At 79, the father of electric jazz bass is busy inventing and innovating as a composer, player, and instrument designer—and continuing his 40-year collaboration with John Scofield via the new Swallow Tales.
“I’m practicing furiously and finding new ways to be productive,” Steve Swallow exclaimed at the beginning of our phone chat. “I’ve been learning GarageBand, which has been a monumental challenge and a lot of fun as well, but I feel the need to use some of the new technology to continue to be heard. I’m not sure that the old ways will return again.”
It’s inspiring to hear about this kind of work ethic in the middle of a global pandemic. Of course, the 79-year-old has spent his entire musical career thinking creatively and innovating, as both a bassist and a composer, so there’s no reason to think this period would be any exception.
Swallow began his career as an upright bassist working at the cutting edge of jazz, playing as a sideman with artists such as Art Farmer, Jimmy Giuffre, and Gary Burton. By 1970, at the age of 30, he became one of the first jazz players to adopt the electric bass as his full-time instrument, and he’s never looked back. Over the course of the last half-century, Swallow has made it his mission to fight for the legitimacy of the electric bass in jazz, from his early uphill battle convincing bandleaders that the instrument would fit in their ensembles to working closely with luthier Harvey Citron to create what he considers the ideal instrument for jazz playing.
With his extensive body of work, it can be hard to know where to start listening to Swallow’s recordings. Is it best to begin with his albums as a leader? Or maybe his long-running collaboration with his partner, Carla Bley? There seems to be no wrong place to begin, as every recording exemplifies his uncommon approach.
Swallow’s discography with guitarist John Scofield is particularly insightful, due in large part to the close musical relationship between the two musicians. They first met while Scofield was a student at Berklee, when he claims he could “hardly play,” though Swallow, a faculty member at the time, seems to disagree and insists he heard something in the young guitarist and knew they would have a long-lasting rapport. “Steve’s always been really supportive of me as a composer and as a player,” explains Scofield. “He’s a wonderful person. He’s been a mentor to me, but also to a bunch of other people. He’s just that kind of a giving, great guy—really special. It just never stopped after I met him.”
Starting with Scofield’s 1980 trio record, Bar Talk, they began creating an extensive discography together—most of which finds Swallow holding down the bass chair, though occasionally acting solely as producer. Last year, Scofield decided “it was about time” to dig into a set of Swallow’s music and took his trio with Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart into the studio to record a set of music that celebrates the compositions of his long-time friend. Swallow Tales, released this spring, features nine songs that the guitarist and bassist have been playing together informally for years, but have never recorded or performed. The album reveals the depth of musical connection that they share and offers a private masterclass in guitar trio playing and creative jazz composition.
“This music had been part of my life for so long that these are standards,” explains Scofield. “I feel like some of them are how I learned about harmony. They’re little lessons in themselves, each one. I wanted to record them just how you would record an album of standards if you were a jazz guitarist. Because you’d played that music so much, something can happen when you’re that familiar with the music—where you kind of get past knowing the song and you can really be free. And that’s what I felt like we could really do on Steve’s tunes. Beyond all that, they’re great songs.”
We caught up with Steve Swallow on the phone from his home in upstate New York to discuss Swallow Tales and his musical relationship with Scofield, and took plenty of time to discuss the development of his sound, the sound of the electric bass in jazz, his approach to composition, and much more.
You’ve seen a lot of changes in jazz though your career, and our current situation is unprecedented. Do you believe that new creative processes can emerge from all of this?
They can and must. The one thing I’m certain of through all of this is that the music—and I guess I mean jazz, because that’s what I do—will be here when the dust settles. Jazz music is not going to go away. It’s just going to transform itself however it needs to in order to accommodate the changes in the world we’re living in.
I’ve watched the music do that already, over the years. I’ve seen several major changes in the way jazz music related to the world, and I’ve watched it transform itself and proceed onward. When I first began playing, jazz was played in nightclubs and the gigs were long. You went to work at nine at night and played until three in the morning. It was a wonderful way to learn to play. It was a wonderful environment to serve your apprenticeship. It was trial by fire every night, six hours of immersion in the music. But then in the late ’60s, I watched that structure for the music collapse and I watched it gradually replaced, for the most part, with a concert format. Even the clubs went to two sets a night, with a kind of rapt and silent audience listening to you instead of a bustling, hard-drinking, loud-talking audience. I watched the music change as the audience changed, and I watched that process unfold until almost all of the gigs I did were in small concert halls. And I watched as the music headed for the academy—as jazz music became a university course of study offered by schools everywhere.
When I was learning to play, that was not the case, and when I needed to know something about playing the bass, I asked Percy Heath or I asked Paul Chambers. That was what was available. Now there are really remarkable curricula for learning the music quickly and efficiently and, of course, that’s had an effect on the way the music is, the way the music sounds, the way it’s played. But through it all, there’s the music, and its core remains what it is. Jazz music is still what it was when I was drawn irresistibly to it in the 1950s.
Throughout each of those changes, did it seem really dramatic and as if you were going into the unknown?
I always felt I was going into the unknown with the music, and I think that’s a remarkable and healthy aspect of having a life in music. Inevitably, it changes under your feet every day. I go down to pick up the bass and my fingers don’t feel the same way they felt last night when I last played, and the things I play don’t sound to me exactly the way they sounded before. It’s an ever-shifting field. I’ve come to value that.
There was a time when that caused me a lot of anxiety. I wanted the music to stand still so I could master it and walk away and say, “Okay, nailed that,” and now I realize that that’s just not going to happen. That change is a constant in my life in music, and I’ve come to embrace that. I’ve come to really love that.
TIDBIT: All nine songs, composed by Steve Swallow, were recorded in a half-day live-in-the-studio session. “I wanted to record them just how you would record an album of standards if you were a jazz guitarist,” John Scofield says.
These kind of seismic shifts in the location of the music in the world have definitely made their mark on how the music is played and what it sounds like, but the shift has been gradual enough that it’s been a question of confronting it a day at a time.
It’s really inspiring to hear you talk about the way you feel about the instrument from one day to the next. It’s good for me to remind myself that I’m not going to get rid of that feeling!
Good luck! I’m afraid we’re stuck with it. It’s possible to enjoy it and kind of get a good laugh out of your fingers’ inability to play one day what was so easy the day before, because then you’re just kind of forced to find something else to play and you stumble on something that delights you and all of a sudden you’re off again on another musical adventure. I love that aspect of it.
I’m also happy to exploit that in the process of developing a style as a player and, more particularly, in the process of writing songs. I really relish the point I reach at about dinner time, and I say, “Well, I’d better step back from this and I’d better go eat and sleep.” I look forward to the next morning and, in a way, I kind of hope that what I see when I wake up and look at what I did yesterday makes no sense to me. Then I get to start all over with the same materials. All the certainties that I had the night before evaporate and I have this fascinating new arrangement of materials to work with.
It’s a great process. For me, the difficulty in the process is knowing when to stop fiddling around and say, “This is it.” That’s hard to know when you’re there, but very important.
How does playing the bass relate to your composition process? Do you write on the bass?
No, I don’t. Playing the bass is only a presence in the background of my writing process. I write at the desk and I use the piano as a means of checking what I’m doing. I used to just sit at the piano and noodle and wait for something to strike me and then write it down and develop it and that would be a song, but I stopped doing that. I sit near the piano when I’m writing music now, but not at it, and I’ve made a conscious decision to keep my hands off the instrument until I get something I’m interested in. I found that when I wrote down what I had noodled and developed that, I was essentially playing what I already knew, the kind of vocabulary that came easiest to me. For me, songwriting should be, at its best, a discovery. Every tune you write, you could label, “This is what I learned in March of 2020.”
I sit very still, away from the piano, with a pencil and a piece of music manuscript in front of me and wait for an idea and use the piano only to verify that I’m hearing stuff correctly. At a point I’m well into writing a tune, I sit at a piano and explore harmonic possibilities and that kind of stuff.
Meanwhile, the bass is just sitting there in the corner, and it’s a big problem because there aren’t enough hours in the day. When I’m absorbed in writing a tune, the practicing goes out the window and vice versa. If I’m intrigued by the Bach cello suites, or if I have some gigs coming up that require me to have steely chops, then I know I’m not gonna write tunes for a while. It’s always a trade-off, and I’m always leaving songwriting or bass playing behind to focus on one or the other. If somebody were to invent a 30-hour day, I’d go for it immediately.
Steve Swallow has a 15-year relationship with luthier Harvey Citron that has so far yielded nine custom-designed basses. The latest is a 5-string that allows bridge movement, sports EMG pickups, and has an innovative volume control setup. Photo by Scott Friedlander
Can you share a bit about your practice routine?
I do now finally enjoy practicing, and it’s been a long process! For decades, I practiced because I knew I should, but I did it joylessly. I think that had something to do with the time in which I came up. When I was 20 years old, I was playing six hours a night and playing hard, 40 on/20 off. The rest of the day was a blur. Mostly I slept and nursed my poor chops. I was playing acoustic bass at that time. In effect, I was learning to play on the gig. I really only discovered the pleasure in practicing 10 or 20 years ago and discovered that there were so many things that I hadn’t considered before that I began to get into.
My routine, I suspect, is like many other jazz bass players. I spend a certain amount of time soloing on the changes to “All the Things You Are,” and a certain amount of time walking the blues and listening carefully to how I articulate the notes I’m playing. I also spend a great deal of time with the Bach cello suites, and that’s my strongest recommendation to any other bass player. They’re a wealth of information for me as well as a challenge to play. They’re a life’s work, as [cellist] Pablo Casals himself acknowledged repeatedly. You never get good enough at those suites and I’ve been playing them for years and I’m nowhere near the point where I would play them in public and I never will be. They are, for me, a private and deeply personal event. There’s so much to them, there’s so much that they provoke in me. When I play them, I’m learning about musical architecture, I’m learning about ii-V-I, I’m learning how to make a bassline that describes harmonic motion. But I’m also, when I let myself go into them, experiencing something profound and wonderful.
Aside from that, I’m working deliberately on whatever music lies ahead—the repertoire of whatever band I’m about to be playing with, that kind of stuff. But through all of that, regardless of the content of what I’m playing, I’m increasingly interested in the simplest things, in shaping the envelope of the notes I’m playing. You can proceed out from each note to each phrase, and how to shape a phrase and how you can play the same sequence of four or five notes a hundred times and only one of those hundred times will those four or five notes really speak beautifully as a coherent shape, and you ask yourself, “Why is that?”
All of these things are vexing and difficult, and it’s only at that point at which you say, “Okay, I’m never going to get this perfectly, this is a life’s work, I’ll just whack away at it day after day after day,” that it becomes kind of fun.
Could you tell me a bit about when you switched from upright bass to electric bass and what that meant for you?
The first thing I should mention is that switching from the acoustic to the electric was not by any stretch of the imagination something I intended to do. It was just something that happened to me. I just happened to touch the electric bass when I was 30 years old, and a lightning bolt descended from the sky and that was the end of it for me.
That experience was so strong that I’ve never questioned it. It never occurred to me for a moment to return to the acoustic bass. It was an absolutely decisive moment when everything changed. That’s a remarkable thing to happen to somebody when he’s 30 years old. I had a perfectly good career as an acoustic bass player. I was really happy. I loved the acoustic bass. I couldn’t believe that everything shifted so radically under my feet and all of a sudden I’ve got to learn this new instrument. I’ve got no idea how to play the thing.
I hadn’t been listening to music that had electric bass on it. I was still just engrossed in my Sonny Rollins records. I wasn’t listening to James Jamerson or Duck Dunn or Larry Graham or any of the available models. There were all kinds of aspects of my situation when I switched to electric bass that were out of whack, like, what am I supposed to do with this instrument? How am I gonna convince any of my compatriots that this is a good thing, that they’ll be happy with me playing electric bass instead of acoustic bass? And that’s been kind of an ongoing life’s work as well: persuading members of the jazz community that I grew up in that the electric bass is possible in this music—that there is a place for that voice.
Some people responded to it immediately and had no problem whatsoever, and others have persisted to this day in thinking that the electric bass just doesn’t work in this context. I understand perfectly because I felt the same way until I touched the electric bass, and then I had no choice to work to find a place for it in the music.
That’s been exciting; that’s been stimulating. It’s a rare thing, I think, to be playing an instrument that has no history, in effect. The slate was clean. I was free to devise my own approach to playing it in jazz. I was obliged to find a way, and as a result I haven’t been bored for an instant. That question is so big and so urgent as well that I’m never at a loss for what to work on.
The electric bass is still in its infancy and the design of it is up for grabs, and that’s been a fascinating part of the process for me: working with instrument makers to get the instrument to work in the context of primarily acoustic jazz music. The Fender Precision is perfect for Motown music and for Stax soul music, but I think it’s not perfect for jazz music. The instrument needs to be rethought, in many ways, to bring it into the jazz context. That’s another thing that I’ve been working on since 1970, since I began playing.
You’ve been working with luthier Harvey Citron for some time and have developed a number of custom instruments that have been quite innovative.
I discovered Harvey Citron maybe 15 years ago. He thinks even longer. He’s since built nine instruments for me. I’m now playing number nine and I love it dearly. We’ve gone through all kinds of very slight modifications from instrument to instrument in the pursuit of the sound I hear in my head. I feel really blessed to have found Harvey, although actually Harvey found me. He listens willingly to what I want and to what I hear when I receive a new instrument. It’s a really thoroughly collaborative process that we’re engaged in. I think we’ve made some real progress in defining an instrument that’s useful in contexts other than the usual electric bass context.
Can you tell me a little about the specs of the bass you’re playing now?
I play a 5-string instrument with a high C on top. There are separate pickups for the low E and the high C, and then there’s a single pickup for the A, D, and G. Each of these three pickups is doubled, so effectively there are six pickups in total. One set of pickups is at the front end of the bridge and the other is at the back end of the bridge. The bridge pieces are moving constantly from the front end to the back end of the bridge, so the two sets of pickups ensure that the instrument speaks evenly.
The pickups on some of the basses are by Fishman and some are EMGs. On bass nine, my current bass, they’re EMGs. And then they’re run through EMG circuitry that includes volume pots for each of the sets of pickups. There are three volume pots so I can control the volume on the E string and the C string separately, and then the middle three strings. Then there’s EQ circuitry that controls low, high, and mids, and the mids has an adjustment for the frequency at which it operates. It’s gotten fairly fancy. The earlier models just had bass and treble.
There’s very little metal in the design of the instrument and that’s purposeful on my part. I think wood is essential to the complexity of the sound that I hear in my head. The bridge pieces themselves, which are loose little Monopoly-house-looking things, are made of bone. The bridge beneath it is rosewood on this current model.
The top of the instrument on the current one is cedar. At various times we’ve used Sitka spruce and Adirondack spruce and some of the earlier ones had cedar. The neck is mahogany with a strip of rosewood down the center. The fingerboard is rosewood. It’s a 35" scale and we’ve played with that, too. Some of them have been 36" and some of them have been 34"— 35" is my current preference.
The body is mahogany and it’s quite hollow. We’ve aimed to free the top of the instrument as much as possible and to make it resonate as much as possible, and that resonance communicates to the bridge itself, where the pickups are mounted.
The trick has been to make the instrument resonate as richly and with as much complexity as possible, and yet to still make the instrument sound evenly from register to register and to avoid notes that speak especially clearly or loudly, or notes that are especially dull and that refuse to sustain. Over time, over the course of nine instruments, we’ve come closer and closer to this, and I love the bass that I’m playing now, which I’ve only been playing for a few months, so this is young love.
You and John Scofield have a longstanding relationship, and John has said, “Sometimes when we play it’s like one big guitar, the bass part and my part together,” which I think is the coolest thing someone can say about a relationship between a guitarist and a bassist.
I also love that quote from John, and I think that’s something that happens when we play together. It’s a rare and wonderful phenomenon. At our best, the two of us do seem to be operating as a single brain, and I love that when it happens. You never know when it will. I sensed that possibility in my musical relationship with John right from the first time we played, which was in 1974 in Boston. He had just finished being a student at Berklee and I had just come to Berklee to teach and we intersected and played a few times together and I said, “Ah ha!” I knew, really, back then that we would continue to play together and that we would have the enduring relationship and we have. It’s been remarkable.
It’s usually at John’s instigation that we come together. Every year or two we do a lengthy tour or two. I’ve produced several of his records and I’ve played on several of his projects over the years—most recently on his country project, Country for Old Men, before this one. We’re in touch a lot and we live a couple of hours from each other and see each other fairly often, talk on the phone, all of that. We’ve grown up together, if, in fact, we have grown up. We kind of talk alike and walk alike. It’s not surprising that at our best we play alike and we fit easily into each other’s pockets. It’s something we don’t take for granted, but it’s something we’ve had since the first time we played.
I think what’s really lucky is that we happened to have a good afternoon when we made Swallow Tales. We lucked out. It was at John’s instigation that we made the record. He called me up and said, “I want to make a record of your tunes,” and I would have been a fool to say anything other than, “You betcha.”
I know for sure that he wanted to keep it as loose and unpressured and even unprepared as was reasonable. The only preparing we did was that I drove down to his house and the two of us, without Bill Stewart, the drummer, just ran through the tunes we were gonna play to make sure we were going to end at the same time and we kind of agreed on the changes.
That wasn’t so extraordinary because we’d been playing these tunes occasionally—informally—for years and years. Most of my playing with John had been in his trio, and we played his tunes, but often at a soundcheck or at a rehearsal he would just break into one of my tunes which he knew well and we’d play that for a while, so our hands were always into this repertoire, but in an informal and non-public way.
So anyway, we rehearsed for a couple hours and just showed up at the studio one rainy afternoon in New York City and made this album in about four hours. Almost all of the tunes are first takes. A couple are second takes, but that’s about it. John wanted that: He wanted the feeling when we got into the studio that it was time to put up or shut up.
There are no corrections, there were no notes fixed at all, and we knew by the end of the afternoon we’d have to have done the record or it wasn’t going to be done at all. That lent an urgency to the performances that I value.