Steve Swell’s Slammin’ The Infinite

Live At The Vision Festival
Not Two MW 780-2

Steve Swell Presents: Rivers Of Sound, Ensemble

News From the Mystic Auricle

Not Two MW 797-2

Middle age sounds good from Steve Swell. Not that age – or ageism – should be any factor in discussing music. But few American players had the gumption to affiliate themselves with Free Jazz during the Fusion and Neo-con drought years between the late 1960s and the early 1990s. So only a small number of mature stylists such as the trombonist are around, who not only continue the search for original formulae advanced by some older improvisers, but also possess the self-editing skills lacking in many younger players.

One person who is still musically experimenting, although around 80-years-old, is saxophonist Sam Rivers. Without replicating any of his music, News From the Mystic Auricle is dedicated to Rivers. Live At The Vision Festival, on the other hand, is a looser affair, although two of Swell’s three compositions are dedicated to further older improvisers: trombonist Grachan Moncur III and the late tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe.

Speaking of maturity, key members of the bands on both CDs are similarly in the prime of their lives. Multi-reedist Sabir Mateen for instance, has made his name playing with bandleaders ranging from bassist William Parker to pianist Horace Tapscott; while drummer Klaus Kugel has powered a variety of European and American ensembles. On Live the two plus Swell are joined by slightly younger bassist Matthew Heyer, who was in TEST with Mateen and is part of the No Neck Blues band; plus idiosyncratic pianist John Blum. On News they’re spelled by mature trumpeter and flugelhornist Roy Campbell, a member of Other Dimensions in Music with Parker; and bassist Hill Greene, who is in the bands Carnival Skin with Kugel, and Exuberance with Campbell.

Although Campbell adds to the contrapuntal discourse on the studio session, the excitement is really palpable on the Vision Festival CD. From the first notes of “Improv/Box Set” Hayner’s pedal-point harmonies, Kugel’s double-handed rumbles and pops plus occasional focused chording from Blum provide a proper showcase for Swell’s staccato partials and Mateen’s cursive flute lines. Mateen’s subsequent switch to hawk-like squawks on clarinet and still later to altissimo saxophone cries occasion equivalent intensity from the backing three. The pianist turns out speed-skating glissandi and Heyer spiccato incursions.

Never lopsided, the modulated lines continuously intersect even after Swell introduces a roistering secondary theme – an agitated line that could have come from the New York Art Quartet (NYAQ)’s book. Mateen’s snorts, vibrations and chirps solidify into long-lined glossolalia after this incursion, and they’re soon matched by plunger grace notes from the trombonist, pummeling ruffs from the drums and a walking, popping bass line. With the secondary theme used as a shout chorus, the band wraps up.

Exhilaration mixed with ferment characterizes the other tracks as well. Blum asserts himself with chording that alternately visits the recital realm or key clinking from non-idiomatic music. Heyner’s bass lines move from parade-ground-styled accompaniment to sul ponticello squeaks, and Kugel’s dynamic press rolls and ruffs mark the similarities between Free Bop and Free Jazz. When Swell outputs gutbucket smears on “For Grachan”, Mateen’s cistern-deep pitches and split tones on tenor saxophone recall that Moncur gigged with Archie Shepp. Simultaneously the saxophonist’s ricocheting altissimo slurs are further complemented by the trombonist’s contrapuntal asides.

This same consistency is exemplified further on the other CD, recorded less than eight months later. In addition, the braying interpolation, flutter tonguing and brassy triplets from Campbell’s horns give the frontline added polyphony. Campbell often works in counterpoint with huffing trombone timbres, Meanwhile Greene’s arco skills and pumping pizzicato complement Kugel’s sizzling cymbals and blunt strokes.

Cohesion is most evident on the title track where Mateen appears to exercise each of his instruments in turn. Whistling and squeaking clarinet slurs, sharpened and fortissimo flute runs, stuttering tenor saxophone cross tones and tip-top alto saxophone pitches are showcased. Meantime Greene’s buzzing ostinato plus Kugel’s bell-shaking and pulse-quickening kettle drum-like paradiddles set the scene for more contrapuntal development. There are bugle-like brass flashes, staccato trombone timbres and eventually another excursion into NYAQ-like tonal tinctures. Writhing and vibrating, mellow flugelhorn echoes operate above sweeping pedal-point bass lines until entries from the additional horn shove the maximum chordal interactions and minimal instrumental harmonics into a clear-sounding fantasia for all.

These discs are prime examples of why improvised music can never be in thrall to tyro players or feeble oldsters. Middle-aged maturity often produces the most notable and memorable sounds.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Improv/Box Set 2. For Grachan 3. Partient Explorer/For Frank Lowe

Personnel: Live: Steve Swell (trombone); Sabir Mateen (alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet and flute); John Blum (piano); Matthew Heyner (bass) and Klaus Kugel (drums)

Track Listing: News: 1. Journey to Omphalos 2. Healix 3. News From the Mystic Auricle

Personnel: News: Roy Campbell (trumpet and flugelhorn); Steve Swell (trombone); Sabir Mateen (alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet and flute); Hillard Greene (bass) and Klaus Kugel (drums)