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Steve Swallow: Damaged in Transit

Damaged in Transit is in essence a pared-down version of bassist Steve Swallow’s quintet that appeared on Always Pack Your Uniform On Top (Watt/ECM) from 2000. It dispenses with guitar and trumpet leaving just a trio of Swallow, Chris Potter on tenor saxophone and Adam Nussbaum on drums. Recorded in 2001, like the earlier album it comes from live dates in Europe, this time in Paris during the last four nights of an 18-date tour.

Technically it’s beyond reproach, Swallow talks of his bass lines as “exercises in spontaneous counterpoint” while Nussbaum’s drumming delights in doing precisely the right thing at precisely the right time. Potter, an accomplished saxophone player whose growing maturity is charted on his association with the Concord and Verve labels, is something of a ubiquitous figure these days, most notably as a member of Dave Holland’s Quintet. In the trio context, Potter is central to the action, and this album poses a searching examination of his playing, in so doing raising a couple of issues about the state of the bebop-based style today. Both with Holland and Swallow, Potter negotiates the changes with aplomb, but the greater the space he has to express himself, the less he seems to have to say.

Swallow, who includes the lead lines in lieu of liner notes, wrote all nine tunes. But there is a danger with this sort of postbop style, which is now being taken to its logical extreme, where the music has become so circumscribed and self-referential it communicates nothing but virtuosity itself. The result is music that is technically well executed but without humanity-that’s soul to you and me. Maybe this is the ultimate destiny of the bebop style-ever faster, ever more complex, a music for a technocratic elite, a music speaking to itself-to jazz musicians, to jazz educators, music business types and jazz critics but not saying anything to the public. Maybe we’ve already reached this point, and Damaged in Transit is a masterpiece of fin de siecle postbop, a style doomed to perpetual virtuosic recapitulation.

Originally Published