Trombonist Steve Swell
“ It's about searching for self, searching for what it is the music means to you, and what's the best way for you to express yourself in the music and as a human being. ”
Forks in the road.
Eternal moments harbor choices consciously made or
Decisions instinctively followed.
These lines, the opening stanza to trombonist Steve Swell's poem "Transitions", distill the essence of his professional career. In three decades, Swell has traveled many roads and been faced with many decisions.
From his early days in "show bands" touring Broadway productions and working with jazz legends Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton to his migration into the creative improvised music scene performing with drummer Joey Baron and saxophonist Tim Berne, Swell made choices. Some were easy and instinctive; others required deliberate introspection. Now approaching 50, he has turned down another path to develop as an artist.
"It's time for me to really get to the next level of maturity for myself and my music," Swell says. "As I get older it's more about the music and honing that craft and developing myself as a person and as a musician." For Swell, this evolution requires a simplification, winnowing his many projects to concentrate on two or three steady bands.
After releasing strong CDs in late 2003, he is well on his way. Still in Movement (CIMP 2003), the latest from his New York Brasswood Trio, featured Swell's loose compositions and confident, dynamic playing that was careful not to overpower the session. His Suite For Players, Listeners, and Other Dreamers (CIMP 2003) convened a sextet including trumpeter Roy Campbell, saxophonist Will Connell, and violinist Charlie Burnham. Swell wrote an interconnected composition in several movements for the wider sonic palate offered by the diverse instrumentation.
The two projects show related, but different, sides of his musical personality, which has grown to absorb the influences of his varied playing history. Music started early for the New Jersey native, who was introduced to the trombonethe only instrument availablein an elementary school music program. When Swell was ten, his father (a saxophonist/clarinetist) played big band records to distract him from watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. "What he was trying to save me from, I still don't know," Swell jokes.
It was a fortuitous confluence for Swell, who continued listening to jazz throughout high school, as he played in school concert and stage bands. After a year of college, 19-year-old Swell auditioned for a show band in New York City, got the gig, and promptly moved there. Throughout the '70s and '80s, he played in touring shows and on Broadway, including in a production of Bob Fosse's Dancing. Swell was "jobbing" and proud of supporting himself exclusively as a musician.
But he faced a dilemma. Although he was working steadily, the gigs were making him crazy and taking him further away from what attracted him to music. In 1985, he played a gig at Carnegie Hall with multi-instrumentalist Makanda Ken McIntyre, who asked Swell if he wanted to make music or money. Soon after, he stopped taking every gig he was offered and focused on playing creative music.
"It's about searching for self, searching for what it is the music means to you, and what's the best way for you to express yourself in the music and as a human being," Swell says. Turning down paying gigs, he supported himself waiting tables, driving taxis, and proofreading texts. He then got involved in the burgeoning scene at the old Knitting Factory, of which he had been unaware. Playing with Baron's unusual Barondown trio with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and Berne's Caos Totale, which included stalwarts like bassist Mark Dresser, trumpeter Herb Robertson, and drummer Bobby Previte, Swell found creative synergy.
"You want to be doing the music that is of your generation," Swell says. "In jazz there is so much going on, all the influences can be brought in. If you put it together right, you can have a hell of an interesting band and some interesting music." It was a natural fit for Swell, who could draw on the skills and technique developed as a "jobbing" musician and utilize them for a personal statement. He realized, "Oh yeah, this was the reason I was playing music to begin with."
Increasingly in demand, Swell earned gigs with bassist William Parker's long-running Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, drummer Lou Grassi's PoBand, and saxophonist Philip Johnston's Big Trouble. He even performed with iconoclasts Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor's Sound Vision Orchestra and built a reputation for playing with emotional intensity and having the prodigious technique to articulate it.