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Steve Swell: Unlimited Musical Possibilities

Victor L. Schermer By

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"Free Jazz" and "Avant-Garde Jazz" are catch phrases often associated with musical pioneers such as Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor but more broadly refer to music that goes outside of the mainstream of melody, harmony, rhythm, and structure. When that happens, opinions and emotions abound. Reactions vary from disgust to excitement and enthusiasm, and it is rare to find a balanced view on the subject. The question arises, why does the same music so strongly attract and repel? To seek answers to this and related questions about music that presses the limits of the expectable, All About Jazz initiated a conversation with Steve Swell, a highly respected, accomplished, and articulate musician who is immersed in these genres but has a strong background in mainstream music.

Swell is a trombonist, composer, and arranger of exceptional resilience, intensity, and technique, whose work captures the imagination of his listeners. Since he is adept in all genres, he was a natural choice for this interview. Swell's previous All About Jazz interview (May 31, 2010 by Gordon Marshall) covered a wide range of subjects, some of which are recapped here, but the current conversation had the specific purpose of exploring jazz that pushes the limits, disconcerting some listeners and generating enthusiasm in others.

AAJ: Free jazz and avant-garde jazz sometimes are not understood by listeners, and we hope to focus here on their difficulty "hearing" what others consider the future of jazz and ways in which they can learn to appreciate the value of music that presses the outer limits.

SS: That's a compliment to your understanding and sensitivity to the problem. In truth, half the history of jazz now has included the free jazz and avant-garde, and has developed even further from its radical stage in the 1960s. So it's important that we have a writer like you to help people have more appreciation and access to it. Some critics even now say they don't understand Ornette Coleman. I think it's important to stay open. I also must say at the outset, that I am not entirely comfortable with labels, especially labels where art and music are concerned, but for the sake of an intelligent discussion I will use the definitions ascribed to the music we are talking about here.

Steve Swell and His Musical Development

AAJ: Let's go to some questions about you, and then we'll come back to this subject that we're going to focus upon. First of all let's do the "Desert Island" question for a warmup. Which music would you take to that desert island?

SS: My interests are constantly changing, so it would depend a lot on what day you asked me that! Currently, I'm reading a biography of the avant-garde composer and violinist, Leroy Jenkins, and I'm listening to some of his earliest recordings which were done with Anthony Braxton on saxophone and Leo Smith on trumpet. So I would choose a piece I like that he wrote entitled "Life Simple," and a recording that trio made with drummerSteve McCall in Paris called "Composition #1" which was written by Braxton.

Soon, I plan to do a Bela Bartok-influenced project, so I'm listening to his "Microcosmos" and his String Quartets 4, 5, and 6. "Microcosmos" consists of 153 piano etudes that are used as technical studies, but they're also amazing music. So I'd probably take those with me to the desert island!

AAJ: OK, but wouldn't you also want to listen to some of the straight-ahead jazz?

SS: Of course! I keep a file of music I love and study in my iTunes folder on my laptop. I've got some Eddie Bert trombone stuff there that I love. Of course, Roswell Rudd. And Grachan Moncur and George Lewis.

AAJ: Those are all trombonists, and I'm surprised you didn't mention J.J. Johnson in that list. And what about other instruments?

SS: I grew up listening to all of J.J.'s recordings. And I love Miles Davis' In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) as well as the early stuff he did with Charlie Parker. I'm an omnivore in the respect that I listen to anything and everything. I love Jack Teagarden. I have a video of him singing and playing "Old Rocking Chair's Got Me" that is heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.

AAJ: So you're open to the tradition, even though you're reaching for the outer limits.

SS: Absolutely. My father was listening to big bands and turned me on to all that stuff early on.

AAJ: Am I right that you grew up in New Jersey?

SS: Yes, I was born in Newark, but we moved to Union, New Jersey where I went from kindergarten through high school.

AAJ: What were your early exposures to music?

SS: My father played those big band records. I also listened a lot to WRVR, a big radio station in New York at the time. The disc jockey Ed Beach had a radio show featuring Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and even, at the time, "way out" players like Archie Shepp. And he would play their discographies in chronological order. So you would get the whole history of one artist within a two or four hour period. That's how I acquired my basic jazz history during those years.

AAJ: Were you already playing trombone or another instrument?

SS: I started trombone when I was ten years old. I started heavily listening to jazz when I was around fourteen or fifteen.

AAJ: A propos of what will be our main topic, in a previous interview you said that you were attracted to avant-garde jazz very early in your life, which was somewhat surprising to me, since it takes many advanced musicians a long time to get it.

SS: Well, I was totally in love with listening to Jack Teagarden, like his great version of "St. James Infirmary." I loved the sound, his tone, his technique. But when I first heard Roswell Rudd on the Ed Beach show, on "Wherever June Bugs Go?" from Archie Shepp's Live in San Francisco (Impulse, 1966), other synapses clicked and other neurons got fired, and everything brightened up in my mind! I thought, this is beyond anything I could possibly imagine! The new thing clicked for me immediately. I saw that as a way to do something original. It really fired my imagination.

Why People Passionately Love or Hate Free and Avant-Garde Jazz

AAJ: Your immediate liking for newer forms of jazz leads me to the question of the day: Why do some people dig free and avant-garde jazz, while others of equal musical awareness are turned off? Why are there these extremes? For example, I'll tell you a well-documented story, and I'd like your reaction to it. When Ornette Coleman came from Texas to California to get into the modern jazz scene, he asked Dexter Gordon if he could sit in on a set at a local club in Los Angeles. Dexter welcomed him on stage, but after he heard Ornette play, he told him to leave and never come back! Ornette walked out, naturally hurt and dejected. But Dexter's bassist, Charlie Haden had the totally opposite reaction from Dexter. He thought Ornette was incredible, followed him home, and they jammed all night at Ornette's apartment! Of course, Haden became Ornette's main bassist for many years after that. My point is that here are two outstanding musicians in the same band, and one of them is repulsed while the other is completely entranced with the same music.

SS: That's interesting, I wonder how old Haden was at the time?

AAJ: It was the late 1950s, and Haden was about twenty years old. Sadly, he just passed away this month.

SS: I wonder how old Dexter Gordon was.

AAJ: He was in his mid-thirties, so perhaps he already found his groove by that time.

SS: That could partially explain the difference. Haden was young and still searching.

AAJ: Yes, but it repeatedly happens at many avant-garde and free jazz concerts that a certain segment of the audience gets turned off to the point of leaving the auditorium. This happened a few years ago when Ornette played in Philadelphia. Many walked out, while others at the concert loved Ornette's playing. The same thing happened when John Coltrane turned to avant- garde music. I'm just trying to bring out the reasons for the intense opposite reactions that some otherwise open and experienced listeners have to the same music. Do you think it's wired-in to the brain, or a matter of repeated exposure, education, personality, or something else?

SS: I think if you're a musician, and you're learning a certain way of playing, and you work all the scales in a very traditional, mainstream way, you're going to have trouble appreciating music that goes outside that tradition. Ornette Coleman was finding all those nooks and crannies of sound in his instrument that no one played before. That's what made it so revolutionary.

But we can go back before Ornette. The clarinetistPee Wee Russell and others before him played strangely and oddly in certain ways. Music as a whole goes way beyond what we usually hear these days. The diatonic scale [the twelve equally spaced notes of the piano, etc.—Eds.] is only a couple of thousand years old. Other countries have always played other notes and sounds. In India and Africa, there are quarter tones and half tones. So Ornette was bringing back something that was always present in other times and musical cultures. But if you're educated to play and listen diatonically in tune, with a standard rhythm, and so on, when someone claims something different, it seems to violate everything you've been dedicating your life to. The same would be true of listeners who are immersed in mainstream music.

AAJ: Once you've developed your vocabulary, your musical language, everything else might seem like a foreign language that you don't understand.

SS: That's exactly what happens. If you have your vocabulary and your mind set, you might not be ready to hear and appreciate something really different from what's familiar or what you've been working so hard on to accomplish. Then it actually becomes threatening to what your sense of what music is.

AAJ: And most listeners in America are brought up on the diatonic scale. There are some exceptions in country music, jazz, and blues, like slurred notes, flattened "blue notes," and so on. But mostly it's the standard scales and notes that we're hearing constantly.

SS: All the pop music is pretty much that way. It's even less flexible than mainstream jazz. It's the simplest common denominator of standard bass lines, chord progressions, and rhythms repeated over and over again. That's all we hear on the "top 40." I have a theory that if the DJs played Ornette Coleman all the time, he'd become a pop star! I really believe that avant-garde and free jazz could be sold and marketed to much larger audiences! Repeated listening, as they do with top 40 stuff, is the key.

AAJ: So let me throw an unfair question at you. How would you define "music"?

SS: You're right—that isn't fair! [Laughter]

AAJ: But what we're really getting at in this discussion is what people consider music as opposed to noise or speech, or whatever.

SS: Yes, it's actually a very good question. I happen to have a very wide-open palette, which is partly the result of my early exposure to both mainstream jazz and also people like Ornette Coleman and Roswell Rudd, and I didn't find it that far a leap to make. Last night I was reading how Charles Mingus was into the classical composer Bela Bartok. And I recall reading that J.J. Johnson was heavily into Hindemith.
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