Steve Swallow’s Brilliant Dynamics


Steve Swallow’s early heroes included acoustic bassist Percy Heath.

(Photo: ©Caterina di Perri/ECM Records)

To paraphrase Shakespeare, some are born great, and some achieve greatness. But when it comes to playing the electric bass, Steve Swallow, 79, had greatness thrust upon him.

“I was close to 30 years old when the electric bass happened to me,” Swallow said, as if describing an accident. “I was the distraught victim of the electric bass.”

Swallow—who has topped the Electric Bass category in the DownBeat Critics Poll for three years running—never intended to take up the instrument. “The electric bass was ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ as far as I was concerned,” he explained over the phone from the home near Woodstock, New York, he shares with pianist Carla Bley.

By 1970, Swallow had established himself on upright bass through recordings with reedist Jimmy Giuffre’s trio, trumpeter Art Farmer’s quartet and various groups led by vibraphonist Gary Burton.

By then, he had performed regularly with Bley, whom he met at Bard College in 1959, and subsequently became an early advocate for her compositions. “He and I played a regular Sunday afternoon duo gig at the Phase 2, a coffeehouse on Bleecker Street,” Bley wrote in a recent email. “In the ensuing years, he brought my music with him wherever he went; he induced Gary Burton to record A Genuine Tong Funeral,” she continued, referring to the vibraphonist’s 1968 LP, which consisted of Bley’s compositions.

It was Burton who inadvertently led Swallow to the electric bass. “I was doing a music [trade show] with Gary Burton,” Swallow recalled. “The two of us were playing at the Musser vibes booth, and halfway through the first day, I was getting restless.” At some point, he “furtively slipped” into the Gibson booth, and tried out a cherry-red EB-2 bass. “I asked the Gibson people if I could take it back to my hotel room that night, and I played it all night long.” He was smitten. “The die had been cast. It was just a matter of time before I switched decisively.”

That change came with challenges, though. Consider, for instance, his plucking technique. Swallow initially played with his fingers on the electric instrument, but then gradually switched to using a pick. “Unlike almost every other guitarist or bassist who plays with a pick, my predominant stroke is the upstroke,” he explained. “This is a cause for a lot of laughter among the guitarists I’ve worked with over the years. But I think that’s a direct result of my mimicking the action of playing the acoustic bass. There is no downstroke on the acoustic bass.”

Swallow also wanted to avoid excessive volume. “There is a tendency to make the electric bass too loud, in my opinion,” he said. “One of the assets of the electric instrument is the dynamic range. It’s considerably broader than the acoustic instrument. The extreme soft is much softer, and the extreme loud is much louder, and it makes perfect sense to me to exploit that.”

This attention to dynamics is a key factor in his sound on Bley’s recent trio effort, Life Goes On (ECM), as well as guitarist John Scofield’s new album, Swallow Tales (ECM), on which the bass is, as Swallow put it, “kind of nestled into the sound of that music.” He added, “We’re looking to speak with a single voice,” referring to the trio with Scofield and drummer Bill Stewart. “I’m grateful that the mix reflects that.”

In addition to his lower volume, Swallow also tries to retain something of the thump of the acoustic bass in his sound. “I didn’t want to leave everything behind when I switched from acoustic bass to electric bass,” he said. “My heroes were Percy Heath and Wilbur Ware. I wanted that kind of envelope to my sound, and I wanted it whether I was playing the electric bass or the acoustic bass.

“I should add, though, that I love the legato possibilities in the electric bass. To be able to sustain a note in the high register so easily was a gift from heaven.” That aspect of his playing is enhanced by his instrument, a Citron AE5
hollowbody bass with piezo pickups. Although it is a five-string bass, Swallow adds a high C string instead of the usual low B, a choice that extends the instrument’s upper register.

This aspect of Swallow’s playing style has been essential to his musical relationship with Bley. “He’s able to play melodies in the upper register that sing out nicely, something that’s difficult on the acoustic bass,” she said. “When I’m writing bass, I’m writing for him. Not so much the instrument, but the player.” DB

This story originally was published in the August 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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