Steve Swell: Sound Miracles

Gordon Marshall By

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Trombonist Steve Swell captures the energy of a big band in the close quarters of a small group. An alumnus of Buddy Rich's and Lionel Hampton's bands on the one hand, and collaborator with Anthony Braxton on the other, he seems bound to have fixed upon such a hybrid configuration at some point. But how an artist could exhibit such stylistic range and adaptability to begin with, and on top of that reconcile them in a career that has already spanned three decades, is a question requiring some digging, representing as it does an achievement unique in any jazz era.

All About Jazz: Many people can't imagine a cooler, neater instrument than the trombone—with the slide, the range, the sheer size of it. What drew you to it when you were young?

Steve Swell: In public school, in New Jersey, there was a music teacher who would give demonstrations on the instruments, in the third and fourth grade, and on the basis of that you kind of picked it. The teacher played the trombone and he actually played the slide right down into my face as I remember, and thought that was kind of cool and kind of fun—I'm sitting in the front row.

I didn't really fall in love with it then, but when it came time for me to pick an instrument, I had a "kid" injury to my arm, my wrist. I had cut myself on some glass in a construction site; I fell and slipped on some glass and had some stitches. And really my first choice was trumpet but I couldn't move my fingers at the time. I could only play trombone, and that's really how I ended up with it.

I showed some early proficiency on it. I was kind of a shy kid, and the teacher was very good about giving me some attention with it, some instruction, and I enjoyed doing it to a certain degree. I didn't fall in love with it until I heard Roswell Rudd play the trombone on the radio—I was about 15.

AAJ: So that's when you started listening to jazz?

SS: Actually, a little before that. My father was into big bands...When The Beatles came on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, my father was—a lot of parents were afraid of The Beatles and the long hair—and my father didn't want me to see The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, so he took me in his room and played some Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller records for me, which is kind of weird—to keep me away from the rock and roll that was just starting to happen.

AAJ: Was it a blessing in disguise, diverting you into something that would be more...

SS: That's what he was trying to do and it piqued my interest a little bit, but of course I still was a kid in New Jersey, and I listened to the rock and roll that was coming up in the '60s and '70s, so it didn't stop me anyway.

I had some good teachers in school, some friends. The teachers turned us on to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie— mostly bebop from that point on. And then I heard free music around 15, and that's when I really fell in love with the music.

AAJ: One of your first big gigs was with Buddy Rich. Was your father still around at that time to be pleased that you were working with one of the heroes of the big band era?

SS: He was, he was. I had played with Lionel Hampton the year before that. He's still alive, and he understands what I'm doing, but at that point I think he was still trying to discourage me from playing music.

AAJ: Buddy Rich is a larger-than-life figure, reputed to be a driving, ruthless leader. Is that accurate?

SS: His reputation is exactly as is known—He was pretty tough. And I think that was because he was already two or three generations older than most of the musicians he was working with—certainly at the time I was working with him in the early '80s—and he was a taskmaster, no question about it. He was very rough on his musicians, but it was only really because he wanted the best out of them more than anything.

AAJ: That discipline seems to have been instilled in you, that gives your music a driving quality; this no-holds barred ability to keep going and going in your solos and ensemble work, and one can't help thinking the Buddy Rich experience might have germinated that.

SS: I agree. I don't think it's just him, I think it's a combination of being out there with a lot of older musicians like that, who had a lot of drive. Lionel Hampton had the same kind of drive, in a different kind of way: he wasn't as verbally demonstrative, but we would always do two, two-and-a-half hour sets a night. And people like Makanda Ken McIntyre also had a very unforgiving standard that you really had to reach. I think the culmination of all those experiences had an effect on me.

AAJ: McIntyre was a devoted educator, though, and one would imagine his demands were more rooted in a desire to get the best out of his students than to be successful commercially.

SS: That goes to Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton as well. It wasn't about being successful in terms of being a successful musician career-wise. With all these people, it was about the music and being the best you could possibly be.

AAJ: So you were working in this big band context. Was that a desire of yours, to work within the tradition, or was that simply where the work was at the time?

SS: When I was growing up—it's not this way anymore—it was really, not so much a rule as an unwritten rule that you spend time in those big bands, in Woody Herman's big band, or Buddy Rich's...

AAJ: So it was a rite of passage?

SS: Exactly. You were supposed to pay your dues in those bands before you went on to have a bandleader or solo career. That's the ethic I grew up with and I aspired to that. I tried to get in Woody Herman's band but I didn't quite get there.

AAJ: Well, Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton are as big as names as Woody Herman, aren't they?

SS: Oh yeah, of course, but when you're in your 20s and early 30s those guys were around and you just wanted to be next to them, and hear them and play with them if you could.

AAJ: Was McIntyre the first break with the swing bands?

SS: I was in Lionel Hampton's band and then I was in Buddy Rich's, and then I went to Jaki Byard's big band, and through that I started to meet some people and I broke with more—I had already been into free music but it was at that time that I started to work with Jemeel Moondoc and Walter Thompson and eventually ended up with Tim Berne. So McIntyre was a pivotal time for me.

AAJ: The Byard/McIntyre axis.

SS: Absolutely.

AAJ: You've worked with Cecil Taylor, too, Bill Dixon. What was the path from big band, by way of the small units where you were collaborator, to starting out your own bands where you were leader? Was that a smooth transition?

SS: I don't think there's anything smooth or gradual in jazz. Things just kind of happen, and if you're in New York, you have exposure to a lot of different people and opinions, and ideas of how to do things and when to do things and where to do things, and the one ethos I had was to be around those earlier big bands, and when I got around to Jaki Byard and Ken McIntyre and Jemeel Moondoc, those were a little bit smaller, about 10, 12 pieces—from there it was just a natural progression to wanting to make my own music, I was just drawn to it, and inspired by all the different approaches to how to improvise and how to put your own bands together, and eventually I just had to do my own thing. And I still feel that push and that desire to do that.

AAJ: When was this that you first started out as a leader?

SS: I would say in the late '80s and early '90s I had forays into different bands. I had a band with Joe Fonda, with Lou Grassi, and I had a little band I was doing with Will Connell, and from there— those were things I was trying to do; I wasn't sure what I was doing with them, I was just writing music and playing out in front of people. They weren't recorded or anything, I was just out there doing some gigs with it and see where it took me, without thinking how to advance it, just doing it to get the experience of doing it, and try to have a good time doing it of course, as well.

AAJ: Who else?

SS: In the mid '90s, Tim Berne—I met Herb Robertson on Walter Thompson's band and he kindly brought me into the Tim Berne world, and I met Joey Baron on that band and I played in Joey Baron's band, and did some touring with Hank Roberts' band who was also involved in that circle, the Knitting Factory circle. That was about 1990.

AAJ: So there was some overlap between being a sideman and leading.

SS: Being a sideman is a thing I've always done and I still enjoy doing it and I also get experience from it and ideas, and I do grow from it also. And I incorporate some of what I learn as a sideman into my own music, and I like being a sideman because it takes some of the pressure off of everything you have to do as a bandleader. So in some senses, I won't say it's a vacation, but it's time off from some of the pressures of doing your own thing. But then you have to get back to your own thing, too. So there's a push and pull on both sides of that coin.

AAJ: Being a sideman, you would get to focus on your own solos and developing your own solo technique.

SS: Yeah, you do that in your own band, too. You just get a little more time to breathe maybe before you go back to try to put your own work together.

AAJ: So about your solos: how do you feel you relate to trombone history, modern trombone history, like Jimmy Knepper or Grachan Moncur III, or Roswell Rudd.

SS: It's all very, very important to me. My whole approach to improvising is coming from a very deep-rooted jazz sense and a very definite trombone history, going back to Kid Ory, and J.C. Higgenbothen- —and I loved listening to Jack Teagarden when I was a kid. And, of course, J.J. Johnson. I very much love the whole tradition of the trombone in jazz. I'm rooted in that tradition, but also I have a sense of—a like what's going on in the rest of the world, the Connie Bauers and the Walter Wierboses, who are European. They don't really have that same tradition, so I'm also open to that and try to incorporate all that into my improvising—very open to all of it.
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