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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Steve Swell
Kanreki: Reflection & Renewal
Not Two MW929-2

As much of a treat as it can be to listen to recorded improvisation, experiencing it live in real space is another thing entirely. One doesn’t have to be in a hallowed locale like New York, Chicago, Berlin or Tokyo to witness it either – to borrow from Bill Dixon, “wherever you are is your Carnegie Hall,” and that goes for the listener as well as the player. From discs and a basic understanding of how the trombone works, one can assume that the art of trombonist Steve Swell, for example, is a rather physical affair. But it’s another thing entirely to see the man himself – a spry, yogic 60 as of this writing, grinning and goateed – in action. He often crouches, arched, extending his slide nearly to the floor as he coils and spouts energy in deft flicks, though in certain contexts is loose and stately while coaxing vocal micro-bursts in dappled conversation. Long a part of some of the woollier aspects of New York’s creative music climate, a recent stand at the Lower East Side venue The Stone presented Swell – just a couple of weeks before his 61st birthday – in a variety of contexts, from chamber improvisation to unhinged ensemble density.

The two-disc set Kanreki: Reflection & Renewal is a similarly varied bag, recorded between 2011 and 2014 and placing Swell into a string of multi-national small groups, one duet and one trombone solo. The set also includes images of Swell’s visual art and a few of his poems. Working temporally backwards, “Schemata and Heuristics for Four Clarinets #1” involves no trombone and was written for the clarinets of Ned Rothenberg, Guillermo Gregorio (also heard in three trios with the trombonist and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics), Zara Acosta-Chen and Miguel Malla. Built on short, explosive phrases that are overlaid and begin to lap and cascade into one another, briefly resolving only to wheel and dart, it’s not hard to hear how this piece might’ve grown out of Swell’s approach to improvising on the trombone. From a few months earlier, in January 2014, the trombonist and Tom Buckner, an improvising vocalist, meet on “News from the Upper West Side,” and the latter’s split-toned muttering and subtonal, curling whistles are an interesting mirror to the plunged, crinkled chortle and paced clatter of Swell’s horn. From 2012, “Composite #8” features a curious quintet of Swell and altoist Darius Jones plus the string trio of guitarist Omar Tamez, cellist Jonathan Golove and bassist James Ilgenfritz. Blockish long tones set against narrow, stuttering pizzicato string phrases are the basis for soli that roil and vibrate before letting loose – the amplified sear of Golove’s cello, followed by Jones in a restrained, bitter wail (egged on by the composer’s ululations), and the wiry gobs of Tamez’ guitar and Ilgenfritz’ plucked hull before Swell’s blats lead into a jagged close.

The three untitled pieces captured live at Chicago’s Hideout in August of that year are among the set’s finest, garrulous and swarming in the first as Swell’s sharp, muted and unmuted huffs and natters mate with split-toned cello and crackle box (so closely-hued as to be nearly indistinguishable) and Guillermo Gregorio’s impossibly-sculpted landscapes of register and geometry. One moment the trio approaches Berio-via-Giuffre chamber mobiles; the next, warped, yawing and open-ended slabs of volatile crust splay into odd slices of diffuse concentration. More nakedly brutal is the lengthy set opener from the quartet Dragonfly Breath, which joins Swell with saxophonist Paul Flaherty, violinist-vocalist C Spencer Yeh, and drummer Weasel Walter on a thirty-minute storm recorded at the departed Brooklyn bar Zebulon. The bizarre vocal tactics of Yeh – abbreviated chuffs and groans – are drawn primarily from abrupt exhalations across the mic, in quick side-to-side head movements, and jolt from within an already jagged unit. Abetted by Walter’s shimmering, allover chatter (occasionally and aggressively halted), Flaherty and Swell engage in mealy dialogue and muscular swoops as Yeh dives and scrapes, often utilizing two bows in subtonal opposition. It’s a rare meeting between four very different players, and if considerably more anarchic than most of Kanreki, sometimes an aesthetic grasp needs first to be unseated.
–Clifford Allen

The trombone is an especially wonderful instrument, what with its wide range of octaves, the richness of the sounds it can make, its resonances. Steve Swell is not just a player, he’s a trombone explorer. For his 60th birthday he collected a two-CD cross-section of his 2011-2014 works in Kanreki. Six very different groupings and a solo give us a free quartet blowout, clever trio and duet improvisations, a hot quintet piece, a composition for four clarinets, and a dramatic quintet composition. His solo, “Splitting Up Is Hard to Do,” is a gem, variations on a few long held notes – the variations are in his overtones and undertones, all the richer because of his instrument. It’s kin to Roscoe Mitchell’s “SII Examples” and I doubt Paul Rutherford or anyone else ever had the patience to create such an extended work as Swell’s.

Dragonfly Breath is Swell, tenorist Paul Flaherty, violinist C. Spenser Yeh, and drummer Weasel Walter. In the blasting 31-minute “Live at Zebulon,” three players expand on Walter’s ferocious energy. Swell is quite the most colorful: swashing, buckling, and slashing through the others’ ecstasies. An opposite feeling is “Composite #8,” a medium-slow velocity work for quintet that opens with long unison alto sax (Darius Jones) and trombone tones and ominous string blips (Omar Tamez, guitar; Jonathan Golove, cello; James Ilgenfritz, bass) atop. A repeated guitar chord stalks Jones’s alto solo, a long, stately melody spiced with occasional high overtones; there’s a briefer guitar solo before the final theme. Quite somber.

Swell also composed the theme of “Essakane,” a goodie, the only track with a tempo, a swinger in which his solo is the centerpiece and the rest of the very hot band are Magnus Broo, trumpet; Ken Vandermark, tenor sax; Joe Williams, bass; Michael Vatcher, drums. Ned Rothenberg, Guillermo Gregorio, Miguel Massa, and Zara Acosta-Chen, but not Swell, play his “Schemata and Heuristics for Four Clarinets #1.” It’s episodic, funning on a fugue with a three-note motive to start and end, with clever combinations in between like a bass clarinet bouncing against a trio line, a slap-tonguing passage, improvised and composed bits.

I listened to “News from the Upper West Side” on Halloween night, the perfect time to hear this spacy mystery. Since so much of Swell’s sounds seem to imitate human mouth, throat, breath, voice, sounds, singer Tom Buckner mocks trombone sounds – a witty duel. The longest improvisation is the three-part “Live at the Hideout.” There’s a certain quality of extroversion, mastery combined with aggression perhaps, about Chicago musicians that seems to startle some visiting musicians, but fits just right with a daredevil like Swell. He and electronicist-cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and clarinetist Gregorio assent and dissent through multiple atonal episodes from ppp to ff. There are disputes of extreme electronic and instrumental sounds, lyrical passages by each, times when individuals arise from the babble to take the foreground. Lonberg-Holm develops longer lines than the others – he’s especially sly – while the bold Gregorio makes me imagine a serious Wilton Crawley.

For all their different musics, these two discs yield an infectious delight. Steve Swell is a shining light in this dark, decadent age.
–John Litweiler


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