Steve Swallow ‘Into the woodwork’ (Xtra Watt) 4/5

Bassist Steve Swallow began as a leader on an ECM 1974 album ‘Hotel hello’ and a follow up five years later with ‘Home’. However, so cordial and personal was the musical relationship with ECM head Manfred Eicher that by 1986 the musician had concluded a unique deal whereby Swallow could henceforth release albums on his own Xtra Watt label using all the promotional tools that ECM had at its disposal. This agreement has lasted through to the present and is once again on evidence on this latest offering that is notable for the presence of musical and life partner Carla Bley on organ which makes for an interesting departure. As with other recordings under Swallow’s name, they are distinctive in that the leader rarely undertakes long solos himself, but instead prefers to remain in the background, though of course he plays a major role in both the compositions and arrangements and he has a further tendency to be a slow-writing composer. This is a quite a deliberate choice on Swallow’s part and reflects his own quiet, unassuming approach to music. Secondly, the contribution of the leader is unusual in that he prefers to favour electric bass over double bass which is different from musician’s of his own generation. On this new recording, Swallow has surrounded himself with some of the cream of session musicians including drummer Jorge Rossy (formerly with the Brad Mehldau trio), guitarist Steve Cardenas and tenorist Chris Cheek. The music was actually recorded in a Provençal village which goes someway to explaining why there is such a relaxed and joyous feel to proceedings and this has certainly impacted upon the musicians themselves. The laid back opener ‘Sad old candle’ has a somewhat eerie feel to it with Bley conjuring up at atmospheric sound on organ while the gentle unsion playing of guitar and tenor works extremely well, with Cardenas offering a solo into the bargain. More uplifitng is the title track which is initially performed as an organ trio piece before the tenor enters. In fact in terms of small organ combos, this is the nearest the group gets to anything remotely resembling a conventional soul-jazz infused ensemble. The warm tone of Cheek hints at Getz here. Possibly the strongest composition is the laid back groove of ‘The butler did it’ with some soulful tenor that recalls Stanley Turrentine in his prime and the lyrical guitar of Cardenas and subtle polyrhythms of Rossy make this number, the shortest on the album, equally one of the most enjoyable. Swallow’s CV reads like a who’s who of post-bop jazz and he has performed on some memorable albums including ‘Jimmy Giuffre Three’ with Giuffre (ECM re-issues, 1961), ‘Basra’ with Pete La Roca (Blue Note, 1965), ‘Sing me softly of the blues’ with Art Farmer (Atlantic, 1965) and ‘Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett’ (Atlantic, 1971) among many others. Just some of this impressive legacy can still be heard on pieces such as ‘Suitable for framing’ which features a quasi-classical bass sound that goes back to Swallow’s tenure with Jimmy Giuffre and is a bass and guitar duet of distinction. Steve Swallow’s career as a sideman has followed several paths and informed his later period as a leader. From the early 1960s performances as part of a trio with Paul Bley, he then became an integral member of Stan Getz’s quartet before later joining Carla Bley’s big band. He has also collaborated with non-jazz musicians such as Rabih Abou-Khalil on ‘Blue Camel’ (1992) and tenorist Joe Lovano’s ‘Universal language’ (Blue Note, 1993). A European tour will take place between 11-25 July, though sadly there are no dates planned in the UK this time round. Catch the group on the continent if you can. Tim Stenhouse

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