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Up Close and Personal with Steve Swallow

Steve Swallow Steve Swallow Jos Knaepen
Steve Swallow may not be a household word, at least in most households, but if you've listened to contemporary jazz over the last thirty years, you've likely heard him on one side of the studio glass or the other. Swallow's not just a great and very unique electric jazz bassist but also a trusted producer of sessions which have included the likes jazz guitar icons Metheny, Scofield, Frisell and Goodrick. Beyond this, he is also an often covered composer in his own right (even pianist Bill Evans has recorded his compositions) and a frequent collaborator with keyboardist, Carla Bley. Together they have recorded and toured for years, supporting each other both musically and personally. To write a complete discography and/or biography on Swallow would be a novel in itself. His life has been a constant, eclectic contact with so many of the creatives of this world, including backing poet Robert Creeley, with whom he has collaborated.

Currently Steve leads a group in support of his latest release, "Always Pack Your Uniform on Top" recorded live at Ronnie Scott's in London, containing Chris Potter (tenor sax of Steely Dan fame), Mick Goodrick (ECM guitar icon), Adam Nussbaum (Mike Brecker and John Scofield groups) and Barry Reis on trumpet. Steve, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. To start tell us how is it different for you being a bassist who leads the group as opposed to supporting others?

Steve Swallow: Playing bass in my own band feels the same to me as playing in any other band. Bass is bass. What's different about playing in my band, and what makes it especially exciting for me, is that I'm hearing excellent players develop music I've written. Who were your original influences?

Steve Swallow: Percy Heath, Paul Chambers, Wilbur Ware, Doug Watkins. What effect did Jaco have on you...what was your experience with him and his music?

Steve Swallow: I first met Jaco at Berklee College in Boston, in 1975, where I was teaching. Pat Metheny, with whom I was playing in Gary Burton's band, had told me about him. Jaco, who was in Boston visiting Pat, knocked on my office door and blew through the room with great intensity, surprising the hell out of the student I was teaching. We talked for about fifteen minutes; I liked him immediately.

We met only occasionally over the ensuing years, but I was always moved by his eagerness to connect with me. Once, when I was playing with Paul Bley and John Scofield in a small Greenwich Village club, he gave me his famous, battle-scarred fretless. I left it proudly on display on the bandstand for a few nights, until he returned to collect it.

I'd say that Jaco's influence on my playing wasn't considerable. By the time I'd heard him at any length I think I'd sorted out most of the basic elements of my playing on my own, with the help of the mentors listed above and others too numerous to mention. But I was especially drawn to Weather Report when Jaco was in the band, and much admired the way he served that music. He was a wonderful player, and an excellent writer as well. You've mentioned that the Beatles were a big influence for you and I know they were for Pat and Burton. How has that manifested in your work and do you find that influence prevalent in most of those you perform with.

Steve Swallow: As for the Beatles: I was very taken by them during their brief career. I was impressed most by the quality of their songwriting, and by George Martin's production. But their importance to me faded fairly quickly after they broke up, as my interests shifted. I think in the end I was much more decisively influenced by some of their influences, most particularly Motown.

I think this is also true of many of the people I've worked with. The Beatles seem to me to be very much of their time (although I realize they do enjoy a remarkable enduring popularity). But I, and most of my friends with whom I've discussed this, associate them strongly with the sixties, and with the intense societal changes of that time. "Falling grace" is such a great tune and was even played by Bill Evans. Was it actually your first tune?

Steve Swallow: Falling Grace was my second tune. The first was called Eiderdown. I wrote Falling Grace on George Russell's piano. My wife of the time and I had sublet George's apartment on Bank Street in New York City. I've wondered if Falling Grace was in fact intended for George; maybe I just had the good fortune to be at his piano when it emerged. What was Evan's influence on you?

Steve Swallow: Bill Evans taught me a great deal. Falling Grace was in fact written for him, but I never found the nerve to give the piece to him. Eddie Gomez actually brought it to his attention, and I was completely surprised one day to find it recorded by Bill. He played it beautifully. Bill's lessons ranged from very nuts-and-bolts information about harmony and phrasing to more abstract concepts such as intensity of focus. His entire demeanor was a positive example for me. He actually recorded several of my songs, none of which I had given to him; he just found them somehow. Finally, I called Helen Keane, got Bill's mailing address, photocopied several of my pieces, put them in an envelope, addressed the envelope. I then learned of Bill's death. That's amazing; timing's everything. Lyle mentioned he's a fan of yours. Can you tell me about your disc "Home" that he's on? How did that come about?

Steve Swallow: I began writing Home during a time I was experiencing great difficulty composing. It occurred to me that Robert Creeley's poems, which I greatly admired, might push me into action. And in fact they did. A while after I began working with this material I moved with my family to Bolinas, California, and to my complete surprise found that Creeley lived there. He was very supportive of this project, and happy with the results. We have maintained a relationship to this day; we've done occasional concerts together in the last few years.

The players on Home were simply my closest musical associates at that time, with the exception of Lyle Mays, whom I had just met, but whose work with Pat had greatly impressed me. The album was made very quickly, as were all ECM albums, and I think Lyle, whose parts were largely improvisatory, did an amazing job. Sheila Jordan and I had rehearsed together for months, but everybody else recorded the music with minimal rehearsal. I think this approach worked to the music's advantage. Can you talk a bit about the new disc, "Always Pack Your Uniform on Top" w/ Goodrick and Nussbaum? How did you arrive at the title?

Steve Swallow: Freddie Greene, the best rhythm guitarist ever and one of the all-time greatest road rats, is said to have responded to a request for advice from an aspiring musician, "Always pack your uniform on top." That's the kind of guy he was, very direct and to-the-point. That phrase conjures for me the texture of life on the road, which was something I hoped to convey by recording live at Ronnie Scott's club. A great many of my favorite jazz recordings were made live. The technology necessary to do this has evolved swiftly, and it is now fairly convenient and economical to bring the equipment to the musicians, instead of the other way around.

Always Pack is my third, and final, recording written for the classic trumpet-tenor quintet. When I was discovering jazz in the 1950s Blue Note and Prestige were releasing endless albums in this format, and I bought as many of them as I could. The sound of this ensemble still evokes those years for me. How important and difficult is composing to you?

Steve Swallow: Composing is as important to me as playing. My feeling is that playing and composing support and nourish each other. I'd be a lesser player if I didn't write, and a lesser writer if I didn't play. Composing is tremendously difficult and painful for me, and I often go to great lengths to avoid it. In fact, that's what I'm doing at this very moment. How do you go about composing?

Steve Swallow: I go about composing like a factory worker. I punch in. I believe it's written somewhere "Steve Swallow has to sit uneasily at the piano for ten hours before receiving his next idea," so I sit there as patiently as possible. Eventually, an idea always comes, and then the rest is science. Do you write with Carla?

Steve Swallow: Carla and I never write together. Every morning, if we're at home, we head off in different directions with our coffee, each to his or her piano. We confer, but never collaborate. You're given acknowledgement in Gil Goldstein's great book, the "Jazz Composer's Companion". How did you add to the book?

Steve Swallow: I visited Gil Goldstein in his uptown Manhattan apartment often while he was writing "The Jazz Composer's Companion," and offered my comments on what he was doing. Mostly I encouraged him to get on with it, and to get it published. You also mention that you have an affinity for certain poets and in Robert Creeley's words...make the connection between the ear, syllable and 'the breath to the line' and 'form as an extension of content'. Its interesting that you mention that Creeley's work has suggested line and structure.

Steve Swallow: I think Robert Creeley has been as important an influence on my work as any musician. Before I found my vocation as a musician I intended to be a poet, and he was the poet I most admired. I was not at all surprised to find that he has a deep affinity with jazz. I love playing behind him when he reads; it's like playing with a great horn player. I may be stretching a bit, but I feel placed as strongly in the line of Olsen, Williams and Creeley as I do in the line of Monk and Miles. Can you comment on your early and continuing work Scofield ('Rough House' and 'Bar Talk' to 'I Can See your House From Here' etc)

Steve Swallow: John Scofield and I found an immediate comfort in each other's playing. We first played together in Boston in 1975, and have kept a strong relationship since. We tour together at least once a year, lately with Bill Stewart. We are a lot alike. We walk a bit like each other, talk in a similar way, etc. Playing together is like falling off a log. What about working with Pat ('I Can See Your House...' sessions etc)?

Steve Swallow: I think Pat and I also play together very easily. His way with a line makes immediate sense to me, and for this reason I'm usually able to play well in step with him. Can you illuminate the process of producing others, like Scofield, etc? What are you doing/adding that you wouldnt be if you were playing bass alone and is it more or less comfortable/stressful than just playing?

Steve Swallow: Producing is a great deal more stressful than playing for me, and for this reason I've been doing less of it lately. But it's a service I like to perform. I certainly see producing as a service to the artist who's asked for help. What the producer does is entirely a response to what the artist needs. It can be very gratifying work. The trick is to do as little as possible, only what the artist can't or won't do for himself. Are there any plans for you and Sco or Pat to do any more recording or touring?

Steve Swallow: There are no immediate plans for Pat, Sco and I to work together again, but I'd jump right on it if the occasion arose. I loved the touring and recording we did. What's your current road and studio setups...amps, basses, f/x, strings?

Steve Swallow: Road setup: Harvey Citron 5-string, hollow-body, 36" scale bass, with an EMG piezo pickup and La Bella medium-light roundwound strings, played through a 1970s Walter Woods amp into whatever speaker cabinet is provided.

Studio setup: Same bass into a Glockenklang preamp, a DBX 160 compressor, a Studio Technologies stereoizer and finally two channels of old Neve mic preamps, direct to tape. Are you playing any upright?

Steve Swallow: I gave up playing upright in 1970. Occasionally, when I run into a great bass backstage at a festival I'll play a few notes on the low E string, just to feel the instrument vibrate against my belly. As far as teaching you and if so, what's your philosophy and emphasis?

Steve Swallow: I don't teach. I overtaught during two years at Berklee in the mid-70s, and resolved then not to do it again. How would you describe your philosophy of music, composition and life as a musician?

Steve Swallow: I'm an animist. Do you have any particular spiritual you tend to meditate or do any kind of preparation for performing, writing, touring?

Steve Swallow: I don't meditate before I play or compose, but I see playing and composing as meditative acts. What are your upcoming projects?

Steve Swallow: I'm writing music now for a tour in the fall of next year with a trio composed of myself, Chris Potter and Adam Nussbaum. Whew! Thank you, Steve.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Steve Swallow
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