Expert Testimony: Steve Swallow

On free lead sheets and gigging in Europe. Given by bassist and jazz composer Steve Swallow to Mark Small.

  Bassist/composer Steve Swallow
  Phil Farnswoth

In jazz circles, former Berklee faculty member Steve Swallow is best known for his lyrical electric bass playing and prolific jazz composing. During the 1970s, about a dozen of his tunes appeared in the original Real Book bearing cryptic titles such as "Como en Vietnam," "Hullo Bolinas," "Falling Grace," "Domino Biscuit," "Doin' the Pig," and "Hotel Hello." After Gary Burton began performing "Falling Grace," it became one of Swallow's best-known pieces and has since been performed extensively and recorded by numerous jazz musicians. Swallow has worked with such artists as Art Farmer, Jim Hall, Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano, and many more.

He has taken the unusual step of making the lead sheets of many of his 250 tunes available for free at his website: Swallow took a few minutes in December to speak by phone from his home in the British Virgin Islands and shared thoughts about his career and "Falling Grace," his best known piece.

Did you start out playing acoustic bass?

Yeah, I discovered the bass in our high-school band room when I was 13 or 14 and had an epiphany. I saw clearly in an instant that the bass and I had a future together.

But I had a kind of knee-jerk aversion to the electric bass initially. In my mind, I associated it with music like "Blue Suede Shoes." I picked up an electric bass for the first time in my life when I was about 30 and fell in love.

You've developed your own approach and a signature lyrical soloing style.

I think I came to electric bass without any sense of the instrument's history. So I was in the fortunate position of having to make it up and develop an approach to the instrument because I had no desire whatsoever to change the idiom in which I was playing. I had every intention of remaining a jazz bass player. It was a challenge to adapt the electric bass to that end.

Do you consider Gary Burton's group a launching pad for your career?

It would be impossible to overstate how significantly Gary has impacted my music. We had played together with Stan Getz, and I began playing on Gary's recording projects before he left to form his own band. We have a history that goes back to the mid 1960's and continues to this day.

Your tune "Falling Grace" has become part of the jazz repertoire. Was it one of the first pieces you wrote?

It's the second piece that I'm willing to take credit for writing. I wrote a fair amount of music as a student at Yale but then destroyed it. At the age of 20, I moved to New York to become a player and put my attempts to write music on the shelf for a few years while concentrating on learning to play. In the 1960s I was working with Art Farmer and Jim Hall and I wrote another song, "Eiderdown." Art liked it and started playing it on the gigs. After returning from a lengthy tour with Art, my wife at the time and I were looking for a place in New York. Composer George Russell, with whom I'd also played, needed somebody to sublet his apartment for a couple of months. We moved in, and I sat down at his piano. In the course of a few weeks, I wrote "Falling Grace." I've speculated that the tune was actually meant for George. He just happened to be away, so I got it. I've always felt kind of lucky about that.

You incorporated a lot of chords in inversions in the original version of the tune. At the time you wrote it, most jazz tunes just used root-position chords.

The use of inversions was a large part of what I was exploring then. My sense of working as a composer has a lot to do with learning by writing. In effect, "Falling Grace" is a short essay on what I learned during March and April of 1965. Everything I write is an attempt to clarify for myself something about music.

These days as an accompanist on the tune, I have tended to rely less on the inversions and more on the roots of the stated chords. As a bass player, what I enjoy about playing the roots is that at various points I can return to the inversions. It makes for a dramatic moment when all of a sudden the inversion appears.

Strangely enough, after all these years, "Falling Grace" is still kind of a work in progress. [Guitarist] Mick Goodrick was kind of decisive in the evolution of that tune. I have tremendous respect for his knowledge of harmony. There's a chord in the eighth bar that for years I'd notated as C major seventh. One day Mick came up to me and said, "You know, Swallow, that's not a C major 7, it should be a dominant seventh." I said, "Mick, I wrote the damn thing, it's a C major 7." He insisted that it should be a dominant chord. I was kind of angry at his presumption and spent a few days thinking about it. I came to the conclusion that he was right; it should be a C7. I had to humble myself and tell him that he was right. A few other changes have happened over long periods of time.

Why do you think this tune has become part of the canon of jazz standards?

Well, such things have a great deal to do with luck and having the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. I think part of that was its appearance in the Real Book in the mid-1970's.

I know that a lot of composers gave consent for their tunes to be published in the original Real Book for no remuneration. Did you just want to get the music out to players?

Yeah. I was approached by the guys who did the Real Book and asked if I would contribute my tunes. I gave the issue some thought and reached the conclusion that what I wanted more than the royalties was for my songs to be in circulation, to be played by my peers and upcoming generations of improvisers. I'm glad I gave them the tune. To this day, my feeling is that the Real Book was an immensely positive event at that time.

I was teaching at Berklee when it came out. I remember going to my office in the Boylston Street building passing a lot of rehearsal rooms. In the weeks after the book's publication, I started hearing a lot more correct changes and more interesting songs being played in those rooms. That book had a huge initial impact.

You now have a website where you offer free, PDF versions of many of your lead sheets. What was the motivation for that?

I was weighing what financial benefit might accrue from selling print versions of my songs versus the benefit of making them widely available to a community of players. To my mind, there's no contest. It's far more important to get those tunes out there. I want my songs played. I love hearing my music re-imagined by others. Very often, I find that the versions in which I haven't been involved are far more exciting to me than the ones in which I've been a factor.

Your titles are sometimes enigmatic and betray a wry sense of humor.

I enjoy titling very much. For a time when I was a teenager I wanted to be a poet rather than a musician. But by the time I was 20, I'd abandoned writing words in favor of music. Song titling is the only way I've found to keep my hand in the word game. I see the titles as very small poems.

Can you comment on the title "Falling Grace?"

I'm a little self-conscious about it, because I was young when I made that one up. That's my excuse and my apology. I was thinking about Bill Evans, and trying to write a song in his idiom. In fact, he eventually recorded it with Eddie Gomez and played it really beautifully. To me at that time, Bill Evans epitomized the best and the worst of white jazz musicians and white culture in general. It struck me that white culture was, on the one hand, extraordinarily decadent; but on the other hand, its decadence was producing a remarkable final flowering of beauty. So that title was kind of a play on falling "race." I'm not really proud of the thinking that led to that title. I would surely call it something else if I had written it yesterday.

What are some of your current projects?

Well, I just finished touring in Europe with my quintet, the Swallow Quintet. It features my wife Carla Bley playing organ, tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek, guitarist Steve Cardenas, and drummer Jorge Rossi. We made a recording for ECM that will be released next spring. Carla and I also have a trio with Andy Sheppard, and I've also got a fair amount of work with John Scofield and Bill Stewart coming up. Those are my main activities at the present time, and I'm grateful for all of them.

Where are most of your gigs these days?

Almost all the work I do is in Europe. Were it not for Europe, I'd be playing in a Holiday Inn-if there are still jobs playing at Holiday Inns.