Steve Swallow: The Poetry Of Music
“ [Creeley's] words contained all that [music], and it was just a question of extracting what was in there already. ”
Bassist Steve Swallow and poet Robert Creeley were friends for 30 years. Swallow first read Creeley's work in the 1950s, and instantly fell in love with what Creeley had to say and the way he said it. Twenty years later, a chance meeting with Creeley led to a personal and professional relationship. Creeley's work inspired two of Swallow's albumsHome (ECM, 1980) and his most recent recording, So There (XtraWATT/ECM, 2006).
AAJ contributor Jason Crane talked with Swallow about So There and his relationship with Creeley. Swallow proved himself to be as consummate an appreciator of poetry and life as he is a master of the electric bass.
All About Jazz: What made Robert Creeley's work stand out when you first started reading it in the 1950's?
Steve Swallow: I'd say it was the same qualities that I most admire to this day. His concision, his extraordinary sense of rhythm, and what he was talking about seemed in a kind of uncanny way to be speaking directly to me. I discovered him in the mid-'50s, I would guess, and had the sense that he was addressing me personally then, and held on to that through it all. As I got to know him as a person, I felt that we did indeed share some perspectives on how life worked.
AAJ: Can you give an example?
SS: I became an avid collector of what he wrote immediately starting in the mid-'50s, and I have a pretty complete library of what he's written. I thought to make the album Home with [vocalist] Sheila Jordan. I began working on it in the early '70s and didn't record it until '79 or maybe '80. I went through everything he'd written very deliberately, with an eye or an ear for what I thought could be sung wellpurely the poems that seemed to have lines to me that evoked music. I put bookmarks in all the appropriate places and then typed out all that I got. Then I looked it over and realized that all the poems I'd chosen were ones about love, the romantic ones. And that's by no means predominant in his poetry. I'd say, in fact, that it's a small piece of his whole pie.
AAJ: Was that a function of choosing things to be sung and romantic lines are a fairly common topic for lyrics?
SS: It wasn't that I was choosing the words for their meaning at all. I was really just choosing sounds and rhythms. I didn't care what the text was initially. I remember being very clear with myself about thatthat I needed syllables that formed well in the mouth, and vowel sounds that produced the best vocal sound, and the rhythms that seemed conducive to musical phrasing. I wasn't looking at content. I was unaware of content as I did that in that initial gleaning for Home. I already had Sheila Jordan in mind and was thinking of her voice. Her voice had always been a very personal matter for me. She'd moved me deeply when I'd played with her over the years.
So it wasn't until stage two of the process, when I'd sat down with what I'd chosen and typed it out, that I realized that they were all love poems. I remarked on that and didn't pay it much mind. I went ahead and set the poems I liked best, and in the course of seven or eight years produced the music that would become that album.
I made that album in late '79 or early '80, and I think a week or two after it was recorded my wife split and I was devastated. As you can imagine, it was one of those big life or death events. We'd been together for quite a while and had kids. In the course of floundering around in the aftermath, I went back and listened to the album and looked at the poems that I'd selected but hadn't used, and found tremendous solace or consolation there. Several years prior to the event, [it turned out] I'd chosen a text to read to myself to get over the feeling of devastation that I was experiencing. I consider that a remarkable and quirky experience.
In fact, I was in touch with Bob. We've had a long correspondence that started in the early 70's and continued until a week or so before he died.
SS: Yeah, in the early '70s. Again, entirely by coincidence. It's a remarkable thread of coincidence and magic that's run through our relationship. In 1970 I moved to northern California, north of San Francisco, a bohemian enclave called Bolinas. A wonderful town on the very tip of San Francisco Bay. It wasn't until I'd actually settled there with my family that I discovered that Bob lived there. We'd corresponded, but I'd never noticed the postmarks. At that time, we got to know each other considerably better and the idea to work with his poetry took form in my mind. His daughter babysat my kids. We had a day-to-day life togethera day-to-day life near each otheras neighbors, which helped because I was so thoroughly in awe of him up to that point. I guess I never really lost that, but as I got to know him better I was able to loosen up and speak in his presence.
You can imagine how incredibly difficult it was to write to him. His letters, which had that kind of tossed-off quality that his poetry hasand he does try to toss it, I think that was his modus operandi, to achieve that rhythm you get when you just sail along as the words pile up in your mouth and you exit them as rapidly as you can. On the other hand, I would just ponder over my little three-paragraph responses to his letters for days trying to get the language right, to try to meet the standard that was implicit in everything he said. If he was talking about going to the store, there was an extraordinary song in it.