Although here at the Purple Cabbage we like to keep things Toronto, we couldn’t resist but share this next interview with anyone whom has yet to read it. The interview was written and conducted by Toronto’s own Ted Warren, and can also be found on his blog at trapdted.blogspot.com along with other fantastic thoughts and articles on music.
Steve Swallow’s career in music (as both musician and producer) stretches over five decades, from the 60’s to present day, and includes collaborations with many of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. For more of an in-depth biography on Steve Swallow, click here. Thanks for sharing this with us Ted, and we hope you enjoy.
Ted Warren: You’re a very prolific composer. Do you have any specific techniques for getting started if you’re not feeling particularly inspired to write?
Steve Swallow: I wish I did. The initial hours, or in my case often days or even weeks, of the songwriting process are the most agonizing for me. Early in my composing career I sat at the piano and noodled until I hit upon something I liked, but I’ve stopped that practice; I found that when I did that I was cycling through all the most banal material I knew. Now I try to sit at the piano as still and alert as I can, with my hands folded neatly in my lap, until a germ of an idea appears. This often takes days. But once I have an idea that interests me the process becomes much more engaging. It’s time then to put on the crisply starched lab coat, to analyze what I’ve got, how it sounds backwards, upside down, and backwards and upside down, to examine its rhythmic possibilities, to wonder where it’s going. At the end of that procedure, there’s usually a finished tune.
I do have one trick I’ve used successfully a couple of times to thwart writer’s block. That is to paste a bunch of Robert Creeley’s poems onto the piano’s music stand, and to stare at them until they yield a musical phrase. He’s been my saviour on several occasions.
TW: You were a very early adopter of forming your own label and also having your sheet music available for download on your website. Was this inspired by the changes you saw in the music industry over the course of your career?
SS: I’ve never had my own label, but I’ve helped Carla Bley administer hers, and it’s a lot of work. But the advantages are enormous; you control the pace at which you release your work, and exercise absolute control over its content. Pressure from a label to produce a certain kind of music can be insidious; I feel particularly fortunate to be free to record what I like. Fortunately too, it’s become easier over the years to record and manufacture CDs, and the internet has provided a means of distribution that used to be monopolized by a few powerful record companies.
I’ve made it a point to make print versions of my songs freely available to anyone who might have use for them. My attitudes on this issue were formed at the time the Real Book appeared. I knew the guys who made that book; they came to me to ask if they could include some of my tunes in it. It was clear they were unable to maintain a structure to pay copyright royalties, but in the end I felt the over-riding issue was to make my music available to as many players as possible. I’ve seen this attitude vindicated over the years, and I’ve decided to make my songs available for free download on http://www.wattxtrawatt.com. My hope is that those songs will sustain a life of their own in the hands of players who have visited that site. I wrote those songs to be played, and I feel obliged to do what I can to further that aim.
TW: When you were making the transition to full time electric bass playing, was if difficult to go from plucking the acoustic bass with your fingers to electric bass with a pick?
SS: When I first switched to electric bass I played it with my fingers, but I was unhappy with the sound and articulation I was getting. I’d had the good fortune to play with a succession of excellent electric guitar players, and I looked to them for inspiration. I was particularly moved by Jim Hall’s sound and phrasing; I’d played with him for a couple of years with Art Farmer. I came to realize that, paradoxically, I could get a more singing sound and phrasing with the pick than I could with my fingers, so I set about learning to play with one. It took a while; I dropped a lot of picks on the gig and caused a fair amount of consternation within the front line, but I persisted anyway, and I’m glad I did.
TW: You have worked with most of the great drummers out there. (Roy Haynes, Pete LaRoca, Jack DeJohnette, Adam Nussbaum, to name a few). Do you have any favorites to work with and/or people you think you have an especially deep musical connection with?
SS: I’m reluctant to name names, for fear of leaving someone out. Clearly, the drummer I’m next to on the bandstand is the guy I’m most focused on; it’s a very intimate and intense relationship. If things don’t go well with the drummer I’m left with an incredibly sore lower back by the end of the gig, the product I suppose of trying to force the music into a smooth, relaxed flow. Of course, this can’t be done. Either you find a groove with a drummer or you don’t, and sometimes I’m surprised that it’s not there with a highly regarded drummer, or that it’s magically there with a drummer of less renown. I like that you refer to a “deep musical connection.” Really connecting with a drummer involves so much more than the placement of beats; touch, dynamics, the drums’ tuning, the drummer’s response to what’s going on elsewhere on the bandstand and many other factors are equally crucial.
TW: Do you have a favorite composition of yours, or do you have more of a “they’re all my children, I love them equally” attitude toward them?
SS: They’re all my children. At the time of its conception, each one was my favorite.
TW: Finally, according to Wikipedia, your classic composition “Eiderdown” was the first tune you wrote. True, or could the internet actually have gotten something wrong?
SS: The internet is more or less correct on this one. I had written many student exercises, and several failed attempts at tunes, prior to Eiderdown, but I’d discarded them all. I wrote Eiderdown in Berlin, at the instigation of Pete LaRoca. We were rooming together at the time, in 1964, on the road with Art Farmer and Jim Hall. Pete remarked one night that I’d been talking a great game about songwriting but had no actual songs to show for all the talk, and challenged me to write one. I took him up on it. Luckily, the song came out well enough that Art began playing it. Flush with success, I figured song writing was a piece of cake, and set about to write hundreds more. I often wish I’d failed, come to my senses and stuck to playing the bass, but here I am, still whacking away at songwriting, for better or worse.
TW: I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m feeling unbelievably inspired! Speaking of which, here’s a couple of clips that demonstrate (despite being on 2 different instruments and separated by 40 years) Steve Swallow’s passion and musicality no matter the situation. The first is Jim Hall Trio with Pete LaRoca (from the Art Farmer band mentioned in the interview) playing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and the second is John Scofield Trio with Bill Stewart playing “Green Tea” (from the record A Go Go). Two guitar trios, two different basses, pure music.
Ted Warren is a Toronto drummer who recently released a new record with Toronto jazz super-group Broadview (featuring Mike Murley and Rich Brown). On the side, he also keeps a killing blog! Check it out at trapdted.blogspot.com.