The only reason that thirty-something trumpeter John Swana is not a more recognized jazz artist is due to the fact that he refuses to move to New York and instead keeps his hometown scene of Philadelphia healthy and vibrant. Fortunately for us, Criss Cross Jazz knew a good thing when they heard it and over the course of five previous albums Swana has validated his talents as a one of the jazz world's finest mainstream trumpeters.
In many ways, Tug of War stands as a decisive statement and a highlight of what is already a splendid catalog. The format is the standard quintet with a trumpet and saxophone front line, but the resulting music is anything but standard or methodical. The opening "Freddie", just one of seven Swana originals, paves the way for the excitement to follow. Inspired by fellow trumpet man Freddie Hubbard, Swana's line contains the kind of harmonic twists and turns that marked Hubbard's finest Blue Note work of the '60s. Saxophonist Chris Potter, who can at times can be too cold and intellectual with his playing, puts down one of his best recorded moments, full of vivacity and forward momentum. Then things cool out for the lengthy modal exploration provided by the title track. Here we get introduced to the superb drumming of Byron Landham and get to hear Potter's sinewy soprano, along with a taste of David Hazeltine's remarkable pianistic skills. These are but two selected highlights out of a nine-tune set that provides a diversity of moods.
Although a lot of recent critical commentary has been bent on putting down the efforts of those musicians who choose to work within the tradition, Swana's music provides exceptional support for the viewpoint that it's possible to have your cake and eat it too. You can work within the mainstream and still say your own thing, and even appeal to a reasonable-sized audience. Swana's done it before and he continues to do so. Now, if we could just get him to head to New York. Look out!
Freddie, Tug of War, Vic Arpeggio, Innocence, Pure Bliss, Smile, Puss 'n Boots, Pure Imagination, Quick Fix (69:50)
John Swana- trumpet & fluegelhorn, Chris Potter- tenor & soprano saxophones, flute, David Hazeltine- piano, Dwayne Burno- bass, Byron Landham- drums
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