Steve Swell's Slammin' The Infinite Quartet
April 18, 2005
Without fanfare, Steve Swell has become one of the leading proponents of the trombone in free jazz circles and a fixture of the NY Lower East Side scene, featuring in bands such as William Parker's Little Huey Orchestra and Jemeel Moondoc's Jus Grew Orchestra, among others. Having paid his dues with Buddy Rich, Jaki Byard and Lionel Hampton, Swell is now involved with a dizzying array of projects and has a string of outstanding recordings behind him on labels such as CIMP, Cadence Jazz and others.
One of his latest projects is the Slammin' The Infinite quartet, (track down their CD on CJR), featuring reed master Sabir Mateen on alto, tenor saxophones, flute, clarinet and alto clarinet and the rhythm section of Matt Heyner on bass and Klaus Kugel on drums. They kicked off an eight date European tour in Holland on Monday 18 April in the intimate setting of Eindhoven's Café Wilhelmina. The two sets featured an exhilarating blend of improvisation mixed with compositions from the band's CD, expostulated in an almost continuous stream of musical inspiration.
A muezzin call from Swell's trombone, modulated with a plunger mute, silences the audience chatter. Heyner slots in behind, bowing legato and exploiting the harmonics against a sparse backdrop of bells and cymbals from Kugel. Mateen joins on flute and a loose rolling rhythm develops as Kugel moves from brushes to sticks and Swell conjures up a rumbling storm. Deep arco bass notes engage Swell in dialogue, before Mateen switches to clarinet. A sudden shift of gear, propelled by walking bass launches a free flowing four way improv, featuring full tilt ensemble playing with simultaneous blowing from the front men over the dense rhythm cushion laid down by Heyner and Kugel. Mateen, now on tenor, intersperses his fluent runs with hoarse squeals and honks, stoked by drums and strummed bass. Swell rejoins and the declamatory horns intertwine in a loose dialogue before racing, screaming, to end on high cries in perfect unison.
Matt Heyner begins the second piece bowing while sliding his fingers up and down the fret board, then contrasting a drone against arco harmonics, bouncing his bow off the strings, beating out a rhythm, then bowing while still emphasising the beats - a compendium of bass technique, but in a natural not flashy way. Heyner is probably best known for his tenure with NYC free jazz co-operative TEST, which also includes Sabir Mateen. Swell introduces him as 'the tall, silent type, but he plays a helluva lot of bass', and it is Heyner's inspirational underpinning in tandem with Kugel's kinetic multidirectional drumming which allows the improvisations to develop organically as the moment demands. The piece evolves with Swell pointing to his head, which signals a brief Kugel solo, followed by, an energetic reading of "Box Set" from the band's CD. The theme provides the building blocks for Mateen to fashion another almost effortless solo on alto saxophone with yelps and flowing runs in an endless stream of invention. As he hits the stratosphere Swell comes in behind with loose riff. Like a true master, Mateen really does make it seem easy: he peppers his mellifluous excursions with trademark squeals, showing better upper register control than almost anyone this side of David Murray.
Swell says that he is blessed to have Mateen playing alongside him, but he more than holds his own. His playing shows great invention and articulation, even at speed, and bending and swaying, with eyes closed tight, he shakes his trombone to lay down some fiery solos. The group's trademark though is the full throttle, simultaneous improvising from Swell and Mateen, like two auctioneers vying to sell the real deal. But these guys are listening too, and they phrase and pause in unison, often ending on the same thought at the same moment.
The second set opens with Swell floating the melodic line from "With the morning, hope" from the group's CD, accompanied by a koto like plucking below the bridge from Heyner and bowed cymbals from Kugel. The free flowing improvisations merge seamlessly with compositions cued up by Swell. At one point he stills the rhythm section for an unaccompanied duet with Mateen's clarinet: their two lines playing tag, intersecting, diverging, but retaining the same natural conversational cadence, with extemporised unisons turning on sweet long notes, before Swell releases a bass/drum tumult in support. A bass/drum interlude allow the horns to take a breather before Swell signals the eponymous "Slammin' the Infinite" theme - hitting the riff at breakneck speed. Mateen digs in on tenor, building out of the theme with squalling, honking, high register runs. Swell adds to the intensity with riff and Mateen continues, feet planted firmly apart, over fast walking bass and exploding drums. As Mateen's outpouring subsides, Swell picks up the baton for his most energetic solo of evening, tombone pointing skyward, with tenor cries in support.
The finale is provided by the elegiac "For Frank Lowe" theme, emerging from the improvisation, to be repeated in loose unison. The piece's structure has one horn playing the theme while the other explodes in liquid squawking runs, like the sort of outburst Frank Lowe graced us with in the 1970s, then continuing to alternate roles throughout. The piece builds incrementally, powerful and hymnlike, over a roiling rhythm section, with Swell trading emotive, anguished cries against Mateen's invocations until they come together in a loose unison over Kugel's hyperactivity and Heyner's drone. The others step back to allow a Kugel solo: he lays down a wall of sound with such intensity that he almost loses a stick, prompting a move onto cymbals and a slowing, gradually, into silence. An ecstatic conclusion to an enthralling non-stop 50 minute set.
If you like your music played with passion, conviction and consummate skill, go seek them out!
Visit Steve Swell on the web.
Cees van de Ven