John Scofield / Steve Swallow / Bill Stewart ‘Swallow Tales’ LP/CD (ECM) 4/5

Performing the music of bassist Steve Swallow, guitarist John Scofield teams up with his friend and long-time collaborator Swallow, and drummer Bill Stewart, on this ‘old-school’ style trio recording, made in one afternoon in New York City in March 2019. Scofield was a 20-year-old student at Berklee when he first met and played with bassist Swallow, and they have continued ever since, in many different contexts.

“I love these songs”, says Scofield of the selection of Swallow compositions explored here – a broad range including tunes that have become standards, as well as some lesser-known works, and it’s easy to hear why. The rapport between Scofield and Swallow is evident throughout, and with the impeccable, intuitive drumming of Stewart, there’s a lot to like about this latest ECM release.

Swallow’s compositions, Scofield notes, “make perfect vehicles for improvisation. The changes are always interesting – but not too interesting! They’re grounded in reality, with cadences that make sense. They’re never just intellectual exercises, and they’re so melodic. They’re all songs, rather than ‘pieces’. They could all be sung.”

It is of course about more than just the tunes themselves. They may have been the initial inspiration for the recording itself, but it is Scofield’s inimitable style that ultimately makes the album so interesting. As ever, the guitarist manages to successfully take the essence of a piece in hand, before playfully creating fresh ideas on the fly, resulting in some brilliant, quirky and intriguing soloing.

A number of the tunes performed here – including “Falling Grace”, “Portsmouth Configurations”, and “Eiderdown” – belonged to the 1960s repertoire of Gary Burton’s groups. Scofield, who had admired them from the outset, studied them with Burton and the composer in the early 1970s, by which point Swallow had made the transition from double bass to bass guitar, creating a new voice for himself on the electric instrument – a voice so familiar now with jazz listeners the world over. When Scofield launched his own recording career, Swallow was in his trio (with Adam Nussbaum on drums). Touring widely the guitarist and the bassist fine-tuned their musical understanding, a process continued in many other forms over the years. And so it really should come as no surprise that this trio gel so naturally well together. Highlights on this session include the beautifully played ballad “Away”, along with “Awful Coffee” and “Eiderdown”, two tunes that really do capture the essence of this trio at its best.

One might argue that “Swallow Tales” doesn’t quite catch fire as some of Scofield’s older albums do, but it still makes for an enjoyably engrossing listen.

Mike Gates