Steve Swallow discovered Robert Creeley’s poetry in the late ’50s and first set it to music on his 1979 ECM album Home, featuring vocalist Sheila Jordan. In 2001, Cuneiform released a live recording of Swallow with Creeley, David Torn and others—an ambient electro-acoustic affair with readings by the poet himself. Now Swallow has reunited with pianist Steve Kuhn—who played on Home—for So There, an engaging book of music featuring bass, piano and string quartet. Creeley reads once again, and given that he did not live to hear the finished product, his kindly, unpretentious voice takes on a special poignancy.
Swallow composed this music with Creeley’s exact phrasing foremost in mind, as “a means of escaping the absolute inevitability of the eight-bar phrase.” Quite unlike the Cuneiform disc, So There is extensively notated, with all components interacting in myriad ways. But improvisation plays a major role as well; Kuhn and Swallow are in characteristically fine form as soloists. This is very much a jazz record, although the Cikada String Quartet, with a number of ECM discs to its credit (including Annette Peacock’s An Acrobat’s Heart), provides sumptuous colors and prickly textures.
The poetic segments themselves are fairly short. They essentially function like the “head” of the tune, even if they fall in the middle or at the end of a given track. At times Kuhn will begin a piece in full soloing mode, with Creeley’s verse occurring a good deal later—a canny reversal of the head-solo format.