John Scofield: Swallow Tales


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The first time guitarist John Scofield recorded with bassist Steve Swallow was on drummer Bill Goodwin's Solar Energy in March 1979. Then came John's Bar Talk, with John, Steve and Adam Nussbaum on drums in 1980. Even 40 years ago, John and Steve were made for each other. The title was a wonderful play on words—relaxed talk at the bar over drinks and talk within musical bars. On the album, John and Steve kibitz on their instruments, pecking and plucking their exchanged dialogue. More than 12 albums followed.

Now, John has just released Swallow Tales (ECM), an album of originals by Steve recorded in March 2019. According to the album's liner notes by John, they met when he was 20 and studying at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where Steve was teaching. On the new album, Bill Stewart joins on drums. This is in-depth music conversation along the lines of the Bill Evans Trio, the Jim Hall Trio, Jimmy Giuffre's groups and Gary Burton's ensembles. You can hear John, Steve and Bill listening intently to each other, waiting to mimic a line or throw a line to see what comes back. Think of it as three-way Ping Pong.

The Swallow compositions are She Was Young, Falling Grace, Portsmouth Figurations, Awful Coffee, Eiderdown, Hullo Bolinas, Away, In F and Radio. Each piece becomes precious in the hands of these three. John's guitar nibbles around the edges of Steve's songs with metallic teeth while Steve drives up the middle zig-zagging on electric bass and Bill eggs them on with snare snaps and soft cymbal crashes. John also mixes in a range of music styles, uniting them with ringing chords and lurching swing.

The music on Swallow Tales rushes at you like gusts of wind coming from different directions in helter-skelter patterns. As each musician blows through, the others shimmer, like tree boughs or swinging traffic signals. The joy is that all the music here is gentle but complex. I've listened to this album upward of 15 times and there's still so much to hear and absorb. At times, I found myself listening only to Bill. Then just to John on the next song. And to Steve on the next. Each artist's contribution unfolds like origami.

On the whole, the music has a three-dimensional quality. Each musician is doing his own thing, but within the confines of their collective approach. There's a free feel, but that's deceptive. In truth, it's highly structured, and within that form is conversational chaos. Al three are “talking" at once but making perfect sense.

This album is ideal for today's lockdown. At home, your senses are more alive and receptive now because you have no plans and can't go anywhere anyway. So you're in less of a rush and you're wide open to expressions that might have rushed over you at another point in time. Take advantage of the confinement and listen to Swallow Tales. The weave of the music's fabric is delicate and dense, providing both firmness and cushion. Breathtaking contrasts.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Swallow Tales (ECM) here in CD and vinyl formals and here as a digital download.

JazzWax clips: Here's Hullo Bolinas...

Here's Away...

And here's Radio...

Bonus: Here's the same trio back in 2010...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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