and make some money or just play nonsense. I think the primary objective of jazz improvisation is to play something new that hasn't been built before sound-wise and spark something in people that they wouldn't get any place else. To inspire them, even heal them. I think it also has to do with a musician's personal makeup and depth as an individual. What it means to them to be doing this in the first place. It's a good thing for musicians to think about that. Why are you motivated to be working in this art form?
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