Steve Swell’s Nation Of We

Live at the Bowery Poetry Club
Ayler aylDL-005

Organized with idealistic as well as sonic aspirations, trombonist Steve Swell’s Nation Of We (NOW) band brings together 16 members of New York’s disparate improv community into an interdependent ensemble. Working over the trombonist’s four-part, hour-long composition, individual band members display powerful chops and demonstrate that their connection is deeper than their supposed divisions. Still, a certain lack of cohesion in the ensembles and some missed cues leading to off-mic soloing, confirms that this was only the band’s third gig.

Firmly in the tradition of rough-and-ready improv machines of the 1960s and 1970s like Alan Silva’s Celestrial Communication Orchestra and Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun band, this all-star crew relies on the raw power of individual members, not the sort of well-made arrangements that characterized bands such as Barry Guy’s compositional-oriented original London Jazz Composers Orchestra. To keep “Declaration of Interdependence” from being more than a string of solos, however, there are frequent, massed tutti passages throughout the suite.

An endeavor like this demands high octane players, and NOW has them in abundance, starting with Swell. Someone who has distinguished himself in large scale (William Parker’s Little Huey Orchestra) and small band situations, his dedicated solo feature is taken adagio, with his playing double-tongued and filled with rubato trills. Sliding out carefully weighed chromatics, occasionally dipping into pedal point or note-holding, his phrases are echoed by the muted horns behind him and evolve in counterpoint to Chris Forbes’ electric piano.

Perhaps reflecting the leader’s bias, the slide specialists all get their solo spots chances upfront – as, eventually, do most of the band members. In the final movement, for instance, bone men Dick Griffin and Peter Zummo come on like an updated Jay & Kai. The later sticks mostly to contrapuntal vamps however, while ex-Arkestra member Griffin moves from barely-there capillary slurs – doubled by Zummo – to tremolo anthems and nursery rhyme-like runs, vibrated from his lead pipe. Another selection is introduced by melded basement-low didjeridoo-like textures from veteran bass trombonist Dave Taylor and full-speed, low-pitched plucking from the double basses of No Neck Blues Band’s Matt Heyner and freelancer Todd Nicholson.

When his turn comes, frequent William Parker associate, trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes shows off arching triplets and plunger eruptions, somehow referencing both Don Cherry and Roy Eldridge as the trombones snort below him. Another trumpeter, Roy Campbell, who leads the Tazz trio, makes his mark with a whinnying solo that introduces the entire suite.

With so much talent on hand the tendency to enumerate every solo must be overcome. Just say that each reedist proves himself capable of praise: from Matt LaVelle’s sweet’n’sour bass clarinet riffs in the first section, to alto saxophonist Will Connell’s New Thing-reminiscent, split tones in the second part. Although his seemingly limitless trilling, honking and spraying that seem to arise as much from the saxophone’s bow as the reed itself are properly showcased, Sabir Mateen, a frequent Swell associate, is ill-served by the recording, however. The beginning of his solo starts off-mic and as he continues his interaction with the sections is occasionally lost in muddy sound.

As for the suite itself, its finale arrives as a reverberating note crunch from all concerned. Still, the synchronized final sound explosion shouldn’t overshadow the preceding polyphonic co-operation. However, be aware that the sections and soloists’ heraldic, cacophonous and hocketing input really stand out through the selfless work of the rhythm section.

Pianist Forbes comps throughout. The lockstep bassists provide spiky pizzicato passages or stretched arco leitmotifs. One often plays sul ponticello as the other emphasizes string scraping near the pegs. Finally, drummer Jackson Krall, who has done similar work for Cecil Taylor’s bands, holds the bottom with cross-patterned ruffs and bounces that are as unobtrusive as they are authoritative.

In the booklet notes, written nine months later, Swell says this live date was the third of the four gigs the NOW ensemble has performed. In a fairer world, the band should get many more jobs in New York and elsewhere. This would both tighten up loose ends in the arrangements and organization – and to spread the word to wider audiences.

A studio session, with the most modern equipment in use, would be a boon as well.

Until then, this CD – which can only be purchased by downloading it from Ayler’s site at – can serve as a filling appetizer for the full-course meal which the band provides in person.

— Ken Waxman


Track Listing: Declaration of Interdependence 1. First Part 2. Second Part 3. Third Part 4. Fourth Part

Personnel: Roy Campbell and Lewis “Flip” Barnes (trumpets); Matt LaVelle (trumpet and bass clarinet); Dick Griffin, Peter Zummo and Steve Swell (trombones); Dave Taylor (bass trombone); Rob Brown, Will Connell and Saco Yasuma (alto saxophones); Sabir Mateen and Ras Moshe (tenor saxophones); Chris Forbes (electric piano); Matt Heyner and Todd Nicholson (bass); Jackson Krall (drums)