Courtesy of Steve Swallow

ECM Records


I think I can count all the hip electric bassists playing improvised music on one hand. And I can count the most interesting electric bassist in my time on one finger. He is Steve Swallow. Say what you will about the electric bass, but no one can deny the artistry of Swallow when he starts firing away on an electric bass. It is no wonder he has been winning poll after poll for the past umpteen years. I sat down with Swallow to talk about his new release with Carla Bley, his impressions of Eric Dolphy, and his time at Yale, as always, brought to you, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

STEVE SWALLOW: I had a wind up Victrola in my house. My father played music when he was in college, worked his way through college playing alto saxophone and then gave it up, but retained a strong love for music. We had a wind up Victrola, with a recording of "Rhapsody in Blue," that made an immense impression on me. There is a stock kid picture of me standing on a box so I could reach the lever so I could wind up the Victrola to play the record. I think I was of the last generation to have a piano in the parlor, so at a very early age, I was at the piano and my parents noticed that I was interested in it and provided me with lessons starting when I was about five. They insisted that I do the kind of standard things, study classical piano and so I did with the same teacher that taught Nelson Riddle. I didn't find this out until a couple of years ago. I was thrilled when I did find it out. For many years I went to this guy and did the standard stuff. About simultaneous with puberty, I really discovered jazz in earnest. I think it was random. I think it was buckshot. I just happened to hear some and wondered what was that and was really drawn to it. There was a record store in the town next to the one that I grew up in, which was in suburban New Jersey. So I went to it and kind of browsed the bins and ended up buying some classic Americana. It makes me grind my teeth. I saved up money from my paper route and the first record I bought was a big band record. That kind of lured me very slowly, over a period of a couple of years, to kind of zero in what I really wanted to listen to, which was the Blue Note records that were coming out at that time. This would have been the early Fifties, going into the mid-Fifties. I lasered in on exactly the music that I loved and wanted to do it as well. It was also cleared to me right away that I wanted to do it. First thing I did was to pursue my parents to study not with a classical teacher, but with a jazz guy. I managed to, after a couple of missteps, to find a guy that taught me about chords. I was also playing trumpet, in addition to piano. I had yet to start playing bass. I went to a music store and bought a book called "Fifty Hot Licks for Trumpet."

FJ Did you manage to learn some hot licks?

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I memorized all fifty of them. I was like a serial improviser. I figured that that is how it was done. I memorized these fifty licks and I just strung them together in a different order every time I took a solo. I took exactly the same solo. But all my solos were composed of these licks.

FJ Did anyone ever call you on that?

STEVE SWALLOW: No (laughing), everybody thought I was really hot and so did I. Actually, not too long after I had done that, a bunch of us started playing together. I was at this point in junior high school and after marching band practice, a bunch of us would hang out in the band room and try to figure out how to play jazz. Nobody played the bass, but there was a bass in the room, so at one point we decided that everyone had to play one tune on the bass and that way we will just keep rotating and nobody will get too hurt too seriously and we will have a bass in the band. The very first time I put my hands on the thing, I knew I was in deep trouble and I refused to pass it on to the next guy and went home on my bike with bloody figures, but the dye was cast and I knew it right away. It was one of those fateful moments where you are very sure of something.

FJ You attended Yale University.

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I did. I'm not proud of it, but I did.

FJ Why did you leave?

STEVE SWALLOW: To play. There is a nice story there too. It dovetails nicely with you having talked to Carla because what happened was that I was midway through my second year and I wasn't even a music major. I was majoring in Latin literature, but I was taking a lot of music courses and spending an increasing amount of time away from school. It was the early Sixties, late Fifties and there was a really healthy ghetto music scene. The black community was just full of clubs with live music and a lot of really good players who had come up from New York, usually for personal reasons, usually because they had to get away from New York to preserve their health and their sanity. There are some really excellent older guys who were very generous to me and were teaching me a lot about music. At any rate, I got a call from a friend who said a guy named Paul Bley needed a bass player, a cheap bass player for a concert he was doing and that I should do it. My friend was a guy named Ian Underwood, who became a Mother of Invention after that and we were close and played together almost every day. Ian had been exposed to Paul and said, "OK, this guy needs a bass player and you should really do this. You're going to be amazed." I said, "OK, I will do it," and went to Bard College, a small college up the Hudson River, to play this job blind. I had no idea what Paul Bley played like. I went to the record store in New Haven and there was no evidence that he existed there. I met Carla and Carla was married to Paul at that time, so I showed up expecting to rehearse and Paul said, "No, we won't need to rehearse." I said, "Well, what are we going to do?" And he said, "You'll see." He was his usual kind of elliptical self and I had no idea what was going to happen when we hit the bandstand to play this concert. It was one of those nights again where everything was very vivid and clear and nothing seemed to go wrong. Whatever note I seemed to play was the right one. I was playing in an idiom that I had never played in before. I was playing bebop in the bars of New Haven and playing in college Dixieland bands for profit as well, but I had no exposure to whatever you want to call it, post-Ornette music, I guess. It was a revelation to me. I went home, back to my dorm at Yale and got violently ill. I had an incredibly high fever for three or four days and stayed in bed and when the fever broke, I got out of bed and marched over to the registrar's office and quit and went to New York and presented myself at Paul and Carla's doorstep and said, "OK, I am here."

FJ Did they let you in?

STEVE SWALLOW: With open arms. Luckily, they remembered me and it had been a good night, so Paul was not unhappy to see me. I kind of apprenticed myself to Paul and also to Carla. I had never seen a real composer before either. So I just kind of dove in right at that point and never looked back. I think at that point, this would have been 1960, I think at that point, that's what you did if you wanted to be a jazz musician. You just packed up and went to New York. There wasn't the spectrum of options that exist today.

FJ It almost sounds simpler.

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I think it was not a bad thing and it was a wonderful time to be in New York. The scene was just exploding and music was everywhere and my first loft, which was on 6th Avenue, cost forty dollars a month and there were endless five dollar jobs. For five dollars and a meal, you could play coffee houses on Bleeker Street. This was prior to the folk and rock and roll incursion into the New York coffee house and club scene and so there were endless five dollar jazz gigs and all you had to do was work eight of those and your month's rent was covered and so it was not a difficult time. It was a perfect environment in which to develop as a player. I had a perfect teacher in Paul and endless subsequent people that I hooked up with during those years in New York. It couldn't have been better.

FJ You spend time in George Russell's sextet that featured Eric Dolphy. Give me your impression of Dolphy.

STEVE SWALLOW: He was wonderful. It was interesting in that Eric was a young player when I worked with him. He never got to be an old player, but George's band was extremely young. Most of us were in our very early twenties. I was twenty-one. So Eric was kind of the elder in the band at twenty-nine or thirty and kind of assumed that role as well. We definitely saw him as the guy with experience and the guy who had found the mature voice of his own already. So we were ready to receive whatever he had to offer us. He was very gracious and very generous. He was very unassuming, but on the other hand, he spoke when he saw the chance to affect the music positively. George wrote the music and he played the piano, but he was seemingly disinterested in a lot of the nuts and bolts aspects of getting it played, the phrasing and the articulation, and so Eric jumped into that role. I think we also kind of pushed him toward it. After Eric left the band, Thad Jones came into the band and assumed that role. That was also an education and a half because he was already a brilliant rehearser. I remained in awe of Eric, even as I got to know him and saw him as a friend. I was still amazed at the flow he had in his playing. It really was, as much as anybody that I had played with at that time, the metaphor of just kind of turning the faucet on applied to him. It seemed to flow without any impediments. It was astonishing.

FJ You moved on to spend some time as a member of the Art Farmer Quartet with Jim Hall. Is that where you began writing music earnestly?

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, exactly, I did. I had written stuff in school, but only as exercises. I had never written a tune that I was willing to stand behind. The actual first tune I wrote was one that's kind of endured and been played a fair amount called "Eiderdown." I lucked out on my first tune. I took it to Art and he liked it and the band began playing it, so I started off with the illusion that this wasn't hard at all and that anybody could do this. It had taken several decades to disabuse me of that notion, but I am well disabused at this point. I wrote that tune on a dare. In those days, one had a roommate on the road. You didn't get your own room and Pete LaRoca was my roommate and we were very close and loved to stay up after the gig and talk till we dropped. I always talked a good game about theory and writing and all of that, but I wasn't producing anything at all and Pete noticed this and finally one night, called me on it and said, "Look, it is put up or shut up. I am daring you to write a tune." We were in a hotel in Berlin, Germany as a matter of fact, playing a three week gig. Those were the days, a three week gig at a club in Germany. So I took him up on the dare and said, "Yeah, OK, I will do it." During three or four afternoons, I went to the club and used the piano in the club and came up with the tune and presented it to Art. He liked it and we started playing it. So I kept at it.

FJ Was it a money bet?

STEVE SWALLOW: (Laughing) No, I think there might have been a dinner or something. I'm sure I called his bluff because I actually did write the damn tune.

FJ When did you pick up the electric bass and why didn't you just play both, acoustic and electric?

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, it was another one of those. You seem to have a knack for putting your finger on those kind of crossroad moments, Fred, but it was definitely one of those. I resisted the electric bass on principle for years. I refused to touch one. I had the usual jazz musician's attitude toward electric instruments and rock and roll. I was working with Gary Burton. This would have been in late 1969 and we were doing a NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) show. I guess it was an early NAMM show, all the instrument manufacturers and Gary was doing demonstrations and brought me along so he didn't have to play solo and so the two of us were playing, playing twenty minutes, taking an hour off, playing twenty minutes all day long in a giant exposition place in Chicago. Midway through the second day, I was bored to tears and I had done everything, but gone into the Fender booth and so I went over there during one of our breaks and I made sure that nobody saw me. I ditched Gary and kind of snuck over. It was really like going into a peepshow or something. I looked stealthfully around to make sure nobody saw me and then split very quickly into the Fender booth. I picked up a Fender bass and the same thing happened. My fingers sent an immediate message to my brain and saying that we liked this. We want to do this. My brain was appalled and said no, but the dye had been cast. I went to the Gibson booth and did the same thing and preferred the Gibson instrument and so I asked them if I could take it back to the hotel and they said, "Sure." I took it back to the hotel and took the instrument out of its case and played it for what I thought was about twenty minutes. I looked up and looked at the clock and a couple of hours had gone by. There was no turning back. It was a very base and physical attraction that I just couldn't deny. Luckily, Gary was very supportive of all of this and receptive to the idea of using it in the band. So I began just using it on one or two tunes a night and it just gradually grew to the point where I was using it on more tunes than I was using the acoustic bass and then I moved to California with my family for a variety of reasons, but among them, to really learn to play the electric bass. At that point, I felt that I couldn't play both the acoustic and electric any longer. There just weren't enough hours in the day. I was just constantly guilty as well, when I was playing one, I saw the other sitting in the corner looking forlorn and very conflicted and so eventually, I got rid of my acoustic bass and I haven't had one since and I haven't regretted doing that either.

FJ Your approach to playing the electric is unique in that you play it as if it were a guitar.

STEVE SWALLOW: I think it is. You would think I would play it as if it were a bass, but I think one of the things that drew me to the instrument initially was physically, the guitar aspect of it. I loved manipulating that instrument. Initially, I played with my fingers, but fairly shortly, after I began playing the electric bass, I discovered the pick and discovered that I preferred that, that I liked the way I could articulate with the pick and I preferred the sound that I got. I was lucky to play with a succession of wonderful guitar players, starting with Jim Hall, but in the Burton band there was an endless string of them, starting with Larry Coryell and I was able to have a twenty-four hour question answering service available to me at any time and endless examples of how to manipulate the instruments. I empathized strongly with the guitaristic approach physically. On the other hand, I have also kind of insisted whenever anybody asks over the years, that it is a bass, that even though it doesn't look like an acoustic bass and sound like an acoustic bass, it is there to perform the same functions. The day before I first played the electric bass, I loved Paul Chambers and the day I first played the electric bass, I still loved Paul Chambers and nothing changed. I didn't take up the electric bass to effect a change in the idiom that I was playing. I had no desire to do that what so ever. I just wanted to bring the electric bass to the idiom that I always loved.

FJ Will there be a time when you may return to the acoustic bass?

STEVE SWALLOW: No, I really don't, Fred. I'm so happy with the electric and learning the electric is still such a consuming and on going process that I can't imagine reaching the end of it or ever having time to divert from that course. One of the great things for me about the electric bass is that it has almost no history. There are very few people standing over your shoulder, watching you play. When I played the acoustic bass, I did feel very strongly, the presence of everybody looking over my shoulder. That history just doesn't exist with the electric bass. I have had the sense that I am plowing forward into a country that I have never been in before.

FJ Do you find that is liberating?

STEVE SWALLOW: I think it is. I found it liberating of necessity to devise my own style and my own tactics and to look for a voice on the instrument because there weren't really any that impacted strongly on me.

FJ Let's talk about your band. Chris Potter is a member of the band.

STEVE SWALLOW: Mick Goodrick and Adam Nussbaum were two old compatriots of mine. The trumpet chair changed from one record to the next. The first one was Ryan Kisor, but then he got a real job with the Lincoln Center big band. I love this band dearly. I have had a long association with Goodrick. We played together in Gary Burton's band and hung out together during my time in Boston. He still lives in Boston. I learned a lot from him. In a sense, you can hear us as one large instrument sometimes. I hear it myself and I am really thrilled by it. It is if our hands are being guided by the same brain. It is something I really value. Nussbaum and I have been together forever as well, starting with the Scofield Trio in the early Eighties. I have the classic bass player-drummer relationship with him. I can't live with him and I can't live without him. I love him dearly. We have a wonderful pugnacious relationship.

FJ You have won the Down Beat Critics Poll in the electric bass category for as long as I can remember.

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I am on a roll.

FJ Do the accolades really matter to you?

STEVE SWALLOW: No. I'm not displeased, but I proceed on as I am doing now if I weren't winning the Down Beat Poll. Nothing would change. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be able to play what I want to play. I have gotten so used to doing that that I couldn't stop. I think in some ways, winning polls and that kind of stuff allows you that, affords you the great privilege of being able to play what you want to play. In that sense, I am very grateful indeed that all of that has happened. I have been doing this for so long now that I am totally unfit to do anything else. If all of that support were yanked out from under me, I would still march relentlessly on and continue doing what I am doing.

FJ It seems like you are content.

STEVE SWALLOW: Yeah, I am, Fred. I am indeed. I'm extremely lucky and I know it and I'm grateful.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and jockey at the Kentucky Derby. Comments?  Email Fred.