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The Electric Bassist With An In-House Composer

Steve Swallow switched from acoustic bass to bass guitar in 1970, and hasn't looked back.
Klaus Muempfer
Courtesy of the artist
Steve Swallow switched from acoustic bass to bass guitar in 1970, and hasn't looked back.

Steve Swallow started playing jazz as a teenager. While a student at Yale University, he played mostly in with Dixieland bands. And then the 20-year-old bassist got a gig with the avant-garde-leaning pianist Paul Bley at a nearby college, went home, went to bed — and dropped out.

"I wanted to be in New York City, and live in nightclubs, and sleep late, and go to bed at first light and wake up when the sun was setting," he says, laughing. "And all that that implied."

Soon after Swallow arrived in Manhattan, Bley helped the young bassist get a gig with clarinetist extraordinaire Jimmy Giuffre. He would go on to perform with nearly everyone in jazz, it seems, among them modern masters as guitarist John Scofield and bandleader George Russell. He's also now a prolific composer and bandleader, and was one of the first jazz musicians to embrace the electric bass guitar.

But Paul Bley did more than set Swallow's musical course. It was at the pianist's residence that Swallow met the person who would become his best friend in love and in music: Paul Bley's wife at the time, Carla.

"I was a green kid and she was only five years my senior, but I saw her as incredibly wise and mature," Swallow says.

It would be years before they became a couple. In the meantime, Swallow played with many of the greats in jazz history: saxophonists Eric Dolphy, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz among them. At the time, like most jazz bassists, he wanted nothing to do with the electric bass, i.e. the bass guitar. But Swallow picked one up at an instrument convention to try it out, was smitten, and asked his then-boss — vibraphonist Gary Burton — if he could start playing it in the group.

Within a couple of years, the electric bass was all Steve Swallow played.

"My initial pleasure in the electric bass had something to do with the fact that it was a more explicit voice," he says. "There was a kind of clarity to the sound I could achieve by twisting knobs and playing with a pick, which I do. But over the years that's changed as I've sought out a greater degree of ambiguity in what I play and the way I sound."

Wanting to extend his range, Swallow gravitated to an instrument with a longer-than-usual neck — he's got the long arms to use it. He also added a fifth string, tuned to a high C.

"I was also playing a lot with Carla, and she was encouraging me to extend my range, and writing stuff that required the fifth string," Swallow says. "And she does that to this day."

For Steve Swallow, Carla Bley is literally his house composer. They've been partners professionally and personally for 50 years.

"I think we play together well because we know each others' playing like breathing or eating," Bley says. "It's nothing complicated about it and we both still admire it. It isn't as though we're contemptuous with the familiarity of it all."

Just as she writes for him, he often composes with her in mind. A 1987 release from Swallow was called Carla.

"I was deeply in love," Swallow says. "I was feeling romantic. I wasn't feeling abstract and dry. [I'm] feeling dryer and more abstract these days, and my writing is coming out a little more gnarled and difficult, but challenging in a way that I think is valuable."

On one of their new albums together, Into The Woodwork, Bley again plays organ instead of her usual piano. (She plays piano on one of her recent releases featuring Swallow, called Trios.)

"I think he likes me 'cause I can't play all the clichés," Bley says. "You know, organ is a tremendous font of clichés. I wish I knew just one or two, because I love organ playing, and I can't play like that. I just play like I played in church when I was a kid."

One tune, "Still There," could be taken as a reference to the enduring relationship between Steve Swallow and Carla Bley.

"You caught us at a respectful time," Swallow says, laughing. "We have a huge range of feelings for each other, some less respectful than others."

"I think we are at least 30 percent human, and it's only a bad way," Bley says. "We share some of humanity's worst aspects."

"But we kind of admire the extra-human aspects of ourselves," Swallow says. "We aspire to be more like rocks. I learned that from Carla, too — solid and accepting."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Michel

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