Neil Swainson Quintet ‘49th Parallel’ LP/CD (Cellar Live / Reel to Real) 4/5

Another record, another admission – I didn’t immediately recognize Neil Swainson’s name but the line-up was intriguing. Joe Henderson on tenor, Woody Shaw on trumpet plus Gary Williamson on piano and Jerry Fuller on drums with the leader on bass.

Turns out Swainson was a bassist with George Shearing and who has played and recorded with an impressive array of talent including Jay McShann, Nancy Wilson, Mel Tormé, James Moody, Tommy Flanagan, Lee Konitz and others.

In my defence, I’ve never been into George Shearing and this recording is a reissue of an album first published in 1988 and is up to date his only recording as leader (he has a new one planned for early 2021). It was also Woody Shaw’s last studio date – he sadly died too young at 44 in 1989.

Having got past my lack of name awareness of the leader this is a smart and solid kind of post-bop/hard-bop session. Solid and swinging in fact and that swing is mainly down to Swainson’s underpinning of the whole thing with a rich, round and well-articulated tone from the bass.

And it is Swainson who sets the tone on the boppish opener ’49th Parallel’ with a funky bass figure before a unison head theme statement by Henderson and Shaw. The 49th Parallel forms much of the geographic border between Canada and the US and although the border is sometimes on, North or South of the border its often used as a shorthand for the whole border. Make of that what you will – Swainson is Canadian born but has for many years lived and worked in Toronto where he is currently a professor at Humber College.

The leader is content most of the time to be that aforementioned underpinning but does allow himself a short and resonant solo on this track which is otherwise dominated by Shaw and Henderson’s extremely well-played work with both taking solos.

‘Port of Spain’ is more of a mainstream shuffle with Shaw stating the theme solo before another well-rounded solo from the leader with Shaw then picking it back up with his clear tone. Pianist Williamson then gets his first chance to stretch out before its back to Shaw.

The unison horns are back for ‘Southern Exposure’ a medium tempo almost-ballad. Henderson solos first with a sharper tone than previously and with a nice range and an open sound. In fact, Shaw’s and Henson’s tone really go well together as both have that open feel and the recording quality is excellent with great clarity and separation.

As you might expect from the title ‘On The Lam’ is a looser tune with Shaw in a slightly lower register being featured. As in all the tracks, the drummer Fuller really keeps the music moving and complements Swainson’s bass well. Williamson gets another spot after Shaws’s extended opening with a nicely percussive solo before the leader comes in with another nicely judged contribution. Henderson is not in evidence again on this one.

But on ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ Henderson returns with a mellifluous tone at a slower bluesy pace reminiscent of some earlier sax players like Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. This time its Shaw’s turn to sit out.

‘Labyrinth’ is a bonus track that wasn’t originally released. It’s on the CD and digital on this issue and available as a download if you buy the vinyl. It’s another feature for Shaw with again Henderson out. And I guess this is the oddest thing about the recording – how little we get to hear Shaw and Henderson together. On this one, Shaw cuts a rather Milesian dash.

The closer ‘Homestretch’ is back to a more boppish feel with drummer Fuller kicking it off before we do get a theme with both trumpet and sax. Henderson then takes a booting solo with Swainson and Fuller busy underneath. Everyone including Fuller gets an opportunity on this sharp toe-tapping track.

All in all, a very enjoyable set which would have been a cracker live. This pretty rare recording is available as limited edition 180g vinyl with CD and download versions also available.

Brian Homer