My first encounter with guitarist John Scofield came forty years ago as a young bassist looking for work by Steve Swallow and finding a new release by a trio led by Scofield called ‘Shinola.’ I was thrilled by Swallow’s playing, but also instantly fell in love with Scofield’s jagged, angular lines, and innovative fretboard shapes.
Throughout the years, the two have collaborated on more than a half dozen of Scofield’s albums, a couple of Swallows and numerous other projects. With ‘Swallow Tales,’ the two join up once again, this time playing all Steve Swallow compositions – and the results are some of the best either have produced in years!
‘Swallow Tales’ consists of 9 tracks, which are described as some of Swallows best-loved and least played compositions. Across those songs, there is a great depth and variety of experiences, so much so that I spent quite a while debating with myself which song to have as my ‘quick hit’ featured song.
The bottom line is that I really love this album, and there are several reasons why — some that are about the songs, some about the artists, and every bit of it is about the interplay.
The album is ultimately a story connecting three musicians who have played together for decades and shows off their ability to interpret a wide variety of music and add something new to songs they’ve played thousands of times.
Bill Stewart has also been playing with Scofield for decades, and his deft timekeeping and intensity constantly adds to the conversation. He has always impressed me as someone who never appears at the center of the music, but everything he does is essential, and as a result, you can easily overlook just how great he is as a drummer.
I remember in an early interview with Scofield, he was asked about how he charted bass parts specifically regarding Steve Swallow. Scofield said he couldn’t begin to write bass parts that begin to describe the chords and harmony of a composition nearly as well as what Swallow does naturally. And that has always been true, and you can hear it happen again and again on this album. Listening to ‘Awful Coffee,’ you hear something common — Swallow is playing a walking line, but he is playing a counter harmony to what Scofield is improvising, and simultaneously playing counter-rhythms with Stewart, and never letting go of the chord progression. His tone is clear and pristine, and his chops have not diminished even as he prepares to turn 80 years old later this year.
Listening to ‘Swallow Tales’ in general and songs like ‘Eiderdown’ or ‘Portsmouth Figurations’ in specific, I am reminded why I fell in love with John Scofield’s guitar playing the first time I heard ‘Shinola’ forty years ago. He is daring, innovative, risk-taking, all while being very melodic and never letting his instantly recognizable turn into a cliche or set of rote riffing that happens so much in rock and fusion guitar.
I have honestly felt that Scofield’s albums since Uberjam Deux in 2013 have been ‘solid,’ but not up to the level of his earlier work. And honestly, I was okay with that – Scofield has had a career of innovation and prolific releases across the realms of jazz, including some of my all-time favorite recordings, so if he decided as he approached 70 to dial it back a bit I would understand. But ‘Swallow Tales’ shows me that his restless innovative spirit has yet to be quelled. And I am totally here for it – ‘Swallow Tales’ is one of the best albums I have heard the last few years, and I just can’t get enough!
‘Quick Hit’ Song: “Portsmouth Figurations” – there are so many great songs that it is hard to choose, but I kept coming back to the searing intensity of this song. It is a composition I already loved from Gary Burton’s 1967 album ‘Duster’ (an all-time fave), but I love the fresh intensity the trio delivers here.
Suggested audience: This is straight-ahead swinging jazz with a modern edge. It is interesting and not meant to sit in the background, but it has never driven my family away! If you are a fan of great guitar and bass work or excellent jazz in general, you are sure to love this!
Swallow Tales is available for $15.99 at Amazon [affiliate link].
Source: Personal purchase
What I Like: Solid songs: Great playing; Excellent interplay; Well-engineered and produced; The album is nearly an hour-long!
What Needs Improvement: Nothing!
Here is the trio playing ‘Everything I Love’ from 2010: