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Steve Swell: Appreciating the Avant Garde Today

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: So who came along after that?

SS: Later, I got into Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Glenn Spearman, Frank Wright, and so many musicians that I would gravitate towards emotionally and listening wise such as Evan Parker, George Lewis, and Ray Anderson. I've always been a pretty avid listener, and I'm always curious about what people are doing, especially new trombone players.

Pushing the Limits

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!

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