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Trumpeter John Swana

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: We've talked about Dizzy and Miles as major influences. Which other musicians would you see as role models, mentors, inspirations?

JS: In my second year of high school, I saw Tom Harrell with the Gerry Mulligan Big Band at Glassboro [subsequently called Rowan] State College.

AAJ: My trombone teacher, Alan Raph, played with the Mulligan Concert Jazz Band in the 1960's.

JS: This was in 1979 or 1980. Tom walks in front of the band, up to the mike and starts playing. I was listening to him, and a light bulb went off in my head, and I said to myself, "I want to play like that!" I taped it and transcribed everything on that tape. Eventually, I did a recording date with Tom Harrell (John Swana and Friends) and I ended up lending it to him. Everything he played was beautiful, right in there. At the Mulligan concert, I was afraid to introduce myself, he looked scary, so I didn't go up to him. He blew me away. The next year, I heard him with the Mel Lewis Big Band. With Mulligan, he played more in the bebop style, but with Mel Lewis, he played a blues, and was stretchin' it, taking the harmonies out, very heavy, very deep. Tom was a big influence on me. I checked him out with Horace Silver, and a two trumpet record with Harrell and John McNeill. McNeill is also known for his jazz method books.

And of course, Freddie Hubbard, obviously. Freddie totally knocked me out. He's so cocky, in a natural way.

AAJ: You mean he's not arrogant, as some have said, but assertive and confident?

JS: He'll take risks. He's so open. Then there's Kenny Dorham, he's really slick, and he's great with blues. Like on the Joe Henderson recording, Our Thing. Kenny has a melancholy quality that I really like.

AAJ: I love Kenny Dorham's recording of the Billy Strayhorn tune, "Lotus Flower," where he and J.J. seamlessly mesh their solos.

JS: Dorham's ballad playing is beautiful. Then, of course, Clifford Brown. I couldn't believe he was improvising, it sounded so perfect.

AAJ: How did it happen that you got to do that recent recording with Benny Golson dedicated to Clifford?

JS: Benny called me on the phone. He got my number from Cousin Mary Alexander [John Coltrane's cousin, who now runs the John Coltrane Cultural Society in Philadelphia.] Benny was looking for a trumpet player, and she recommended me.

AAJ: Were you thrilled to do that gig?

JS: Oh, yeah, yeah. And what's cool is that I just got a call to do a record date with Horace Silver in September. I'm looking forward to that as well. These guys are my heroes.

AAJ: I have the Helen Merrill CD, I Remember Clifford , which includes the Golson tune by that name. They ingeniously utilized a trumpet choir of three jazz trumpet players. The arrangements are wonderful, going from solo improvs to written out chorale sections for three trumpets.

JS: I'm not familiar with it. I'll look for it.

AAJ: On the Merrill recording, the trumpets sound like they're imitating Clifford a bit. Do you try to emulate Brown or other trumpet players?

JS: I just try to sound like myself. On the Golson album, I didn't even know the record was going to be named for Clifford! If I'd known, maybe I'd have been a bit more awestruck- why was I chosen to be on a recording dedicated to the master? I should have figured it out, however, because one of the tunes Golson wrote is based on the changes of "I Remember Clifford" but faster.

I'm more directly influenced by other players if I do a gig with them. I did a two trumpet gig with Terrell Stafford, and he's got such a powerful sound, very extroverted. I tried to adjust to his way of playing. I have mixed feelings about doing that. But on my own, I would never attempt to simulate Terrell, Clifford, or anyone else.

AAJ: In addition to the album with Golson, what are some of your career and performing highlights, thus far?

JS: A turning point was in 1990 when I got the record deal with Gerry Teekens of Criss-Cross. I was playing around Philadelphia, and performed with Don Patterson, a great experience, and met Jed Levy, a tenor saxophonist, and Jed introduced me to Peter Leach, a guitarist in New York. I was living in Jersey City then, and Peter called and told me to contact Gerry. I didn't think it was serious, but I got a call from Europe. It was Gerry, and he said in his unique gravelly voice, "I hear you're a good trumpet player. Do you have any tapes of yourself?" I said, "No, not really. But I'm playing a gig with Shirley Scott and Mickey Roker at Ortlieb's in Philly this weekend and I'll tape it and send it to you." And I also found a tape of a radio broadcast I did on WRTI. I put it all together and sent it to him. Gerry listened to it, and said, "I'd like to do something with you, but nobody knows who you are! They won't use you as a sideman. But maybe we'll do something with you in the future." He hung up, then a day or two later, he called and asked, "I'd like you to cut your own album. Can you do a recording date in two weeks?" [Laughter.]

AAJ: And he's in the Netherlands, right?

JS: Right. I asked him for a month, and he said, yes. I hung up the phone feeling overwhelmed, thinking, what the hell am I going to do? I get my own record, but I never was on a recording date! It was really traumatic. I immediately composed two tunes for that album, which was called "Introducing John Swana." It's a fine recording because the rhythm section is good, and they were great to me. Benny Green, Peter Washington and Kenny Washington, and Billy Pierce on tenor sax.

AAJ: Am I right in assuming that Teekens records in New York but that the company is in the Netherlands?

JS: He flies into New York twice a year. I'm doing a record with him in June. So that recording set me on a different path. I was trying a number of different things, including the use of an electronic device called the EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument), a synthesized electronic trumpet. I played "free music" once a week with Steve Giordano and Tony Miceli. I use a computer as well- it's so different than what I do with Criss-Cross. Still, there's a thread that's similar, but I have a different side of me that nobody knows. I've been playing the EVI for twelve years. Recently, I purchased a CD burner, and I filled two CD's with my sequences to review for various projects.

AAJ: If folks want to hear some of this creative electronic work, where do you perform it?

JS: I did a gig last week with Ari Honig, Steve Giordano, and Dave Posmontier where I played EVI on some tunes, and I'm on a couple of Charles Fambrough records playing EVI. Also, I've been doing a project with Gerald Veasley, playing Mingus tunes, two of us (myself and Chris Farr) play winds ynthesizers, then I play real trumpet, and he plays real saxophone. We did a gig- all Mingus- in Erie. I use enough distortion to give the sound a little "dirt" so it sounds more organic, less synthesized. Of course, the "straight ahead" community hates it. I've used it on gigs, and people love it or hate it. Some folks at "straight ahead" gigs will come up to me and say, "Why the hell do you play that stupid thing?" Or they say, "That thing sounds so great! You sound so expressive!"
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