That Steve Swell is a hell of a trombone player should come as no surprise. There are few who take on the difficult horn, and fewer still who master it. What should be noted, however, is his emergence as a bandleader.
Swell has helped to define a number of strong groups, from Joey Baron's Barondown to William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra and various projects led by (and with) Jemeel Moondoc. And while he's been leading and recording ensembles since Observations
(released by CIMP in 1996), two new discs show that he can guide a group beyond just meetin' and blowin'.
Steve Swell’s New York BrassWoodTrio
Still in Movement
The BrassWoodTrio is a strong group that puts Swell in the position of being the sole horn. His intonation shines here as he leads bassist Tom Abbs and percussionist Geoff Mann through nine original compositions (two credited to the group, the rest his own). It's a strong, straightforward disc with the rhythm section laying down fast, nimble settings for him to play against. Like Craig Harris, Swell gets that he has to play. The secret's not all in the slide, and Swell has the articulation to carry frontline melodies without relying solely on the unique quality of his horn.
The name of the group defines them, but there's a few minutes when they step outside their moniker and become something even more exciting. In the opening section of "Dance of the Stratonauts" they become simply the BrassTrio, with Abbs switching to tuba and Mann picking up cornet. It's a nice, somber, and all-too-short passage. While Abbs' big horn shows up throughout the disc, Mann the reluctant multi- instrumentalist (he's also played mandolin and trumpet, as well as various unusual pieces of percussion – here he also plays glockenspiel) keeps his horn docked for most of the set. He's a great drummer, but this hint of another direction for the group should be explored more.
Steve Swell’s Unified Theory of Sound
Swell's Unified Theory of Sound is a larger group, pitting him more as a composer and arranger than purely a player. Three long tracks, all penned by Swell, are performed by a sextet including Moondoc on alto saxophone, Matt Lavelle on trumpet, Cooper-Moore on piano, drummer Kevin Norton and Wilber Morris on bass. It's a strong band Swell's pulled together; Norton's a great drummer and no opportunity to hear Moondoc or Cooper-Moore should be missed. And the presence of Morris, who died in August 2002 (just nine months before this session was recorded live at Roulette) makes this recording all the more important. But the pieces tend to ramble and roam. They have a definite feel of Swell's tenure with Parker, but the heads aren't as memorable as, nor are they as strong as on the trio date. Swell's real talent still lies in his instrument, but he is, and will be, capable of more.