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5000 Poems by Steve Swell

The first thing I thought when listening to “5000 Poems” the new recording from trombonist / composer Steve Swell and his 'Slammin' the Infinite' band was: “...good old Free Jazz!” This disc instantly transported me back to the late 1960s, when free jazz was really 'The New Thing,' and was really new - fresh and unencumbered by several decades worth of uninformed media baggage. 'Not Their Kind' opens “5000 Poems” with trombone and saxophone essaying a brief theme in a rush of splashy drums and Cecil Taylor-esque tilt-a-whirl piano. Kugel and Heyner immediately set up a liquid groove for Swell's trombone. If you enjoy the work of trombonists such as Roswell Rudd, Glenn Ferris, and Gary Valente, Swell's your guy – he has a huge tone and really digs deep into the lower registers of his horn for those guttural tones, though he'll swoop unexpectedly up and play intricate boppish lines as well. Swell's assembled an amazing backing band for '5000 Poems.' His front line mate Sabir Mateen is one of the premier free jazz saxophonists around. Though his soloing is strongly influenced by that of Coltrane, Ayler, and Frank Wright, Mateen occasionally shows a more buttoned-down side – check out his alto solo on 'My Myth of Perfection,' and his tenor solo on 'Where Are The Heartfelt.' Here, he reminds me a bit of the late John Gilmore – capable of the wildest, edgiest free-improv, but also quite eloquent when it comes working with boppish intricacies. Mateen's work on flute ('Sketch 1') and clarinet ('Sketch 2') is more than impressive – he's clearly mastered the clarinet (a notoriously difficult instrument to play) and there simply aren't many better free-jazz flutists out there! Drummer Klaus Kugel is also one of the finest free jazz percussionists around, and this recording finds him at the top of his form, and he works exceedingly well with the great young bassist Matthew Heyner, who is . I was not familiar at all with pianist John Blum prior to hearing “5000 Poems,” but his combustible work at the keyboard is quite impressive – brimming with ideas, Blum's vigorous solos head off in all sorts of unexpected directions.

Most of the compositions on “5000 Poems” adhere to the traditional 'head-solos-head' structure. Swell's brief themes are often condensed, Monk-like constructions that require stop-on-a-dime ensemble dynamics, though a few – such as 'My Myth of Perfection,' 'The Darkness Afoot,' and 'Where Are The Heartfelt' - develop more slowly and are drawn out for several minutes, evoking numerous improvised asides from Blum in particular. 'My Myth of Perfection' starts out very quietly, with an amazing unaccompanied bass solo by Heyner that leads into a drawn-out, lugubrious theme. Blum follows with a spacious, rippling solo as the theme reappears. Though I typically enjoy the more frenetic stuff, here the slower tempo allows each of the players to develop ideas more thoroughly and work with silences and space more effectively. 'The Darkness Afoot' is a grooving, swaggering, moderate tempo piece that is interrupted by Kugel's gloriously Dada-istic percussion solo just as it seems to be moving towards the more familiar free-jazz jam mode. Mateen follows with a similarly Zen-like clarinet meditation, shadowed uncannily by Heyner's screeching arco. It's surprises like this that make “5000 Poems” a truly enjoyable listening experience.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Steve Swell
  • CD Title: 5000 Poems
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2010
  • Record Label: Not Two Records
  • Rating: Three Stars
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