By Paul Acquaro
Guitarist John Scofield has long been tangentially associated with ECM records. His first appearance dates back to a Peter Warren release on the related JAPO label in 1982. Since then he has appeared on several recordings with bassist Marc Johnson's Bass Desires group, and with Trio Beyond, a take on Tony Williams' Emergency with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Swallow Tales, recorded with the album's namesake bassist and composer Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, is the first under his name for the label.
However, more important than the label is the guitarists long musical association with Swallow, which goes back to the early 1980s, when they were a trio recording for Arista and Enja. Stewart has also been a long time accomplice, having recorded in 1994 with Scofield, Swallow, and guitarist Pat Metheny on I Can See Your House from Here (Blue Note). They have also recorded as a trio on EnRoute: John Scofield Trio LIVE in 2004 (Blue Note) and then again a few years later with others on This Meets That (2007, Emarcy). So, all this is to say is that this recording is familiar territory for three excellent musicians.
The music on Swallow Tales is a tribute to the music of Steve Swallow - so even more familiar territory! The bassist has been composing since the mid-1960s and several of his early compositions, which debuted in vibraphonist Gary Burton's groups, appear here, including “Falling Grace,” “Portsmouth Figurations,” and “Eiderdown." The other tracks pull deeply from Swallow's discography, like the opening track "She Was Young", which appeared on the bassist's 1980 album Home and featured vocals. Here, the tune unfolds as a ballad that builds towards an energetic end, after a gentle start where Scofield seems to channel the soft touch of the late John Abercrombie. The following "Falling Grace," goes back to the composer's early days with Gary Burton, as does the following "Portsmouth Figurations." The latter is a barn burner from Burton's seminal 1966 jazz-rock album Duster, on this album it cooks along as well. Scofield's fuzzy, crisp lead bounces about on Stewart and Swallow's taut rhythmic line. "Away" is a short, wistful and tender ballad and features not only Swallow's compositonal prowess but also his highly melodic approach to the bass guitar. Playing with a pick, Swallow's approach to his acoustic bass guitar is indeed more guitar-like, which gives the songs a rooted, but nimble feel. "Awful Coffee" features an angular guitar lead deftly intertwined with the bass line that is part support and part counter melody. The opening chords of the mid-tempo "Hullo Bolinas" are sumptuous and just peculiar enough to catch the ear, and then comes the tonal-cluster rich guitar lead that pulls the group along until Swallow's finger stretching solo.
Swallow Tales is not free jazz, nor avant-garde, at the same time, it's not exactly straight ahead modern jazz, rather it is the unique combination of Swallow's enduring compositions, Scofields' earthy tone, and the long-time musical relationships between the three musicians. The recording sounds great, it's a lean guitar, bass-guitar, and drum trio, and it fits in well with some of recent guitar based recordings from ECM.