Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: Into the Woodwork - Steve Swallow Quintet

Personnel: Steve Swallow: electric bass; Carla Bley: organ; Chris Cheek: tenor saxophone; Steve Cardenas: guitar; Jorge Rossy: drums

The recording begins with “Sad Old Candle,” a slow, melancholy, slightly whimsical tune.  Cardenas starts by picking out a simple line against a background of tenor sax and organ.  Then Bley takes the lead on the theme, Rossy providing an impressionistic background with cymbal rolls.  Cardenas then plays a gentle guitar solo.  Far from starting us out with a bang, this cut sounds like a prelude or a low-key overture.

“Into the Woodwork” is a spritely jazz waltz that starts with a pretty organ and guitar background.  Then Cheek solos with a husky but smooth tone, and his tone and phrasing bring to mind Stan Getz.  Cardenas then contributes a no-nonsense, swinging guitar solo.  The cut ends with the simple theme, comprised mostly of dotted half-notes, almost like a Burt Bacharach pop tune.

“From Whom It May Concern” has a slow, strolling melody (played by Cheek) that could pass for a Broadway show tune.  Cardenas then plays a solo composed of attractive single-note lines, Rossy on brushes in the background.  Cheek tells a romantic story in his fine solo, after which he restates the theme to close the cut.

“Back in Action” starts off with some snappy mid-tempo Rossy drum rolls and improvising, with guitar and organ occasionally playing a background phrase.  Cheek also comes in now and then with some background snippets.  Rossy dances around the drum kit with generally light-hearted, nimble improvising, and then Cheek briefly plays the whimsical melody and launches into a solo, sounding reminiscent of Stan Getz on his Captain Marvel recording, stringing together a series of smooth phrases.  Then Cheek and Cardenas play the theme together to close the cut.  This cut is a lot of fun, managing to be driving and relaxed at the same time.

“Grisly Business” is slow and bluesy and a bit sinister, beginning with some soulful, high register improvising from Swallow.  Bley then plays the slow theme, and there is some jumbled improvising from organ and drums with Swallow providing a bass line as an anchor in the background.  Then tenor sax and guitar play opposing lines (Cheek descending, Cardenas ascending), with Rossy adding spice in the background.

“Unnatural Causes” is a variation on the final tenor/guitar phrases of “Grisly Business,” taken at a faster tempo, again played by Cardenas and Cheek.  In a slick solo, Cardenas employs distortion and almost a country-music twang in his phrasing.  Then Cheek plays another solo of smooth, slippery lines with a bit of funkiness thrown in. 

For “The Butler Did It,” tenor sax and guitar trade phrases of the bluesy, slightly sing-songy, lower mid-tempo theme.  Cheek and Cardenas then trade a couple of choruses each, playing well off each other. 

“Suitable for Framing” starts with a slow and sweet duet between Swallow and Cardenas, the guitarist providing a pretty chord background for Swallow’s high-register bass guitar picking.  This is followed by a lyrical, elegant solo by Cardenas.  Cardenas plays the subtle theme to end the cut. 

“Small Comfort” features a lengthy waltz-time solo from Swallow, in which he mainly stays in the upper range of the bass, with light and skillful accompaniment from the other rhythm players (especially Bley).  Cheek then contributes a lyrical, enchanting solo and then plays the cut’s simple theme.  This leads to a cliff-hanger ending that sets up the next tune.

“Still There” is a pretty, mid-tempo, Pat Metheny-esque tune with a vaguely military theme, played on organ.  Cardenas takes the first solo, then Bley plays a low-key, breezy, somewhat quirky solo.  (She bases bits of her solo on the themes of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Taps.”)  Then Cheek takes over with a deft, lyrical solo that develops nicely, climaxing with some fast runs.  This cut has another cliff-hanger ending.

On “Never Know,” Cardenas plays the theme--a ballad that has the feel of an old standard—and then contributes another attractive solo composed of laid-back, single-note lines.  Then Cheek plays a well-focused, old-school, Harry Allen-type solo and then the theme.  The cut ends with a Swallow bass line that leads into the final cut.

“Exit State Left” has a gently swinging, mid-tempo groove with Cheek and Cardenas playing a background phrase in harmony and then Bley playing the theme.  Cardenas then solos, using a distorted tone that adds some spice to his pretty lines.  Cheek then plays a bluesy solo with appropriately scooped notes, responding well to the groove.  Then Cheek and Bley repeat a line in unison, getting quieter and quieter until the cut closes on a blunt quarter note.

Into the Woodwork is a collection of smart, subtle, light-hearted music.  Since the cuts flow into one another and occasionally have cliff-hanger endings, the overall effect is of an organic whole, like a suite.  At first I thought this music was somewhat insubstantial, but it charms its way under your skin, to the extent that it can even seem poignant.  Regarding the improvising, Cardenas has the heaviest solo burden, and he’s a fine improviser, though to my ear his solos meander a bit and lack development.  Cheek’s playing is strong throughout; he has a husky, strong tone and displays a Stan Getzian style--less virtuosic but similarly smooth and lyrical.  Swallow steps out occasionally to good effect, though it would have been good to hear him solo even more.  Overall, if you’re looking for music to knock your socks off, Into the Woodwork probably won’t cut it, but if you like music that can gently sweep you off your feet with its subtlety and sophistication, this recording may well be your cup of tea. 

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