One of the greatest things about Steve Swallow is his ability to surprise. When I first heard about his new ECM recording Into the Woodwork, I had no idea what to expect. Swallow has created some of the most beautiful music of the past few decades, as well as some of the most challenging. Both he, and partner Carla Bley have shown themselves to be just as comfortable in the mainstream as they are in the avant-garde. While I have enjoyed the more "controversial" sides of his music, there is no question that Into the Woodwork is much more radio-friendly. I really do not know if calling the 12 songs on this recording "mainstream" is correct, but I do know that this is one of the finest jazz albums I have heard this year.
The fact that this is truly a group effort is a major reason it works so well. The Steve Swallow Quintet had just finished a three week tour of Europe when they entered the studio for these sessions, and it shows. They have the ease of a group who seem to know each others next move, and the compositional structure of the songs just reinforces the impression of this being a live set.
This was intentional, as Swallow references certain passages here and there, which then become more and more familiar. He has a very subtle touch though, and I did not even notice what he was doing until I had listened to the set a few times over. Many of the tunes are arranged to segue together as well, which is another contributing factor in the album "feeling" like a live date, rather than a set of 12 individual songs. Swallow composed all of the music, and was generous in sharing the spotlight with the members of his quintet. The only person he seems to have shorted in this department is himself, although his bass playing is remarkable even without any solo spots.
When I speak of the ease with which the quintet plays together, it is especially notable during the solo trade-offs. And with talent like this, they cannot miss. The guitar of Steve Cardenas is one example. His playing evokes a sound I have not heard in jazz for some time now. Cardena's leads have a very lyrical quality to them, reminiscent of the brilliant Jim Hall at times. Then there is the organ of Carla Bley, which is remarkable. Swallow has commented on the fact that she had been concentrating on the piano of late, and how he composed many
of these pieces with the organ in mind. It is another element that really makes a difference, and the use of the organ was a very smart choice. The organ has a unique sound, almost as if it is from another era.
With the use of the more subdued tones of guitar and organ, the tenor sax of Chris Cheek could have easily overpowered these songs. Seasoned players understand that very often what they do not play is just as important as what they do play. This is the case with Cheek. His solos are marvelous, but never so flamboyant as to overwhelm the song itself. Drummer Jorge Rossy is much more than just a timekeeper, but he too knows what is best for the song and the mood of the album as a whole. The opening of "Back in Action" is a fun exception though, as it offers him an excellent solo spot.
The overall effect for me could be called "Back to the Future." I'm not talking about the movie, but the era in jazz. I feel that the music peaked in the '50s, then splintered so much that who knows what "jazz" is anymore. I love the uncharted regions that artists such as Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and even Bley and Swallow themselves took the music in. But it marked the end of the line for jazz in the mainstream. Coltrane's Ascension is a very, very different beast than Miles' Kind of Blue. Bitches Brew, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and others created some pretty exciting electric sounds, and it yes, it was jazz. But things had changed. Since then, Smooth jazz, the retro tones of Harry Connick Jr. and Wynton Marsalis and then something called Acid jazz have all been candidates for what contemporary jazz is. Frankly, I have no idea anymore. I have an opinion though, and if it were up to me, then Into the Woodwork is what I I would nominate as the closest heir to the legacy of "true" jazz.
Of course, I have no say as to whether Into the Woodwork will be embraced as the jazz album of the year or just another record. As it happens, I have been listening to a lot of classic Riverside and Fantasy Records reissues lately. Those sessions are fantastic, but they were of their time. And while I know that era is over for good, I find myself wishing there were a way that the best elements of those types of albums could somehow be adapted to our time. Into the Woodwork is the closest thing I have heard to that dream coming true.