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Steve Swallow: Damaged in Transit

Robert R. Calder

Steve Swallow

Damaged in Transit

Label: XtraWATT
US Release Date: 2003-10-14
UK Release Date: Available as import

I have to say first of all that this CD opens with the most straightforward unpretentious swinging jazz, and never leaves it behind. That's one clue to its success, although overall the set is, well, chaste or spare or classical in texture and atmosphere. I share the enthusiasm of one reviewer but he was wrong to say that in this set a focus on counterpoint has replaced an interest in harmony to the fore on some immediately preceding Swallow CDs. The music here is very big on harmony, on the grand underlying plan. The trio line-up allows less surface show than do sets by larger ensembles, but the living ghost of Bach stirs and this music has a lot in common with his extended solo violin music, something cumulative.

Swallow's at his best, playing bass in the best tradition of Henry Grimes with Sonny Rolllins, of Milt Hinton with Branford Marsalis and Ben Riley, of Jimmy Garrison in trio with Joe Farrell and Elvin Jones. This is one of those trios. Swallow is, of course, on bass guitar, but I'll not start flicking through trios like the Lovano Motian Frisell one (but have there been many?).

"Item 1" (as the first track's called) concludes with Adam Nussbaum's drums and, in a sense, that's where it's been headed from the beginning harmonised theme statement. This you can read, because the notes in the booklet are musical notes, on two staves: all nine compositions (ending with "Item 9") improvised on by the trio. "Item 1" is followed without break by Swallow playing the prelude/ theme of "Item 2" solo; and the succeeding fugue goes into another and extended solo by the drummer after a number of beautifully dynamic explosions. "Item 3" starts immediately from the purely rhythmic resolution of "Item 2", the tenor moving into solo over the ground bass provided by Swallow, then playing figures over what's called a drum solo (really another amazing improvisation).

"Item 4" begins with solo bass, a simple mid-tempo phrase repeated in more complex form, not just with twice as many notes. After a tenor entry, Swallow with Nussbaum's ever beautifully shaded drumming (cymballing!) proceeds in a fugal development, generating a lot of swing the way it happens in Bach properly performed. With Potter's re-entry, the multi-notedness picks up pace. Nussbaum playing a great deal with immense discretion and lift generates real heat before a diminuendo of the horn and strings into disappearance -- Nussbaum's fleet brushes and resonant not loud bass drum then work out more rhythmic implications toward the end.

"Item 5" is a blues with lot of modulations on Potter's part, playing briskly over just drums till the cumulative charge is enough to let Swallow drive in. For all the modal or harmonic complexities, this is powerful roaring blues with plenty in the Arnett Cobb department. That old Texan would certainly have appreciated the powerhouse qualities of Swallow and Nussbaum, and I wonder what he'd have said about Potter's "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" quote near the end. "Item 6" opens with Swallow at the guitar end of his axe, playing something like a dance tune or round very delicately. Potter's entry is lyrical, with some pretty trilling before -- over quite an elaborate bass - the tenorist balladises on the short (8-bar) theme, with the occasional bluesy Cobbism, against a circling short theme and Swallow's always intriguingly ingeniously varied bass parts.

"Item 7" opens with solo tenor in ballad cadenza mode, slipping in a phrase akin to the beginning of Bach's first Prelude. Bass and drums move in to begin a beautiful lyrical performance like maybe Warne Marsh or warm Konitz. One of these days I'll work out the relationship between some of these compositions of Swallow's -- this is clearly one unified work -- though I confess I don't get what the title means. Was this collection of performances, recorded at live gigs on a French tour, put in this sequence afterwards? I don't care. The audiences were plainly more polite than at a certain midwestern gig whose results I've also reviewed for these pages, and the occasional snippet of exhultation at the end of an Item and the end of the nine is wholly understandable.

"Item 9" rollicks along like Sonny Rollins's "St. Thomas", but there's all through been a hint of the most famous cantor of St. Thomas, Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach -- not to mention a little Thelonious Monk, or of the Charlie Rouse school of phrasing Monk's music on tenor. Potter makes masterful use of his horn's resources without transgressing canons of beauty, using decades of other men's research into the instrument's capacities. It would be very interesting to hear a different tenor-player take up this programme as a repertoire item.

And the balance throughout is wonderful, Nussbaum a dream and Swallow choosing at times to emulate among others maybe Kenny Burrell, maybe Buster Williams, certainly his admirable self. I should also say that the music grew on me, and that I'd like to reserve time for concentrated listening. I've played it a lot.

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