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Steve Swell: Unlimited Musical Possibilities

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: You mentioned some of the classical composers, and I wanted to ask you to what extent you are influenced by modern classical composers, such as those we mentioned earlier, but also composers like Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Steve Reich, and others. Do they influence your playing, or do you basically utilize an open jazz framework?

SS: These classical composers definitely influence my improvising. For instance, I'm trying to develop a harmonic sense different from Roswell Rudd or even the English trombonist Paul Rutherford. You can hear the modern classical influence in a lot of the European jazz players, and their improvising is very free. So I do add that to my improvising vocabulary. I'm always developing my harmonic sense and experimenting with large intervals. I also think about the sound of the trombone. I always refer to the reed instruments, like when you listen to Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman, they can get those "nook and cranny" sounds. I think you can do that with brass instruments, but it's more challenging. I take all that in as information moving towards new ways of playing the trombone.

AAJ: Do you use serial composition and twelve-tone rows?

SS: I don't deliberately try to use twelve-tones. I'm more looking to what I can get out of my instrument, like flutter-tonguing or some other technique, rather than using a twelve-tone scale, or a diminished scale. I feel that there's something emotional missing from adhering to a strict, fixed system, but that doesn't mean it can't be part of what I include in my improvising or composing.

AAJ: It's important for you to try to express feelings in your music.

SS: Absolutely! That's always the goal.

AAJ: In my opinion, your technique on the trombone is exceptional, pressing the limit of what's possible on that instrument. How did you acquire the ability to play with such resilience?

SS: Thank you for the compliment. But I really don't want to rely on technique alone. I'm trying to find other areas. But to answer your question, it's just a matter of practice. I still practice one and a half to two hours a day five days a week or more. I'm trying large intervals, wider intervals, and other patterns. Also, it's just experience and listening and experimenting. I try to play with as many people as possible whose work I find interesting as well.

AAJ: So you stretch yourself by playing with many diverse groups.

SS: Absolutely. Like, I recently had a gig at the McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Street [Chelsea section of Manhattan—Eds.] It's not really a hotel, it's a building they resurrected and now have various events and entertainment, such as a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in an unusual setting. So there's this big room and bar, and there's a band of young musicians doing music from the 1930s! After that, they bring on so- called avant new music. So I came in there with Will Connell and Reggie Nicholson, and when they heard us, most people left! But we kept playing, and it gave me a chance to really stretch out and try different things. I had a good time! We spent a lot of time trading fours and eights, which was phenomenal. So, it's all about just trying new things.

Sorting Out the Spectrum of Free and Avant-Garde Jazz

AAJ: " The new thing" was the watchword of the free and avant-garde jazz that came into being in the 1950s and '60s. Names you mentioned, like Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, the later John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and others come to mind in that respect. I'm wondering if there's a useful way we could sort out and classify the different forms within these general categories.

SS: These guys were the trailblazers. They all had different musical backgrounds. Cecil was a trained classical pianist. Roswell Rudd was a Dixieland player. And you hear Eric Dolphy, and you ask, where on earth did he come from? All of a sudden, he's playing stuff that's so ahead of his time, that you have to ask, how did that happen? His intervals and harmonics were just out there! I love his approach. Then he worked with Mingus, so that influenced him. So it's hard to know where he got his musical ideas from. Jazz has moved and evolved so far and so fast, that categorizing it becomes very difficult.

I tend to look at jazz in terms of individuals and groups of individuals rather than grouping them together in a broad generic sense. For example, Leroy Jenkins [violinist, violist, and composer at various times associated with Anthony Braxton, Anderw Cyrille, Cecil Taylor, and others.—Eds.]. There were a number of free jazz players before him, but Leroy added something else from his classical and folk music backgrounds, and he added harmonics and chord changes that were off-centered. There were so many people who did that each in their own way that I tend to look at it as each having his own individual sound world. If I were forced to break it down into categories, I would say there is what could be called free jazz/avant-garde. Then there's the European classical-derived approach. And there are those, like Anthony Braxton, who combine both those trends. So you can't really categorize players like him.

I think that the use of categories might help someone who is new to all this music. I was working with a student classical ensemble at a school in Brooklyn. I was talking about a release I'm on with Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra, and Roscoe Mitchell is the featured artist on it. And one of the students said, "Oh, you mean Roscoe Mitchell the composer?" He didn't even know that Roscoe Mitchell played the saxophone. He knew Mitchell only as a composer. So we need ways for people to see the bigger picture, and some concepts and categories are useful for that purpose. But Mitchell is a good example of someone who is at home with diverse skills and approaches. And I feel drawn to that approach myself, as are many others. I can go in whatever direction I'm drawn to at a particular time. Like I wrote a clarinet piece; soon I'm going to do a string composition with voice. I believe it's really wide open for musicians today, and they should be aware of what's going on, and research a lot of what people are doing and feel free to follow their interests.

AAJ: A propos of your own work, you made two recent albums, Gumter Hampel—Cavana Lee Hempel—Steve Swell (Birth Records, 2014) and Evolving Strategies: Variable Intensity Sound Orchestra (Not Two, 2014). Perhaps you could tell us about these albums and how they fit in to our discussion.

SS: Both are representative of my idea about mixing various improvising approaches: there's some mainstream elements, free jazz, some composed sections that inspire improvisations which are sound and texture-oriented without a fixed beat. If it's successful, the energy will come across even if there's no rhythmic element to it.
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