Steve Swell

August 1, 2016

Reflections & Renewals
NotTwo MW 929-2

Michael Jefry Stevens
Brass Tactics
Konnex KCD 5315

Building on your experiences and concentrating on your best attributes are two elements of many people’s persona once they reach their sixth decade. It’s the same with musicians – especially if they’re involved with Jazz and/or improvised music. Attaining or coming close to seven decades of life either side of 60 gives provides many enhanced creativity. Gifted with new maturity, unlike most Pop performers, who fasten on their teens and twenties, creative improvisers continue producing major works, some of which because of honed skills are even better than those produced before.

Trombonist Steve Swell, 61, and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, 64, who have worked together in many contexts are distinct exemplars of this. The Asheville NC-based pianist is probably best-known for his performing partnership with bassist Joe Fonda which has encompassed many bands featuring everyone from drummer Harvey Sorgen to saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann. But like the comedian acclaimed as part of a revue, who is often funnier on his own, Stevens probably does his most profound work as a composer. He amply demonstrates this on Brass Tactics, a session featuring his piano plus a brass choir consisting of Swell and Dave Taylor on trombones plus Dave Ballou and Ed Sarath on trumpets. More globally, Reflections & Renewals, designed as a two-CD retrospective for his 60th birthday, does more than feature Swell compositions. His dexterous ingenuity as a player is also highlighted. Playing with different ensembles it’s easy to see why over the years he has forged a reputation as a go-to player. Additionally, and serendipitously, not unlike two scientists who manage to originate an individual break through at exactly the same time, Stevens’ session was recorded in 2008 when he was 57; while the majority of Swell’s program was recorded in 2012 when he was the exact same age.

Reflecting a lifetime of getting down to brass tack-tics, Stevens’ dozen compositions flirt with intertwining Jazz, Blues, so-called classical and band music without fully plunging into the Third Stream. Four of the tracks are out-and-out improvisations, with similar tropes and concerns emphasized either through osmosis or conduction. Like a researcher who discovers that what is thought of a contemporary concept was used in antiquity, “Twenty Degrees Farenheit” for instance has the dramatic flair that could be associated with a virtuosic keyboard specialist playing Baroque music with a period brass ensemble. Other improvisations throb with intensity while maintaining restrained harmonic underpinning. Like a DNA chain neither the quartet nor the pianist should be productively separated. Despite trombone growls and trumpet peeps the swaying, off-kilter brass accompaniment on “Forty Degrees Celsius”, for instance, is as linked to Stevens’ earnest keyboarding as an oxpecker is to a rhino.

As a composer, Stevens teases by opening up the sequences by throwing in quotes that refer to Dixieland and Baroque-styled laxity as well as others that could be military band showpieces, c symphonic-like crescendos and even “God Save the Queen”. Outstanding writing though comes in the compositions with the least references. The original “Temperature Rising” for instance, is rooted in the Blues, but with penetrating notes from one trumpet plus tightened rasps from the trombones that segments the piece as it advances. Still, the ending is cannily linked to the introduction. “For Alban Berg” in contrast slips between decorative and stark, with one trombonist raspy and the other expelling plunger tones, as the pianist’s thin key clipping keeps the melody echoing and responsive.

Swell’s ensemble blending is one characteristic of his contributions to Stevens’ composition. But like a full résumé compared to a CV, the set under his name shows off a lot more. For instance “Schemata and Heuristics for Four Clarinets” which he composed, allows the four named reedists to circle one another like swans in a pond, decorating each other’s melodies, until producing a carefully knit colorful timbral quilt. His two other compositions, “Essakane” with Magnus Broo (trumpet); Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone); Joe Williamson (bass) and Michael Vatcher (drums) and “Composite #8” with Darius Jones (alto saxophone); Omar Tamez (guitar); Jonathan Golove (cello) and James Ilgenfritz (bass) confirm his ambidextrous familiarity with Jazz idioms.

A straightforward swinger, the first is notable for how Swell’s solo fits in with the ad hoc band, while both expressing gutbucket blowing and contemporary speed. As densely created as a force field, but with sharp corners, the 22-minute “Composite #8” swirls along with formalized string techniques, intriguingly mixing fruity tone variations with the trombonist’s more restrained delivery. Reaching a crescendo that bobs on a recurring four-note motif like a boat on choppy seas, it climaxes as Tamez’s slides and Swell’s slurs mirror one another. An unaccompanied solo showcase confirms the trombonist’s proficiency with multiphonic cries and yodels; while his burnished texture linked to Tom Buckner foreshortened gurgles and retches on another track, reverses the usual blend of mellow vocalist given a boost from a nervy accompanist.

Two more instances Swell’s instrumental command are expressed in Free Jazz and Free Music circumstances. A May 2012 blow-out in Brooklyn featuring violinist C. Spencer Yeh, tenor saxophonist Paul Flaherty and percussionist Weasel Walter carves out a 35-minute wedge of Fire Music with the jerking spasmodic textures mixed with Punk and Metal discursions. Although the veteran saxophonist has enough of a sense of humor to mix snatches from “School Days” into his solos, most of the time he’s either searching for the timbres ‘way above altissimo or drilling his way down to Middle Earth. With Yeh’s screeching string rubs and Walter often sounding like he’s trying to puncture his kit rather than play it, the resulting miasma suggests this live excitement may lose a few layers in its translation to disc. Swell’s staccato tonguing or cumulative lowing tries to rebalance the groove. But only after scattered applause, a pause, and the introduction of an eccentric march-like beat does the piece jell – although because of Swell’s leadership it’s as much tailgate-oriented writ as conclusive tail wagging.

Recorded three months later with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio at about the same length the “Hideout” improvisations are like cameo carvings compared to the blunt sculpturing of the Brooklyn track. Dividing the piece into three allows more room for individual development, plus the cellist’s electronic burbles provide both a connective line and bedrock on which to balance the improvisations. With Lonberg-Holm also introducing mandolin-styled plucks and shrilling string sawing throughout, the multiplicity of sound colors goes from monochrome to variations of stains and shines. To that end, the trombonist’s plunger whorls and the clarinetist’s fluent trilling otherwise fill in those parts of the sonic color spectrum otherwise missing. If at points the trio appears to be playing in triple counterpoint with little regard for one another, by the end of the third track, expressiveness has replaced antagonism. Crossing over each other’s output the taut connection lightens via several degrees of pressure. Each set here empathically confirms the appropriate individual skill(s) of two veteran musicians at the top of their game(s).

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Reflections: CD 1: 1. Dragonfly Breath: Live at Zebulon 2. Essakane 3. Schemata and Heuristics for Four Clarinets 4. News from the Upper West Side CD 2: 1. Splitting Up is Hard to Do 2. Live at the Hideout #1 3. Live at the Hideout #2
4. Live at the Hideout #3 5. Composite #8

Personnel: Reflections: Steve Swell (trombone) plus CD 1: 1. Paul Flaherty (tenor saxophone); C. Spencer Yeh (violin and voice); Weasel Walter (drums, percussion) 2. Magnus Broo (trumpet); Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone); Joe Williamson (bass); Michael Vatcher (drums) 3. Ned Rothenberg, Guillermo Gregorio, Miguel Malla, Zara Acosta-Chen (clarinet); SS (composer) 4. Tom Buckner (voice) CD 2 1. SS (solo); 2. 3. & 4. Guillermo Gregorio (clarinet); 5. Darius Jones (alto saxophone); Omar Tamez (guitar); Jonathan Golove (cello); James Ilgenfritz (bass)

Track Listing: Brass: 1. 12 Chatham Road 2. Temperature Rising 3. Ten Degrees Celsius 4. Variables 5. Twenty Degrees Farenheit 6. For Alban Berg 7. Ping Pong 8. To the Glory 9. Fifty Degrees Farenheit 10. Forty Degrees Celsius 11. Variable Reprise 12. Temperature Rising (Reprise)

Personnel: Brass: Dave Ballou and Ed Sarath (trumpet); Dave Taylor and Steve Swell (trombone); Michael Jefry Stevens (piano) and Amy Kohn (conductor)