THE TRANSCENDENTALISTS

Vision
Jump Arts JA001

THE IMPLICATE ORDER
At Seixal
Clean Feed CF 001 CD

With little fanfare — which probably reflects his playing style — New York-based Steve Swell has become one of the most accomplished improvising trombonist. Someone whose experience encompasses stints in aggregations as varied as vibist Lionel Hampton’s swing band and drummer Joey Baron’s hard-hitting Barrondown, Swell has achieved what he has through hard work, not some major label publicity machine.

Swell gives his all in every situation as well; some of his best work has come in sidemen gigs with bassist William Parker’s Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra. That’s why it’s not surprising that two of his most recent CDs find him as part of different leaderless collectives. The Implicate Order is filled out by two other seasoned improviders — drummer Lou Grassi and bassist Ken Filiano — while The Transcendentalists mixes veterans Swell and multi-reedman/trumpeter Daniel Carter with two younger experimentators — drummer David Brandt and bassist/tubaist Tom Abbs.

Both sessions offer impresive reports on the state of American outside jazz, paradoxically by showing different approaches to improvisation, only united by exceptional playing. VISION, record live at last year’s Vision Festival in Swell’s familiar Lower East Side stomping grounds, is a rough and tumble affair of screaming intensity reminiscent of the best ESP-Disks of the New York Art Quartet which had a similar line up. AT SEIXAL, recorded much more cleanly in a Portuguese concert hall a couple of months before that, shows exactly what can and can’t be done with a trio of improvisers.

Chief contributors to the fertile improvisational ferment in New York are Abbs and Carter, who, during the course of three long tracks seems to be able to switch instruments at the drop of a semidemisemiquaver note, operating with the timing of The Marx Brothers verbally sparing with an officious authority figure. Carter, whose picture could probably go in the dictionary next to the definition of an underrecognized musician, has been doing this sort of instrumental legerdemain for years. A member of TEST and Other Dimensions in Music, his playing experience goes back to the early days of the New Thing.

Here, you’ll just get used to him on tenor saxophone, engaging in a spritely doe-see-doe with Swell’s tailgate trombone, when the valve man’s sudden plunger mute tones makes Carter opt for delicate flute filigree. A little later on trumpet, Carter will be trading fours with the bassman, then switch to alto saxophone to produce the sort of echoing, wire-sharp line that hasn’t been heard since the heyday of Energy Music. Still later, on a slower tune, his arcing, high-pitched clarinet swells will take centrestage as bass and drum ostinatos follow him.

Traditional enough to parade the constant walking bass lines that provide the forward velocity for each of the tunes, and modern enough to creatie guitar-like strums in his solos, Seattle-born Abbs, who is also driving force behind the Jump Arts coalition, is no slouch on tuba either. Smearing the sound field with what could be the joyful bellows of a dancing rhino, his deep lines sometimes make an interesting contrast to Swell’s avant-jungle band plunger tones. Like Carter, too, there are sometimes places where you’d like to count Abbs’s arms, hands and fingers. While he may give the impression of doing so, surely he couldn’t be playing bass and tuba simultaneously.

Brandt, who is vice president of the Jump Arts coalition, is conservatory-trained, but doesn’t brings any academic habits to his playing. Someone who studied with percussion icons Milford Graves and Alan Dawson, he keeps the rhythm going powerfully, without pulverizizng his kit. His attack is such, in fact that at times he sounds like more than one drummer.

In the Sexial auditorium on the othert hand, Grassi didn’t resemble a bunch of percussionists: just one: himself . He’s someone who has evolved a personal style after years of work with everyone from the freest soloists to Dixielanders. During the more than 76 minutes of this session, he usually stays in the background, contributing where he’s needed, as the lead passes between the other players. With his unobtrusive snare and cymbal seasoning, Grassi’s work is impressive because he doesn’t have to continulaly remind you that he’s there.

A strong Mingusian with a forthright, woody tone, Filiano initially worked on the with West Coast with the likes of multi-reedman Vinny Golia and pianist Richard Grossman. Equally adept at a stuttering arco as well as a masterful pizzicato, and with an ability to speedily slide from one to another, you can often hear each digit’s place on the string when he plays. If there’s a string buzz, for instance, you know, it’s because he wants that sound. Sometimes he uses interjections like that to meld with Grassi’s reverberating little instruments or Swell’s muted smears and growls.

As the seven tunes runs right into the next, each of the three players asserts himself without worrying too much about a traditional front line. As a matter of fact, there’s one point where muted wah wahs from the trombone are used more as background than either of the sounds from the rhythm instruments.

Like his acknowledged model, Rosewell Rudd, Swell, on tunes like “Sunshine in Seixal” produces one of the those lazy, slippery tongued rambles at which Rudd excels, while the slide maintains constant accelerations and decelerations, arriving at the proper place just when the desired note is needed. If necessary, he can accelerate and cycle through a tune like a cybernetic bopper, but he never neglects the colors and vibratos available from exaggerated slide work.

Portuguese guests — soprano and alto saxophonist Paulo Curado and baritone saxophonist Rodrigo Amado — join the trio on the final two numbers, but, while they’re good players, threy conform a little too closely to convention to set speaks flying. Curado’s smooth, shaky soprano even causes Grassi to suggest a Latin beat on “Everything is Everything”, while the “Avant Fado Meeting” of Amado and Swell suggests a Gerry Mulligan and Bob Brookmeyer collusion more than anything “avant” or “fado”.

All in all, while both CDs offer a bouquet of good music, listening to them back-to-back sugegsts a dream scenerio. Mixing the players representing here could focus the Transcendentalists’ sloppy enthusiasm and loosen up the Implicate Order’s precise pointillism. Don’t worry about the double rhythm section either. Carter and Swell are in good enough shape to hold their own against a double dose of bass and drums.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Vision: 1.Collision 2. Forward Motion 3. Transient

Personnel: Vision: Steve Swell (trombone); Daniel Carter (trumpet, alto and tenor saxophone, flute); Tom Abbs (bass, tuba ); David Brandt (drums)

Track Listing: Seixal: 1. For When Tathagatas Walk The Earth 2. For José Saramago 3. Bohnm’s Ghost 4. Sunshine in Seixal 5. Dance of the Expatriates 6. Avant Fado Meeting 7. Everything Is Everything

Personnel: Seixal: Steve Swell (trombone); Paulo Curado (soprano and alto saxophones)*; Rodrigo Amado (baritone saxophone)*; Ken Filiano (bass); Lou Grassi (drums)