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09/10/13

Into the Woodwork
Steve Swallow Quintet
ECM Records

A quintet with electric guitar, electric bass and organ—this thing is going to cook with grease, right? Wrong. Bassist Steve Swallow had a more sophisticated sort of jazz in mind when he assembled tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek, guitarist Steve Cardenas, drummer Jorge Rossy and pianist Carla Bley, who returned to organ for this project at Swallow’s suggestion.

From the first notes of the first tune, “Sad Old Candle,” it is clear that this is not your typical guitar-and-organ band. The composition feels more like classical than like anything approaching swing. That changes as the group segues into “Into the Woodwork,” which does, in fact, swing within a hard-bop framework. Part of Swallow’s mission, it seems, is to punch a hole in assumptions, and he does that much in the way that organist Larry Young did half a century ago. Across these dozen tunes, all written by Swallow, we hear five brilliant musicians in cohesion. The pianist just happens to be playing organ.

This is smart, economical jazz, with no superfluous bars in these songs, which range from under three minutes to five and a half. Cheek takes the spotlight on “From Whom It May Concern” (whose opening and closing passages seem lifted from “Cry Me a River”), with hopscotching phrases that both play off the melody and entangle themselves with Cardenas’ bluesy fingerings. Bley, who spends much of Into the Woodwork reserved and in the background, breaks out with some nifty accents on “Grisly Business,” a blues with a loping, country-and-western rhythm. (Unfortunately, she offsets that with ridiculous, off-putting quotes from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” when she solos on “Still There.”) The band—especially Swallow—gets a workout on “Unnatural Causes,” with its breakneck tempo and rapidly changing chord structure. Then there’s the pastoral beauty of “Small Comfort,” with Swallow, Cardenas and Bley proving that three electric instruments can play with just as much elegance as any chamber trio.

Originally published in September 2013
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