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Neil Swainson Quintet: 49th Parallel (Real to Reel)

A review of the re-release of the bassist's album featuring Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson

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Neil Swainson: 49th Parallel
The cover of 49th Parallel by Neil Swainson

With an archival jazz release, you need the backstory. The Real to Reel label is diligent about backstories. In 1987, Neil Swainson, a first-call bassist on the Toronto jazz scene, made an ambitious plan for his first (and to date only) album as a leader: Hire trumpeter Woody Shaw (with whom Swainson had gigged) and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson (whom he had never met). Use reliable, familiar Canadians in the rhythm section (pianist Gary Williamson, drummer Jerry Fuller). Write some tunes with openings for bass solos.

It came together on May 2 and 3, 1987, at Studio 306 in Toronto. Henderson was a no-show on May 2. (He was famous for such behavior.) He appears on four of the seven tracks. All seven are terrific. The CD came out on the Concord label in 1988. This re-release on CD, LP, and download has one new track, “Labyrinth.”

Shaw was functionally blind at the time of the recording. (He would be dead two years later, at 44.) He could not see to read music and had to learn the tunes by rote. He plays his ass off. From his first fanfare and flourish on the opening title track, he commands attention. Every solo he takes is full of soaring songs within songs.

On the pieces with both horns, Henderson solos first. He always veers away from the centers of Swainson’s compositions (which are interesting and intelligent) and plays the edges. The high point is the only ballad, “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” Swainson gives it entirely to Henderson, who meanders around in it for almost nine minutes. He sounds voluptuous yet casual, as if he’s been playing the tune his whole life. In fact, Swainson showed it to him on piano in the studio, right before the first and only take.


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Originally Published

Thomas Conrad

Thomas Conrad has a BA from the University of Utah and an MA from the University of Iowa (where he attended the Writers Workshop). He taught English at Central State University in Ohio, then left the academic world for the private sector. His affiliation with publications such as JazzTimes, Stereophile, The New York City Jazz Record and DownBeat has enabled him to sustain active involvement in two of his passions: music and writing.