Steve Swallow is one of the most accomplished and most recorded jazz bassists of all time, with a career that’s now in its sixth decade—but there’s nothing he likes better than laying down a good groove. On his most recent album, his second with the co-operative trio that includes pianist Jamie Saft and drummer Bobby Previte, he does just that on a dozen tunes, three featuring vocals by punk-rock icon Iggy Pop. It might not be what you expect from a jazz master, but Swallow has always delighted in the unexpected.
The first twist in Swallow’s career occurred in 1969, when he was 29 years old and already a veteran of gigs with such leaders as Paul Bley, Art Farmer, and Stan Getz. He had been playing the upright since he was 14, but when he encountered an electric bass at a NAMM show, everything changed. Intrigued by the instrument’s creative possibilities, Swallow abandoned the acoustic bass—no doubling—and switched to a Gibson EB-2, played with a pick. (“The decision was considered downright rude at the time,” he once told me.) Despite formidable resistance in the jazz community, Swallow forged ahead, playing electric bass with such notables as vibraphonist Gary Burton and keyboardist Herbie Hancock as well as leading his own projects. And he’s never looked back.
In 1978 Swallow joined the group led by renowned composer– keyboardist Carla Bley. They have worked together extensively since then, performing and recording in various ensembles, from duos to big bands, and co-producing albums on the WATT and XtraWATT labels. They became life partners in 1985 and share a music-filled house in New York’s Hudson Valley, living in “contented isolation” when they’re not touring. Swallow also continues to perform and record with many other longtime musical compatriots, including pianist Steve Kuhn and guitarist John Scofield.
The Saft, Swallow, and Previte trio released their first album, The New Standard, in 2014 and recently returned to Saft’s home studio to cut the follow-up, Loneliness Road (both on RareNoise Records). The album was recorded direct to two-track analog tape in two days. I spoke with Swallow shortly after its release in May.
How did you meet Jamie Saft?
I met him through Bobby Previte. He’s the link among the three of us, in many ways. Jamie and Bobby had a friendship that went back, and Bobby and I have played together quite a lot over a decade or so.
Your playing connects well with Bobby’s. He has a certain energy that fits with the way you play.
He’s got a wonderful kind of crazy energy, and I relish that. He’s prone to outbursts. It works between us because it allows me to be the stable guy, the 9-to-5 guy, so he can exercise his sense of whimsy when he plays the drums.
Some of the tunes on Loneliness Road are simple harmonically, but what you do with them is not simple at all. To cite the ultimate example, it’s almost like Kind of Blue. Was that the concept?
What Jamie provided was a series of sketches that generally ran eight bars, tops. His points of reference are grounded in tonal music and in specific American sources, like blues and gospel. There was no attempt to disrupt those idioms. If an eight-bar fragment suggested a James Cleveland gospel tune, then that’s what we played.
Iggy Pop sings on three songs. How did that happen?
It was an utter surprise to me. Somebody at the record company knew him, and they asked him if he could sing on these tracks that we had recorded. The whole deed was done before I was even aware that the tracks had been given to him. One of the things I like about what he did is that I hear him struggling, and being candid enough to display that. I think he was grappling with the idiom, and in the end he turned that to his advantage. You hear him coming to terms with something he hasn’t encountered before and successfully wrestling it to the ground.
One of the strongest instrumental tunes is “Pinkus,” which reminds me of a Mingus blues. Is the title a play on his name?
Yes, I think it is. Each of the tunes has a particular character: This one’s a folk song, this one’s a gospel tune, this one’s a Mingus blues. My approach was to jump into whatever idiom the fragment demanded, unreservedly, without any cynicism or distance from the idiom. I just willed myself to become whatever the tune demanded, knowing that Bobby would do his take on it and Jamie would feed off both of those impulses. And that set of ideals can only work when you’re doing first, or at most second, takes. That’s how the album was made: Jamie would present us the fragment, we’d play it through for maybe a minute to ensure that we understood his intentions, and then we’d roll tape.
There are places in several tunes where you’re keeping steady time, and then—boom—it opens up and time gets free, yet you’re all breathing together. And then it comes back to steady time. How did you do that?
The reason we could do that successfully relates to recording in Jamie’s studio, which is in the basement of his house. It was a very comfortable atmosphere, conducive to taking chances. It was the kind of atmosphere in which you were comfortable conversing with the guy sitting next to you—the ultimate cocktail party.
Sometimes you’re walking in a traditional jazz style, and in other places, you have an R&B approach. On “Little Harbor,” you’re playing a root–5–octave pattern that locks it down.
I love to do that, although it isn’t often called for in most of the music I play, which is post-bebop jazz. I think that goes back to my evolution as a player, and in particular my decision to become an electric bass player. When I found myself with an electric bass in my hands, I thought I’d better listen to Motown and Stax/Volt, just to see what had been done on the instrument. I was utterly unfamiliar with the very brief history of the electric bass, and what attracted me at first was just the thing itself, the bass. It had nothing whatsoever to do with James Jamerson or Duck Dunn, but I went back and listened to those guys and said, “Wow, that’s wonderful.” And I began trying to do that in my playing.
Your R&B-style lines also open up the harmony. Jamie has an opportunity to reharmonize the music in different ways. Did he encourage that?
Jamie and Bobby were both happy when I got very basic. In a lot of the musical circumstances I’ve played in, there’s been an unstated pressure to be complex. There’s the sense of, “we’re moving the music forward” by playing more b9ths and #9ths and #11ths and b13ths, by playing in 7/4 instead of 4/4. That’s a worthy impulse, but it’s lovely to be free of that and play with guys who appreciate a good root–5.
Compared to The New Standard, this album has more bass solos. Was that part of the design, or did that just happen as you played?
I think it just grew out of the moment we were in, and I felt a little more voluble than I did the time before. All of that stuff, like who was soloing at any given moment, was never spoken about. If I wanted a solo, I just grabbed one. That was true of both albums, but I do think I was in a more outgoing mood for this album than for the first one.
You once told me that your soloing was inspired by listening to “soul tenors” like Luther Vandross and Freddie Jackson. Are you listening to any contemporary singers?
No, I’ve kind of shut down. I’m not as good a listener as I once was, but I find that when I do listen, I’m returning to the voices—and I mean that in a general sense—that have been most important to me over the years. I’m still listening to Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding and Sonny Rollins and Bix Beiderbecke, who I listened to yesterday. But I’m cherry-picking the historic greats at this point, more than I am keeping up with what’s new. Although I must say that I love Rihanna.
In your solos, you have a way of expressing an idea and then carefully building on it, rather than just throwing out a lot of 16th-notes. Your solos are always melodic and thoughtful.
Well, yeah, I’m slow [laughs]. And proud of it.
When I met you in 1987, one of the things we talked about was the resistance to electric bass in jazz. Do you think that’s changed since then?
I’ve managed to have a life in jazz playing the electric bass, but not many others have—and that’s very much to my surprise. When I started playing the electric bass, I expected that within a few years, the jazz world would be full of electric bassists. The electric guitar found a home in jazz fairly quickly after Charlie Christian, and I expected the same thing to happen with the electric bass. But it hasn’t.
Do you have any plans to cut down your touring and recording schedule, if not retire?
No, I love the thought of just playing into the sunset. It’s a lovely life. I’m a bass player, I work on Saturday night, and I make enough money to live out in the woods, with no desperate needs unfulfilled and lots of time to practice. It’s true that, because of aging, I’ve needed to distill what I do, to make it simpler. That has been a blessing, because it’s caused my playing to be more useful. And what more can a bass player aspire to than to be useful?
Jamie Saft/Steve Swallow/Bobby Previte, Loneliness Road [2017, RareNoise], The New Standard [2014, RareNoise]; Carla Bley/Steve Swallow/Andy Sheppard, Andando El Tiempo [2016, ECM]; John Scofield, Country for Old Men [2016, Impulse!]
Bass Harvey Citron AE5 signature hollowbody 5-string (7th edition, with high C string, mahogany body, Adirondack-spruce top, and Fishman piezo pickup)
Strings La Bella 760RS-C Nickel Round Wounds
Rig Markbass Nano Mark 300 with Ampeg or Hartke 4x10 cabinet
Other BlueChip Jazz50 LG picks, Vovox instrument cables