Steve Swell: Unlimited Musical Possibilities

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Let's say someone who is a novice listens to these albums and says, "What the h— is this?" The familiar sounds aren't there. What would you like to tell them so they could get the hang of what you are doing?

SS: If you have a concept of what jazz is supposed to be, and you listen to something that doesn't quite fit your idea, of course you're going to be confused or disappointed. I'd say that if you're challenged by something, look at it as a good lesson in life. In your life you're going to meet many people who are very different from you and whose personality or background you can't relate to. Are you going to ignore them? Hopefully not, and you might open up to a new experience. It's the same with music. If it's new, expose yourself to it and get familiar with it. Repeated listening can open your ear to new music. I really believe that's the way to get into it.

Let me give you a personal example. I'm very open to all kinds of music, but one person whose music I had a very hard time with is Derek Bailey [English avant-garde guitarist—Eds.] I had no idea what he was playing. But I listened to him over and over again, and what I discovered was a difference between him and me. He plays with a certain blasé non-attachment, and I'm a very intense energetic player. So to me, his playing seemed almost random, but over time, I began to hear the meaning and order in it, even though he doesn't attack the music the way I do. And I learned something from that and I will on occasion try to add an element of that approach into my playing. And however I do it, it will ultimately come out in the form of my own personality. It was very interesting going through that process because so many people love what he did and I just was not hearing it. But I really put some effort into it and discovered a whole new interesting way to approach improvising.

AAJ: Your sense of rhythm is different from Bailey's.

SS: Yes, and there are some things that Anthony Braxton does that I'd love to be able to do, but it's just not me. I like sustained energy and textures and split tones. And you can still have space within that energy. Some players use a lot of space and adopt a kind of minimalist approach, but to succeed, you still have to sustain the energy of the piece.

AAJ: That energy is what a lot of us love about jazz.

Swell's Innovative Work in the Schools and with People with Disabilities

AAJ: Now, I'd like to shift over a bit to another aspect of your career. You're a very active educator. Not only do you work with students in the school system, you also work with kids with handicaps and medical problems in interesting, compassionate ways. This may in fact be a trend among musicians. For example, the pianist Danilo Pérez told me he increasingly thinks of the healing power of music and as a form of therapy. Another pianist, Tom Lawton, composed a piece specifically for senior citizens. Neuroscientists are studying the relationship between the brain and music. So there's a lot of potential here for jazz musicians to contribute to the helping process.

SS: Oliver Sachs is one of many people who have written about this. [See Sachs' book, Musicophilia, Knopf, 2007—Eds.] I'm not a trained therapist, but I like doing this sort of thing and I improvise with it and see what will happen. Sometimes I'll have say twenty kids in wheel chairs, or a group of kids with brain disabilities, or they have speech difficulties, or they're in the autistic spectrum. I've worked with a very wide range of disabilities. I've found that music does do something important for these folks. I see it in their eyes. For example, I am working with a girl right now who never speaks. So I'll do something very simple, like have the group sing, "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." So, we'll sing it every week for a while, and all of a sudden, the girl starts saying, "Michael!" At that moment, you know that you've touched something she's been processing for all those weeks!

I believe these kids are very engaged with life even if we can't see it at first. They may be having a very different experience from us so-called normal folks, but they still want to be connected to all of us. My experience is that they're taking in and processing everything, but maybe not the in the same way we do. I think there is much to be learned and we need to promote research in that respect. Also, it can enhance our own creativity and imagination by looking at the world from the perspective of people with such disabilities. This work is very rewarding for me.

And by the way, using repetition a great deal with these kids and adults, I believe, as we were talking about earlier, that repeated listenings to the free jazz, new music will have the same affect and I think your brain will more likely process it in a way that you will begin to understand and enjoy it after a while. A good friend of mine Garrison Fewell said something great to me recently. He said we look at abstract paintings and read poetry not just for the pure enjoyment of it but to stimulate our own individual creativity and I think free jazz and new music does the same thing and has actually been doing that with musicians and listeners sometimes not even being aware of it because it is out there so much more now and has seeped even into some mainstream players' music.

AAJ: You should be praised for being of such help to these kids, who are often "warehoused" and ignored. I'm hearing more and more from musicians who are doing volunteer work. They go to medical facilities and senior centers and perform for the people. There is increasing evidence that music has healing potential. It can reduce stress, help the immune system, strengthen the nervous system, and so on. Musicians have a lot to offer.

SS: Music isn't just a profession. It's part of all our lives. My whole family played music together. It's only natural that we would bring it to people who are hurting in various ways. I'm glad to hear that such activity is expanding. I go to Goodwill Centers in New York working with autistic adults. Bobby Zankel teaches music in the prison system. I know a lot of musicians doing this kind of work now. It's some of the most rewarding work I do.

AAJ: Music originated in tribes and communities. Jazz originated in African tribal music, gospel singing, and marching bands. Music is not just done in a nightclub or concert hall. It's everywhere. It's part of our communal life together.

SS: Musicians can also serve as mentors, helping kids to develop the right attitudes and values.

AAJ: Music teachers often have a positive influence in the lives of their students. They can help build self- esteem and passion.

SS: Absolutely! And they teach discipline.

Spiritual and Personal Life; New Projects

AAJ: To change the subject, I always ask musicians about their spirituality and philosophy of life. What is your take on spiritual matters? Do you have a spiritual practice?

SS: Absolutely. I grew up in a religious mixed marriage. My father was Jewish and my mother was Christian. I went to both churches and synagogues as a kid. The bottom line is that my parents planted the seeds for my ongoing inquiry into my inner workings. Prayer was an important part of my childhood. In the 1970s, I got into Buddhist meditation. Currently, I meditate every day. I meditate using things I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh and Nisargadatta and was part of the Nichiren Shoshu community in the 1970s.
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