When Steve Swallow picked up an electric bass in an instrument convention in 1970, he did not realize what a significant impact that chance event will have on jazz bass playing. Swallow had already made a name for himself before 1970 as an upright acoustic bass player, playing with Paul Bley, Gary Burton, Jimmy Giuffre and many others. But the electric bass opened up new sonic possibilities for him, and in a little while he developed a unique sound with it. Over the years he modified the instrument to his liking, extending the neck and adding a fifth string. Swallow belongs in an exclusive club of musicians who you recognize immediately when they play only a few notes, as you can hear from the song selected for this post, She Was Young.
Swallow, who was a literature student as an undergrad, got acquainted with Robert Creeley’s poetry in the mid-50s and fell in love with the minimalist expression, the unique rhythm and phrasing of the words and their emotive quality. In the 70s he started to work on compositions set to Creeley’s poems: “I began working on it in the early ’70s and didn’t record it until ’79 or maybe ’80. I went through everything he’d written very deliberately, with an eye or an ear for what I thought could be sung well—purely the poems that seemed to have lines to me that evoked music. Then I looked it over and realized that all the poems I’d chosen were ones about love, the romantic ones. And that’s by no means predominant in his poetry. I’d say, in fact, that it’s a small piece of his whole pie.”
For Swallow the writing process was unique, trying to set the words in a musical context almost like musical notes: “It wasn’t that I was choosing the words for their meaning at all. I was really just choosing sounds and rhythms. I didn’t care what the text was initially. I remember being very clear with myself about that—that I needed syllables that formed well in the mouth, and vowel sounds that produced the best vocal sound, and the rhythms that seemed conducive to musical phrasing. I wasn’t looking at content. I was unaware of content as I did that in that initial gleaning for Home.”
The writing process spanned over eight years, at which point Swallow collected a stellar ensemble of musicians for the album he named Home, after one of Creeley’s poems. To realize the challenging singing performance of these songs, swallow had a perfect candidate in mind: “I already had Sheila Jordan in mind and was thinking of her voice. Her voice had always been a very personal matter for me. She’d moved me deeply when I’d played with her over the years.”
Drummer Bob Moses said about the recording in the book Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan by Ellen Johnson: “Swallow wrote these really gorgeous compositions that were very much in the character of the poems. Creeley’s poems tend to be very minimal and every word counts. The poems have a circular quality and tend to be very shot and dry but poignant. Swallow wrote the music that was exactly in that character. I liked how he set up that recording because it didn’t follow the stereotypical way where the singer sings the melody and then there’s a bunch of solos and then the singer takes the melody out. And in most cases on that record there was only one reading of the melody so Sheila had these really short but powerful segments and they weren’t necessarily in the beginning or the end. A lot of the pieces were only seven bars or nine bars, which is shot for a jazz tune, but they didn’t feel short because they had a circular nature so you couldn’t easily tell where the beginning of the tune was.”
The ensemble also includes Steve Kuhn on Piano, Lyle Mays on synths (interesting choice in an otherwise acoustic jazz setting), and Dave Liebman on saxophones. She Was Young starts with a great solo by Swallow with his unmistakable upper-register sound, then moves to a brief singing part by Jordan and a brilliant piano solo by Kuhn. A great marriage of jazz and poetry.
Interview excerpts are taken from an excellent interview Jason Crane conducted with Steve Swallow in 2007: Steve Swallow: The Poetry Of Music