Steve Swell has been active in music community since the early 1970’s. He has toured and recorded with many artists from mainstreamers such as Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich to so called outsiders as Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor and William Parker. He has over 40 CDs as a leader or co-leader and is a featured artists on more than 100 other releases. He runs workshops around the world and is a teaching artist in the NYC public school system focusing on special needs children.
Steve recently took time from his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions.
What first attracted you to the trombone?
Actually I think the trombone picked me. I was in the fourth grade in elementary school in New Jersey and the music teacher there, Al Schmidt, had demonstrated the different instruments for us in an assembly and then we were to pick which one we wanted to play. When Mr. Schmidt demonstrated the trombone he played it with the slide all the way out right down in my face which was kind of cool as I recall but I actually didn’t pick the trombone then. I wanted to play the trumpet or violin but since I had hurt my wrist in an accident while playing at a construction site with my friends, I really couldn’t use my fingers so I ended up with the trombone because it caused me the least amount of pain to play.
I had also been given clarinet lessons the year before that by my father when I was 9 years old. That was a real struggle and I never really got the hang of it. My father played alto saxophone and clarinet in some bands around New Jersey and briefly studied composition in New York in the 1950s. My father also had me listening to all the big bands that he had grown up with: Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller Duke Ellington and some dixieland stuff all of which I thought was fun to play and listen to. There was a friend’s mother in my neighborhood who loved listening to Count Basie which I heard whenever I went to their home. A really good teacher in high school, Morty Geist, turned us on to Charlie Parker, Monk, Mingus, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. I was lucky to have been exposed to a lot of different music at a relatively young age.
I really didn’t fall in love with the trombone though until I heard Roswell Rudd play it. I heard the Live in San Francisco recording of Archie Shepp’s on NYC’s WRVR radio station in 1970. That’s when I first got hooked and heard what you could do with the instrument. I had never heard anything like that before. It really grabbed me in a way that nothing else had up to that point in my life. Roswell really inspired me and made me think that I could do something with the instrument myself in an original way. His playing was so freeing, so emotional it really lit a fire under this 15 year old teenager from New Jersey. His sound literally touched something inside me and woke me up.
After that I started to really listen to music and musicians more closely. Listening to how they phrased, how each one can sound so different and not just trombonists but all the jazz musicians. And from jazz I started listening to other kinds of music: classical music, serial music, European improvisers, rock, R & B. Without realizing it I ended up paying real close attention to something that I grew to love and respect and its been a life long journey that I still enjoy immensely, both playing and listening.
One of my favorite recent projects of yours is the Ullman / Swell 4. How did that group and recordings come about?
Gebhard Ullmann and I had been talking about doing something together for a while and we met once when he was in New York performing around 2002, 2003. He invited me to play with him in Berlin while I was on tour around that time. I met up with him right after that tour was finished. I really admired his work ethic right away. When I met him in Berlin he picked me up at the train, I was exhausted but he brought me right to a rehearsal. He had a bunch of music and we rehearsed with his band for about 2 hours and then we did the gig pretty much right after the rehearsal. I mean it was intense but I appreciated that he was all business and his exuberance for the music really showed in his playing. Afterwards we started talking about our recent travels and we both had just spent some time in desert settings. Geb had spent some time in the American Southwest and I had just returned from being on the Sahara Desert in Mali, Africa with Roswell. We talked about the mystery of that kind of environment and all the feelings; physically, emotionally and spiritually. We decided right then that we should do something to document those feelings musically. I had spent that time in Mali with Barry Altschul as well and had always wanted to do a project with him and Hill Greene had been a friend of mine for a long time so I asked them both to join us and that’s how Desert Songs and Other Landscapes (CIMP) came about. We recorded two other CDs (Live in Montreal, CiMPol and News? No News!, Jazzwerkstatt) and since 2004 we have done a number tours in the United States, Canada and Europe every year since we started the band and, at times, two tours in one year. Its a pleasure and luxury being with a steady band for so long.
Your recorded output features a who’s who of outsider / creative jazz. How do you pick bandmates for each grouping? Do you plan to work with certain individuals or do the ensembles fall together more organically?
All of the above. I have such a curious nature where improvisation is concerned. I want to explore all the ways in which improvising is being done or at least the ways that interest me the most which is quite a lot of different approaches. Its been very important for me also to make myself available for whatever sideman work there is especially where the veterans and master/originators of this music call me to be in their projects. You can learn so much by being a sideman. How to rehearse a band, how to compose for certain instruments, explore new areas of improvising on your instrument or get some ideas for new compositions. Or sometimes I hear a younger group of musicians that are doing something that I think is really different and I will try to do something with them, if they’ll have me. For me being a sideman and leader are equally important functions.
There are so many approaches to improvising and so many musicians doing so much good work. It all really keeps me going and keeps me from getting bored or settling into one particular area that can become a little predictable. I think that is really the new thing that is happening now in the improvising, jazz and new music worlds and its not really so new. John Zorn talked about this recently that it is almost the norm and totally acceptable, and doable, for musicians to be involved in different areas of playing, improvising and composing now. And this really has been going on for a long time. I actually was talking to someone recently who knew Roscoe Mitchell only as a composer and he was surprised to find out Roscoe is a legendary improvising saxophonist as well. That was really an eye opener for me. I think the joy of listening and playing this music are the surprises that unfold while hearing and making it. That’s what I want my music to be primarily about so I will seek out and play with artists that I think will challenge me and provide a platform for me to hopefully find something new and surprising in that particular mix. I really enjoy the different scenarios that I find myself in or put together.
When I put my own projects together I really keep my ear to the ground as far as whether this musician or that musician is also a seeker rather than primarily career oriented. I think that those musicians that seem to have a genuine “seeker” attitude is going to be someone I will want to invite into a project of mine. This takes a lot of listening and paying attention to what is going on all over the world in terms of this music and I find that that way too I keep up with what is going on in the music. I think approaching my career this way makes it a bit harder to be a bigger “success”, so to speak. It keeps me honest with myself though because I am wired with this need for exploring, trying and working on music rather than turn myself over completely to being accepted by one group of musicians or genre. It might be a little more isolating at times but the rewards for me far outweigh that.
As far as listening to what’s happening out there, I’m old school in a way and this has been lost a little bit along the way but I think it is important and that is to get out and support musicians at live concerts, whether you know them or not. But I’m a little selfish about this too because its also about that I will hear someone or something that triggers something that I would like to try or to even be involved with them. I think my main purpose is to be open and to get together with people that I think will produce a shared vision that is unique and that’s what keeps me going. I feel, and I’ve talked to Roswell Rudd about this a lot, there is so much to still explore with the trombone itself and of course the ways to improvise that we haven’t even found yet that this kind work is never truly finished.
Having been around the New York scene for about 40 years, do you have any observations on its history or where you see it going?
That’s always an interesting question. I started listening to improvised, free jazz when I was 15 years old in NJ by way of the radio and LPs starting in 1970. I started being on the scene as a listener and player in New York around 1973, 74 so there is a huge stretch of things that I’ve seen change and grow. I didn’t see the very early days of the “free scene” but became part of it, as a listener mostly, when it was already really in full swing. New York at that time was really amazing musically speaking. The city in the 70s was always on the verge bankruptcy but Dizzy Gillespie was still alive and you could see him give a free concert up at Grant’s Tomb or you could see Art Blakey’s band then see Cecil Taylor play in the same evening. I saw Charles Tyler, Rashaan Roland Kirk, Sam Rivers, Max Roach. I saw Chet Baker live a bunch of times. Zoot Sims. I had conversations with Matthew Gee, Vic Dickenson. There was the Jazz Museum which hosted free afternoon concerts. I saw Bill Watrous there once. The Lofts were great and of course and I went to all of them. I would say in a typical week my friends and I would go to three concerts or clubs in one night several nights in a row. I think that it was really only in those days at that time anywhere that you could see practitioners of every kind of jazz by some of the original musicians who originated that particular style in one city in one night, every night if you wanted to. And, everything was pretty much still centralized in Manhattan which made that easier. I did go to some small venues that didn’t last very long out in Brooklyn and Queens and see some great music of all kinds there too. You also had Jazz Interactions and Jazzmobile, organizations which gave free lessons and had a big band to participate in. The Jazz Interactions CETA program is where I met Roswell Rudd and Grachan Moncur III. Joe Newman was the big band leader there and I played in that band. I saw Frank Wess one time come into Roswell’s room to see if he was free to do a gig with him. That made me stop and think. I went to Jazzmobile a few times and got to study a little with Curtis Fuller.
The one obvious thing for me today is that there are so many more musicians everywhere now. I think back on those times and there was an emphasis on the music itself. Now in NY many musicians are coming here from all over the world solely to make their name, not really to learn and hang out first, which is more how the commercial scenes used to work and this is how some improvising musicians are viewing it now. That makes it harder now to figure out who is here to develop, because the city does still have that to offer, or to be here not to learn but to make their mark and become famous or make money or whatever. Its as if many musicians are saying, to me at least, “I know everything I need to know already, where’s the recording contract”. In some ways that makes it hard to figure out who to trust. We all have our own motives and agendas and it’s fine to want to get some recognition and payment for your hard work but I try to stick with putting the music first and trying to make the right combinations of music and musicians and work from there. If you have the right music and are honest about it and with yourself that label will find you or you will find them.
As for the future, I think there is much to be positive about in terms of this music. So much great music is documented and available online, there is so much information out there with that and so much live stuff to go to too. The one thing I think that we need more of is all musicians, young or old, going out to see different things and to keep growing and learning. There will always be those who get that and those who won’t.
In addition to all of the playing, you also have written poetry, some of which is about playing. Do you find these creative processes complementary?
Absolutely. When I write poetry I’m really improvising and its very freeing. So that part of it is the same as playing improvised music. I just write without any judgments, the same way I approach playing. The thing with the poetry though is that I can go back and edit myself. Its very different from improvising music in that respect but as I read a lot and really take all I’ve learned and use it in my approach to poetry, as in improvising music, where you’ve studied the masters, practiced your instrument that when it comes time to play, or write poetry, you turn the learning part of your brain off and turn on the intuitive part and just let the music or words flow since you’ve already put a lot of information into your head and heart up to that point. And since I have spent so much of my life in improvised music that when I come to writing poetry I don’t always need to edit what I wrote because I’ve become a pretty good improviser and know what works the first time I will write something. And the more I write, or play and compose for that matter, the more it goes for me in becoming more of a complete artist as well as exploring more of my own humanness. The ability to be able to put your thoughts and feelings into words can be very enlightening in terms of getting to know and understand yourself a bit better.
If there was a supergroup you could put together right now to record or play live, who would be in it?
I don’t think you know its a super group until it actually is. Of course it’s up to the individual musician or listener to ascertain as to whether a certain band is “super” or not. Sometimes a group that looks great on paper may disappoint you or the listener. There are musicians out here that I do want to play with that just hasn’t happened yet. I’m trying to rectify that somewhat here and there and hopefully in the coming year some of those projects will happen. I’ve been talking a lot to Joel Futterman and would love to do a small band with him and two of favorite people on the planet Alvin Fielder and Kidd Jordan. I’ve played with Kidd several times in some William Parker projects (we do a duo together on William’s Ellingtonia CD!). So we are trying to figure out how to make that work. I’ve also been talking with Peter Brotzman and someone in Europe is working on our behalf to put a tour together with Paal Nilsen-Love in 2015. Evan Parker I’ve met a few times and I would love to do something with him but I haven’t really pursued that.
Any plans for the future, such as upcoming performances and releases, that you’d like to share?
I recently recorded a CD with Jemeel Moondoc, Gerald Cleaver, Dave Burrell and William Parker. I am in contact with a label that is interested and I hope to have an official release on that shortly. I will be going to France to play the Son d’Hiver festival in February with Michel Edelin’s group and he’s invited me to bring some new compositions so I am excited about that. I will be on tour with Gebhard Ullmann’s Basement Research in the fall of 2014 and he and I are planning a new group for 2015 with Michael Zerang and Fred Lonberg-Holm. I will also be touring with Joelle Leandre in the fall of 2014 as a duo. There are two projects I will be starting to work on soon. One is a trio with Ken Vandermark and the other is a quartet I will co-lead with Tim Daisy that includes Nate Wooley and Pascal Niggenkemper. I also hope to help put together a tour for a co-op band I’m in called Inner Ear with Tim Daisy, Mikolaj Trzaska and Swedish tuba player Per-Ake Holmlander.
Several releases that I recorded as a sideman that will be out in 2014 will be released under the leadership of Jemeel Moondoc, James Ilgenfritz, Garrison Fewell (with John Tchicai), Rodrigo Amado, Teun Verbruggen, Carlo Costa, Ed Ricart, Gebhard Ullmann and Ken Vandermark. I have a second CD that I will mix and release of a co-op group with Andrew Raffo Dewar and Garrison Fewell. It will be a follow up of our Estuaries CD released on dEN this past year.
I am also planning to go in the studio with some other projects of mine next year: a quintet with Rob Brown, Chris Forbes, Michael Thompson and Hill Greene, a trio of mine with Will Connell and Reggie Nicholson and finally I will do a solo CD. I think I’m finally ready for that.