Dave Burrell/Steve Swell

Turning Point
NoBusiness NBCD 70

Steve Swell’s Kende Dreams

Hommage à Bartok

Silkheart SHCD 160

Working forward in his career as one of the busiest trombonists in New York’s Free Music scene, Steve Swell has in the last little while been drawn to program music. That doesn’t mean a turn away from open-ended improv, of which he has performed masterly alongside everyone from Tim Berne to Peter Brötzmann. It’s just like an actor trying out classical as well as contemporary roles he transmits the artistry implicit in one to the other.

Both Turning Point and Hommage à Bartok are out-of-the-ordinary projects in which to experiment with new sorts of forms. A seven-part meditation on the American Civil War, composed by Philadelphia-based pianist Dave Burrell, Turning Point comes across like a workshop play reading. Without scenery, costumes or accompaniment, the trombonist and pianist use their actorly skills to create all of the musical’s roles and sounds, bringing emotional and dramatic coherence to an otherwise bare-bones recital. Hommage à Bartok is a different matter. Formulated to honor the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1945), while referencing spiritual and ethic currents from the Magyar area, no Bartok music is replicated. Instead Swell’s seven original pieces relate as much to the trombonist’s Jazz associations as some famous themes of the Banatian-born composer and ethnomusicologist. As performer, composer, arranger and director of this musical production, Swell parcels out roles to a company made up of fellow advanced improvisational veterans: alto saxophonist Rob Brown, pianist Connie Crothers, bassist William Parker and drummer Chad Taylor.

With Swell and Burrell assaying several roles on the other disc, the trombonist demonstrates the equivalent of what multiple costume changes provide for thespians in a minimalist production. Besides fleet contemporary tones, his trombone strategy uses mutes and extended plunger techniques to vocalize gutbucket, tailgate and other pre-modern timbres. With the libretto linked to Antebellum and war times, the brass effects add the veracity period costumes would bring to a full production.

Known for his melodic gifts and command of early piano styles, Burrell, who has composed other extended works, moves magpie-like among various thematic shades and rhythmic suggestions as this program is outlined. Introductory passages which set up the War Between the States quote “Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle” as the scene is set and “Taps” after the battle carnage is revealed. Unsurprisingly there’s an undercurrent of marching music rumbling throughout. Meanwhile Blues intimations are used both to underscore melancholy mixed with eroticism on “Fancy Trade Nightmare”, about sexual slavery, and that style is used for its most gut-wrenching properties when linked to tunes such as “Battle at Gettysburg” and “Battle at Vicksburg”.

Like the mechanic on hand to soup up a motor when the racing car driver heads in for a pit stop, Swell adds subtle affirmation of many of the emotions expressed without upsetting the course or bringing undue attention to himself. Notes spewed rapidly like artillery fire add to the mood on the introductory “One Nation”; blowsy slide slurs mirror the aching devastation initially expressed by Burrell’s vigorous kinetics on “Disease Hits Contraband Camp”, a near-requiem; while colorful tailgate blasts mixed with keyboard patterns that leap between folksy and stride, characterize “Church Picnic Celebration”.

As premiere auteur, Burrell plays the most complicated piece as a solo piano feature. “Paradox of Freedom” seeking to express in sound challenges faced by free people of color after the Civil War. Beginning with themes that relate to Europeanized, 19th Century-styled romanticism, the narrative becomes knottier and includes gnarled asides as it advances. Encompassing uncertain sound whorls that play genial ditties off against darker militant refrains, the poetic resolution very faintly refers to the march rhythms that permeate the suite, auguring future unresolved struggles that remain after the hostilities.

Although Bartok experienced his share of hostilities and tragedies in Europe, Swell’s seven-part suite tries to play up the spiritual qualities implicit in Magyar music during Bartok’s time, both in the official Hungarian culture and within the more primeval native currents Bartok studied as an ethnomusicologist.

As the protagonist here, Swell is like the director who decides to present Shakespeare in modern dress, or perhaps an all-female version of “Twelve Angry Men”. He interprets Bartok his way. That’s why the first two compositions “Roswellian Folk Song” and “For Will Connell Jr” have as much to do with Bebop as Bartok. The first, a salute to Roswell Rudd, whose ability to mix old timey trombone techniques into a New Thing context obviously influenced Swell. Ironically Parker and Crothers bridge the themes with rhythms that owes a lot more to Chambers Street and Brooklyn than the Carpathian Basin. Amusingly as well, the machine-gun-like patterning used by the trombonist is more reminiscent of JJ Johnson, Curtis Fuller and other Bop sackbut specialists than Rudd. The second piece is a threnody for the late saxophonist and music copyist who was part of the downtown New York scene for years. Since Brown’s alto saxophone ruminations commonly are expressed in a near tenor sax range, as did Rudd’s original partner in the New York Art Quartet (NYAQ), John Tchicai, the arrangement appears to be homage as much as to the NYAQ as Bartok. Considering “For Will Connell Jr” wraps up with the quintet swaying in a back-from-the-grave, New Orleans-style march before restating the theme, continuity is maintained, not unlike Bartok’s overriding links with his country and its music.

However tracks such as “Bartok Screams” and “Lent-Oh!” are notable because of how they express an incisive Free Jazz groove rather than piggyback on any of the Hungarian composer’s melodies. Like a character actress in a drama expressing herself in a pivotal role, Crothers uses spirited glissandi and dynamic keyboard rushes to solidify the theme on the former tune, as Taylor’s slap time and Parker’s thumps preserve the bottom, allowing Brown and especially Swell to carve altissimo lines into a display of raw passion. “Lent-Oh!” is augmented even more as if each player’s expressiveness is magnified with a sonic telescope. Crothers initial keyboard clanking moves on from pseudo-Romantic chording to Oscar Peterson-like power chords, with the horns’ snorts and shakes in Jazz Messengers territory.

Instructively enough the tracks most closely aligned with the CD’s premise, “After SQ4” and “Attack of the Mikrokosmos” which may deal with Bartok’s interest in extended and technical instrumental techniques, are notable more for individual improvisations than global problem solving. Like a graphic novel that reduces complex theories to more easily grasped pictorial forms, “After SQ4” is more notable for the pianist’s and bassist’s ability to swirl a blues sensibility into the composition as well as maintaining the Jazz trope of a restated head. “Attack of The Mikrokosmos” on the other hand is also more NYAQ than Hungarian. Jumbled, broken counterpoint from the horns provide darker variants on the initial melody, with the splayed line explorations guided with satisfying harmonies via Crothers’ constant key manipulation.

These CDs provide more instances of the trombonist’s skills as performer and composer. Originality would seem to be his forté though. On the evidence here he’s a lot better being Steve Swell than emulating Bela Bartok.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Hommage: 1. Roswellian Folk Song 2. For Will Connell Jr 3. After SQ4 4. Attack of the Mikrokosmos 5. Bartok Screams 6. Lent-Oh! 7. Ultima

Personnel: Hommage: Steve Swell (trombone); Rob Brown (alto saxophone); Connie Crothers (piano); William Parker (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums)

Track Listing: Turning: 1. One Nation 2. Battle at Gettysburg 3. Church Picnic Celebration 4. Paradox of Freedom 5. Disease Hits Contraband Camp 6. Fancy Trade Nightmare 7. Battle at Vicksburg

Personnel: Turning: Steve Swell (trombone) and Dave Burrell (piano)