Between them, Steve Swallow and Carla Bley have produced some of the most idiosyncratic, imaginative and humorous music in the rich history of jazz. Few musicians have combined musicality, mischief and mirth quite so successfully. And Swallow’s return to London with a new quintet featuring Bley always looked likely to be one of the highlights of this year’s London Jazz Festival.
Of the other musicians in Swallow’s new ensemble, perhaps drummer Jorge Rossy – well known for his pioneering work with the original Brad Mehldau Trio – best complements the mood. Both sensitive and playful, he swings with wit and imagination as well as impeccable taste. His dynamic is, in the main, consistently sensitive, but every so often he offers an unexpected, perhaps even petulant interjection.
Performing a set of completely new music, written around Carla Bley and the Hammond B3 organ was something of a creative risk. That Swallow also opted to segue much of this material together in a series of long suites made it even bolder. These decisions did seem to lead to some degree of restlessness in the audience, with this even extending to a surprising number of early walkouts. Jazz audiences tend to be more open to fresh ideas and reinterpretation than audiences, but this clearly proved too much for some ears.
The music was both conceptually and musically witty, with one suite inspired by Swallow’s love of murder mysteries. “I rarely read a book in which someone doesn’t die in the first few pages,” he quipped – a well rehearsed line clearly deployed more than once on this tour. The suite allowed the group to demonstrate their relaxed and comfortable handling of tempo and mood changes, along with some nimble trading of ideas between saxophonist Chris Cheek and guitarist Steve Cardenas. Even the titles of the individual pieces could not fail to raise a smile, Grizzly Business, Unnatural Causes and The Butler Did It.
Nevertheless, it did feel like there was something missing from this mostly rather sensitive and tasteful performance. The music seemed to draw playfully on a variety of aspects of the jazz tradition, with Bley at one stage patiently distilling a slow blues shuffle figure and Cheek drawing on bebop language. The band sounded best when enjoying a brisk and nimble swing, but even then it never seemed to become truly exciting – the organ provided a doggedly consistent sound and mood, with the frequent use of long sustained chords.
Perhaps there was a need for a break in this mood, something that could have been provided by more rhythmically characterful accompaniment, or simply with more use of space. Some of the melodic sophistication of Swallow’s best writing was absent, as was, sadly, a sense of tension and development. Perhaps this writing and this ensemble need some time to reach full fruition.