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Trumpeter John Swana

Victor L. Schermer By

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A turning point was in 1990 when I got the record deal with Gerry Teekens of Criss-Cross.
In addition to being one of the finest contemporary jazz trumpet players, John Swana is a human being who is spontaneously authentic and refuses to play a false role. Having reached the ripe old age of 38, John has performed side by side with many fabulous musicians, from Benny Golson to Tom Harrell, to Chris Potter, and a myriad of others whose names connote excellence in jazz. A consummate musician whose playing always attracts your attention for its straightforward solidity, virtuosity, and originality, John is furthermore a "big" person in the sense of both generosity of spirit and physical height! He stands 6 foot 3 inches tall and can't be missed in a room! So I approached this interview with awe and respect. Then, after I had trouble reaching him because, so he told me later, his cat sometimes jumps on his tape machine and erases the messages, I knew something was up. At the interview, which was conducted in person at my office on Rittenhouse Square, I found out what was up: John is just so very human, does not place himself above anyone (man nor beast!), and, like the proverbial Zen master, likes to run with where he is at any particular point in time (and isn't that what jazz is all about?) So we jumped from subject to subject, wherever the impulse took us, and the end result was a very enjoyable and interesting conversation about jazz, John, his very interesting family background, and the musical life. I hope you enjoy reading what John has to say as much as I enjoyed interviewing him.

AAJ: To get us going, what CDs would you take to the proverbial desert island?

JS: I always get that question, and I hate it, because I can never make up my mind! For me, well, Joe Henderson, Our Thing. I've always loved that record.

AAJ: What about trumpet players?

JS: Our Thing has Kenny Dorham on it... I would take a Miles record. Can I take a double CD?

AAJ: Yes.

JS: Miles' recordings Live at Carnegie Hall/My Funny Valentine. And then maybe I'd take Aaron Copland, Rodeo and Billy the Kid. I grew up with those. I like Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Firebird. Debussy. Ravel, different piano styles. There's a couple of Schoenberg things that I heard recently that I like too. I studied Pierot Lunaire in school.

AAJ: Believe it or not, there's a 33 rpm vinyl recording of that with Cleo Laine singing the soprano part! Actually, she does quite a good job!

JS: I grew up with the Aaron Copland compositions. My mother had the recording of the New York Philharmonic with Bernstein conducting Billy the Kid on one side, and Rodeo on the other. She would always put it on when I would go to bed. She also had recordings by a Russian trumpet player named Timofei Docshizer, in which he played the Haydn and the Hummel, so I grew up listening to those classic trumpet concertos.

Also, I've got to throw Bartok in here- I like Bartok. Especially that string quartet with the celestra, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celestra. I have the box set with the Emerson quartet playing the Bartok string quartets.

AAJ: You're setting the stage for a number of questions that I want to ask you a bit later on. But for now, just to get an idea of your performance preferences, what are some of your favorite standard tunes?

JS: Often, the way I like to do gigs, which I don't think is necessarily good, is that I kind of go with the flow. I'm talking about the gigs around Philly, so the other guys are comfortable, and then if I'm not that familiar with the tune, I kind of get to learn it. The tunes I really love to play I don't call a lot, because I want to play tunes that I don't know as well.

AAJ: OK, but do you have a couple of tunes that are your favorites?

JS: Yeah, "Stella" [by Starlight], "If I Should Lose You."

AAJ: Any Miles tunes?

JS: I've been doing the old Milestones lately, and Kind of Blue. I always like playing his ballads. Also, I've been playing [Coltrane's] Giant Steps lately. And I've worked on "Countdown," but I don't play them on a lot of gigs. "Alone Together" [Dietz-Schwartz, composers] too. That's a nice tune for me to start a gig, because its right in the middle register.

AAJ: I like Chet Baker's version of "Alone Together" on the album, Chet. To change the subject, as a time frame for discussing your musical development, what's your date of birth?

JS: 4/26/62.

AAJ: So you would have been an adolescent in the seventies. By the way, do you know your astrological sign?

JS: Taurus.

AAJ: Does you personality fit with that sign?

JS: I don't know enough about it- don't you have to know the planets? Like Taurus, I've always wanted to get a lot of things done, but no, I must have had another planet come up behind it.

AAJ: For the record, I'm Aquarius.

JS: Joe Magnarelli is Aquarius, you know, he's on the Joe Magnarelli/John Swana two trumpet recording.


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