STEVE SWALLOW (b 1940 )
Born in 1940, Steve Swallow was raised in New York and first took private lessons on piano and trumpet before switching to the string bass at the age of eighteen. In 1960, he joined the Paul Bley Trio and featured also in the first sextet formed by George Russell. Swallow and Bley were also part of the innovative Jimmy Giuffre Trio and the Art Farmer Quartet. He subsequently played for Stan Getz and in Gary Burton’s quartet. In 1970, he moved to live and write songs in Bolinas, California. He gave concerts in San Francisco, appearing with pianists Art Lande and Mike Nock. But in 1973, he returned to join Burton, and apart from the occasional interruption, has remained a loyal partner ever since. In the early sixties, Swallow belonged to the free jazz scene and in 1964 took the Down Beat critics’ award for best new bass player. As the decade progressed—and particularly as a member of the Burton Quartet—he sought ways to combine elements from jazz, rock and country. With electronic backdrops becoming more and more the norm, Swallow often found himself obliged to amplify his bass instead of playing acoustically. He took up the electric bass guitar, and when he realised the different techniques required for each instrument were not compatible, he soon gave up using the acoustic string bass altogether. As Gary Burton recalls: “He worked on playing bass guitar using a pick—a method used by relatively few in the jazz world—and this picking owed more to the technique associated with guitar playing. He plays according to his own set of rules, and as a result his instrument never just sounds like an acoustic bass with pick-up. He threw out all preconceived ideas in order to give the instrument a new voice.” Since the early seventies, Swallow featured on various recordings and tours with Mike Gibbs; he later became a regular member of various Carla Bley ensembles, playing also on some of her most memorable recordings. In the years to follow, he took to producing albums for other musicians. In the late eighties and early nineties, the reformed Giuffre Trio, featuring Steve Swallow and Paul Bley, got back together for studio sessions and stage performances. He also teamed up with Andy Sheppard in Carla Bley’s trio.
Swallow is a brilliant bass player, with a sound and style all his own. His powers of concentration and his dependability are legendary, and as a soloist he is considered second to none. That his playing exhibits a comprehensive understanding of the music is no doubt due, in part, to the fact that he himself is one of the finest and most prolific composers for small combos. His pieces have been performed and recorded by many jazz musicians, including Gary Burton, Mike Gibbs and Chick Corea.