Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Swallow, Steve

Steve Swallow started his career on the double bass then went on to become one of jazz's first, and most influential, electric bassists. On either instrument, his tone is strong and articulate, and his arpeggios and melodic passages can move with the speed of helicopter blades. A prolific composer, he has forged close and enduring collaborations with vibraphonist Gary Burton and bandleader Carla Bley.

Stephen W. Swallow was born on October 4th, 1940 in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Swallow became interested in jazz music after listening to records in his father’s collection. He began piano lessons at the age of six and some of his teachers included Howard Kasschau. He also studied the trumpet before settling on the double bass when he was fourteen. He attended prep school with Ian Underwood, who later played keyboards with guitarist Frank Zappa, and both went on to Yale University, where they studied composition.

In 1960, Swallow met pianists Paul and Carla Bley, left Yale and followed the couple to New York, where he studied privately with Paul. During the summer of 1960, Swallow toured Germany with Underwood, performing music that included pieces by Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk.

Swallow then joined Paul Bley in a new, experimental trio formed by saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre. While the group was neither a critical nor commercial success at the time, it has since become widely influential for its innovative exploration of free jazz improvisation in a quiet, chamber-music setting, on songs such as "Brief Hesitation. The trio recorded three albums, Thesis and Fusion, released by Verve in 1961, and Free Fall,released by Columbia in 1962. In light of renewed interest in this ensemble, several albums of live recordings have recently been released.

Swallow also played at the time in a sextet led by pianist and composer George Russell, which recorded the album Ezz-Thetics in 1961. On Thelonious Monk's “Round Midnight," Swallow opens the track with open string thumps on the upright, and Russell plays the inside strings of the piano before the song settles into its actual form.

Swallow can also be heard with vibraphonist Gary McFarland on “Hello to the Season" from the album Point of Departure, and on the 1962 Paul Bley recording The Floater Syndrome.

In 1964, Swallow joined the band of trumpeter Art Farmer, along with guitarist Jim Hall. Swallow soon began writing his own material and Hall recorded his first composition, “Eiderdown.” In 1965, Swallow joined tenor saxophonist Stan Getz’s band and remained with him through 1967. The Getz band at the time included drummer Roy Haynes and vibraphonist Gary Burton, who was replaced by pianist Chick Corea in 1967. Swallow can be heard with the Getz band on the song “When the World Was Young,"recorded in France in the winter of 1966.

In the Getz band, Swallow found a kindred spirit in Burton, and he joined the vibraphonist's group in late 1967. Striking a fascinating balance between progressive jazz and full-blown fusion, the Burton group from the late 1960s was at the cutting edge. The band featured guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Bob Moses, who were members of the fusion band Free Spirits.

The band released several noteworthy albums including A Genuine Tong Funeral, a suite composed by Carla Bley, and Gary Burton in Concert Live. The live album featured the song “Blue Comedy." Swallow also appeared on Gary Burton’s collaborative album with French violinist Stephane Grappelli entitled Paris Encounter. The group plays Swallow’s composition “Falling Grace," which he originally wrote for pianist Bill Evans, and “Blue In Green."

Swallow was also a participant in Burton's collaborations with pianist Keith Jarrett at this time. He is featured prominently on the album Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett. The band, which included guitarist Sam Brown and drummer Bill Goodwin, play Swallow's tune “Como En Vietnam," with Jarrett on soprano saxophone, in New York on July 23, 1970.

Swallow then packed his bags and relocated to Bolinas, California. Not long before this move to the west coast, Swallow had switched from the upright bass to the electric bass. It was a permanent change. He remained in California for three years, where he mastered the new instrument, athen returned to New York but soon ended up moving to Boston to teach at the Berklee College of Music, where Burton also taught.

After refocusing his career on composition and performance, Swallow recorded his 1979 album Home. Swallow composed music for poems written by Robert Creeley. The title track is a sultry ballad, complete with strings and a very loose drum beat that Swallow growls over with his low bass sound. Other songs of note from this album include “Colors.”

During the 1980s, Swallow toured frequently with Burton and pianist Carla Bley. Swallow had joined her orchestra in 1978 and he appeared on a number of her albums, which mixed elements of free jazz and avant-garde. Swallow can be heard on the song “Utviklingssang," from Bley’s 1980 album Social Studies.

Swallow performed and toured with Carla Bley as a duo in the late eighties, and the two have lived together since 1991. Swallow also toured with guitarist John Scofield in the mid-1980s, and reunited with Giuffre and Paul Bley for tours in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1994, he hit the road with Scofield and Pat Metheny, and released the album Real Book, which featured the cover of the bootleg jazz chart book of the same name, which was compiled by students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston while Swallow taught there in 1974. Musicians around the world know Swallow's early compositions, such as “Eiderdown,” “Como En Vietnam" and "Falling Grace," having learned them from this unofficial but influential anthology of sheet music.

In the new millennium, Swallow shows no signs of slowing and maintains a prolific schedule as a performer and recording artist. He has toured with John Scofield, We Three, a cooperative band he formed with saxophonist Dave Liebman and drummer Adam Nussbaum, and The Lost Chords, Carla Bley's quartet. He also helps Carla Bley run the two record labels which release much of their music, WATT and xtraWATT.

In June of 2006, Swallow reunited with Burton, guitarist Pat Metheny and drummer Antonio Sanchez. The group released a live album called Quartet Live, which chronicled the band’s performance at Yoshi’s in Oakland in 2007. Swallow’s playing is very rich on this album; he and Antonio Sanchez lock in like they’ve been playing for decades. Songs of note from the album include the Chick Corea composition “Sea Journey"and Swallow's own “Falling Grace."

Swallow also linked up with John Scofield again for his 2008 release This Meets That, a funk-driven record which finds Swallow thumping away on the songs “Shoe Dog"and “The Low Road."

When not elsewhere, Swallow lives in upstate New York with Carla Bley.

Select Discography

as Steve Swallow

Home (ECM, 1979)

Real Book (xtraWATT, 1993)

with Jimmy Giuffre

Fusion (Verve, 1961)

Thesis (Verve. 1961)

Emphasis & Flight 1961 (hatOLOGY)

Emphasis, Stuttgart 1961 (hatArt)

Free Fall (Columbia, 1962)

with Gary Burton

A Genuine Tong Funeral (RCA, 1968)

Gary Burton in Concert Live (RCA, 1968)

Country Roads and Other Places (RCA, 1968)

Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett (Atlantic, 1969)

Paris Encounter w/Stephane Grappelli (Atlantic, 1970)

Quartet Live (Concord Jazz, 2008)

With Carla Bley

Social Studies (WATT, 1980)

The Very Big Carla Bley Band (WATT, 1990)

Duets(WATT, 1990)

Go Together(WATT, 1992)

The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu (WATT, 2007)

Contributor: Jared Pauley