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John Scofield Honors Steve Swallow on New Album

The guitarist mines the songbook of an old friend

John Scofield and Steve Swallow
Steve Swallow (left) and John Scofield (photo: NYU Steinhardt)

John Scofield’s latest album Swallow Tales, his first as a sole leader for ECM, features nine compositions by his longtime mentor and friend Steve Swallow—who also plays bass on the album. The two have a connection that goes back decades, forged through countless live performances. Owing to its stripped-down trio instrumentation with little or no overdubs (drummer Bill Stewart completes the lineup), the album has a timeless quality, almost as if it could have been recorded in the ’70s, when so many of its songs were written. But that would discount the effect of their years of shared music-making.

The story of Scofield’s affinity for Swallow and his songbook starts with Gary Burton. The guitarist was attending Berklee in 1971, when Burton came to teach there. Sharing an apartment with a drummer and bass player, Scofield met the noted vibraphonist during some late-afternoon jam sessions. “Gary would come over and wait until the traffic would get better,” he explains from his home in upstate New York, where he’s been sheltering in place with his wife (and manager) Susan and numerous guitars. “We had vibes set up there and we ended up playing together a lot. It was an incredible experience to play with him and hang.” 

Scofield says that Burton got his bandmate Swallow a teaching gig at Berklee the next year, and the bassist was soon a part of the playing and hanging. At that time Swallow was living with his wife in New Haven, but he’d come up to Boston to teach a couple days a week. He had an apartment share with a student, and that apartment became another place for the young musicians and an “old” Swallow (then 31) to jam. “I’d been a big Swallow fan from hearing him on records and hearing him live,” Scofield says. “It was during the time that he decided to just play electric bass. He was interested in guitar and we bonded about that. He wasn’t my teacher, but he liked the way I played enough that we got to play a lot together.”

As an acoustic bassist who turned to the electric bass guitar, Swallow brought a different approach to this relatively new jazz instrument. “He was this great upright bass player, one of the best, but at that time I think he saw the electric bass as the instrument of the future and that it had more possibilities than the acoustic bass,” Scofield recalls. “It was a time before Jaco Pastorius, before Stanley Clarke. The electric bass hadn’t been formalized in the way that we now know it. He played completely differently, because he played the same stuff he was playing on upright but on the electric bass guitar, with a pick.”

Swallow eventually became a part of Scofield’s trio with Adam Nussbaum, with whom he recorded Bar Talk, Shinola, and Out Like a Light in the early ’80s. His phrasing and time made him unique then and now. “Steve has a way of playing time that’s almost broken,” Scofield notes. “He told me that he got it from listening to Latin music and also Wilbur Ware and Jimmy Garrison, as two guys who ‘broke it up’ at a time when the Paul Chambers 4/4 way was the normal way. I don’t know anybody who does that like he does. It’s a subtle thing, but I call it ‘Swallow bass playing.’ To tell you the truth, I haven’t found any other electric bass players, at least in jazz, that work so well with this music. I’ve played with a lot that work well with funky music but don’t work as well with ‘Stella by Starlight.’ With Swallow, it’s just different and special.”

Scofield at the Emelin Theatre, Mamaroneck, N.Y., March 2020
Scofield at the Emelin Theatre, Mamaroneck, N.Y., March 2020 (photo: Amy Kerwin)

After Burton and Swallow arrived at Berklee, their compositions soon began making the rounds. “When Gary came to Berklee, he started to teach ensembles by playing songs from his group’s book,” Scofield explains. “All those Swallow songs are songs that I learned then.” Among them is “Eiderdown,” the first song Swallow wrote (remarkably), and a highlight of Pete La Roca’s 1965 album Basra for Blue Note. Another of Scofield’s favorites, “Falling Grace,” first appeared on Burton’s 1966 album The Time Machine, one of Swallow’s first recordings with the vibraphonist. Most of the songs that Scofield learned—and, many years later, chose for Swallow Tales—predate the precocious Pat Metheny’s arrival at Berklee and his tenure with Burton’s band. One exception, “She Was Young,” was on Swallow’s 1979 album Home, featuring the poetry of Robert Creeley and the vocals of Sheila Jordan.

When asked to describe what’s unique about Swallow’s compositions, Scofield points first to his melodies and harmonic motion. “They’re made for people to improvise on,” he says. “They’re also written with the idea that we’re going to play the head and then solo. He thinks of them that way, so they’re great jazz vehicles.”

Scofield also notes that Swallow’s tendency to mix things up beyond the four-bar phrase gives his tunes a singular quality: “It’s really a hallmark of his songs. Almost every one has some three- or five-bar phrases in it. You learn it and then you play naturally through it. It was something that he worked on, especially in that era of songs he wrote in the ’60s through to the ’80s. It’s beautiful music that you can interpret different ways because he doesn’t write tricky jazz heads so much. When there’s more space, there are a million ways it can be played.”

When it came to choosing the songs for the new album, Scofield had a simple solution. “I picked the tunes I already knew,” he says, laughing. “For me, to play a song, especially without a piano, I need to spend some time with it. One of the reasons I wanted to do the album was because I knew and loved these tunes for so long. And here I was playing with Steve still. It seemed like the right thing to do.”

Scofield recorded the album himself in five hours at NYU’s studios and decided to bring it to Manfred Eicher at ECM. He had met Eicher back at Berklee in the early ’70s—thanks once again to Burton, who had just started recording for the label. Scofield later appeared on a handful of ECM albums, including Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires and Trio Beyond’s Saudades, and he was eager to work with Eicher again. “Manfred was the best producer I’d ever worked with for jazz and the most understanding of improvisation and creativity,” he says. “That’s why I thought maybe he’d want to put this record out.”

Indeed he did. Eicher also assisted in an area that often confounds artists and producers. “Manfred sequenced the record, which is a big deal for me,” Scofield says. “I get really confused as to what order it should be in. I was even going to ditch one of the tunes, because I wasn’t sure it was good enough, but he said, ‘No, you should keep it.’ He really did help me that way.”

A good part of Swallow Tales’ magic stems from the almost telepathic relationship of the three musicians, whose past recordings together include I Can See Your House from Here (1994) with Metheny, Quiet (1996), EnRoute (2004), This Meets That (2007), and Country for Old Men (2016). Stewart, who’s been a part of Scofield’s various bands for nearly three decades, brings a propulsive yet musical drumming style that meshes well with Swallow’s more angular bass. “They understand each other,” Scofield says. “Bill has an incredible sense of making his music fit with whatever is going on.”

After nearly 50 years of playing with Swallow, Scofield considers what he’s learned from his friend beyond the music they’ve shared. “I remember Pat Metheny saying years ago that Steve showed a lot of us how we could be as musicians and people. For all of us who know Steve, we’ve learned that it’s the music first but also how to make this work as a human being. You see him be unselfish, helpful and a real team player, and smart and funny. He’s turned out to be a role model for life.”

Preview, buy or download Swallow Tales on Amazon!