John Scofield, Steve Swallow, Bill Stewart Team Up For Engrossing ‘Swallow Tales’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

John Scofield has virtually never repeated himself over the course of his near fifty-year career. That is, except with regard to musicians with whom he has regularly collaborated on records as diverse as Past Present and Country For Old Men. Bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart are among the players on those records of recent (and also older) vintage, so it should come as no surprise the empathetic duo also appears on Swallow Tales.

Yet, as on 2004’s John Scofield Trio Live…EnRoute, Swallow and Stewart act as more than just the rhythm section. This latest outing is a set of studio recordings completed in a single March afternoon last year in The Big Apple at the brand-new state-of-the-art James Dolan Music Recording Studio. And whereas the aforementioned concert piece contained only a single tune of Swallow’s, this LP is all his material, as indicated by the album title, its tunes representing a veritable cross-section of the man’s own history as well as no small measure of Scofield’s as well.

In that context, Swallow Tales continues a rich tradition of the guitarist/composer’s, one in which his most simply conceived albums are his most affecting. The last one, Combo 66, was just such an effort, its very simplicity the root of its understated impact and the effect is similar here, albeit in an even more streamlined fashion (the last title featured piano, organ, drums and guitar). Scofield, Swallow and Stewart’s long-term relationship imbues this opener, “She Was Young,” with an uncommon warmth that effectively sets the tone for this roughly fifty-minutes duration playing time.

That relaxed, informal quality enhances the unhurried but steady pace of the longest cut of the nine here and also renders practically indecipherable the transitions between instruments. Of course, melodies like this one and the slightly more upbeat and oblique “Falling Grace,” are hardly predictable to begin with, but that very attribute magnifies the readily-identifiable style of each musician: hear, for instance, how deftly Stewart pushes his comrades as they interweave their respective instrumental lines.

The drummer nevertheless maintains an angle from his counterparts as conspicuous as those they sustain from each other. And certainly, while “Portsmouth Figurations.” to name just one track, boasts pristine clarity based on the three instruments in action, the sound quality produced by Scofield himself, with Tyler McDiarmid as a recordist and mix engineer, reaffirms the nuanced relationship between the guitar, bass and drums. That bond is never more apparent than on takes here such as “Eiderdown,” the frisky likes of which also supply pacing between more languorous readings like “Awful Coffee.”

Musicianship as pointed and precise as the material is uncommon and makes Swallow Tales an altogether engrossing listening experience. And it’s a tranquil one too, even apart from an unconventional ballad like “Away” because Scofield, Swallow and Stewart don’t force anything. They apply their keen, shared instincts as fully to steady-rolling, tuneful likes of the closer, “Radio,” as the stop-and-go proceedings of “In F” that set it up. Thus, the ECM Records debut of this venerable jazz figure stands as a radiant example of his self-renewing connection to the other two stalwarts of the idiom.

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