Review: Steve Swallow Quintet/ The Impossible Gentlemen

The Impossible Gentlemen.
Photo credit: Roger Thomas

Steve Swallow Quintet/ The Impossible Gentlemen
(Queen Elizabeh Hall, paert of LJF, November 12th 2011. Review by Patrick Hadfield)

The Impossible Gentlemen took to the stage without one of their members – rather than support himself, the group’s usual bass player, Steve Swallow, was replaced for the evening by Steve Rodby.

This change in personnel didn’t seem to have distracted the others. Their music was full of energy across a dynamic range spanning brooding, contemplative piano through gentle swing to roaring jazz-funk. Despite the changing moods, the music had a cohesive feel often missing from other “supergroups”, the other members – Briton’s Gwilym Simcock on piano and Mike Walker on guitar, and superlative American drummer Adam Nussbaum on drums – played with great sensitivity. The whole band excelled in their short set.

Steve Swallow and Chris Cheek
Photo credit: Roger Thomas

The Steve Swallow Quintet suffered in comparison. This was restrained, gentle music, “chamber jazz” suited to the concert hall, but it lacked energy to fill the hall with sound. Carla Bley on Hammond B3 organ often played the bass lines, freeing up Swallow to play some beautiful solos high in the register, but she rarely took solos herself. Jorge Rossy’s drumming was at times so soft to be inaudible. The music felt complex and highly structured, giving soloists little opportunity to stretch out, and seemed set at one level when compared to the Impossible Gentlemen’s dynamism.

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5 replies »

  1. Having heard both bands during the week prior, I can't agree with your assessment. Of course you're perfectly entitled to like one band better than the other (personally, I liked them both), but I feel you've sold Steve Swallow short, and he deserves better.
    While Swallow's quintet was best heard in a two-set club situation (Birdland, Neuburg-am-Donau), they held their own on JazzFest Berlin's main stage, playing only one set. What I heard of their London set on BBC 3 was of a piece with that, though more evolved (logically, it would be, coming later in the band's tour, which, by the way, is their first). The sound balance on the radio must have been better than in the hall, for drummer Rossy possessed a full and witty presence. Saxophonist Chris Cheek also bears mention as an example of playing with such subtlety that it can easily be mistaken for restraint.
    Swallow's music is demanding of the players but rewarding to the listener, and there is more free range therein than one might initially think, for it comes in unusual forms, such as extended conversational duets rather than conventional solos. These were especially intricate between The Steves – Swallow and guitarist Cardenas, and most deeply personal between Swallow and Bley.
    The group has relatively quiet dynamics, but interplay no less intense as a result.
    The Impossible Gentlemen indeed set the stage on fire at Berlin's A-Trane – and what I heard was only the first set! Simcock I had heard before and all my great expectations were repeatedly met. Walker I had heard about but not heard until then, and his playing was the most consistently incendiary of all. He's made his own way forward, internalizing the history of his axe while eschewing the histrionics. Beautiful! My fellow Yanks in the rhythm section proved adept at fanning the flames, with Nussbaum being up to his usual form – and tricks – and Rodby churning away underneath, propelling them all onward and upward. Wish I'd stayed for the second set.

  2. Patrick,

    I too have been told that the mix on the BBC Radio 3 broadcast was better than that in the hall, though I haven't had a chance to hear it myself.

    I've heard both Steve Swallow and Carla Bley play many times in many different formats, often with each other, and I love their playing. So my disappointment on Sunday was keenly felt. I'm glad that it may just have been an off-night for the band, and that they excelled in Germany. But unfortunately it didn't work for me! Neither performer not audience can give 100% all the time!

  3. My fellow Patrick:

    We must all write what we feel is right, and I respect you for doing so, even though we reach different conclusions.

    While Swallow's BBC broadcast sounded spot on to me, I couldn't tell you whether or not those folks were having an off night in London, but having heard them stretch out over two sets in Neuburg, the single set I heard in Berlin – and the London broadcast, too – seemed, perhaps inevitably, lesser by comparison. For me, though, this was primarily a matter of quantity and ambiance – I'd been spoiled by two full sets delivered in the intimacy of Birdland, with the austerity of the big hall's stage in Berlin putting much greater distance between artist and audience.

    I do think there's a basic difference between the more cerebral repertoire and sound Swallow has created for his band and the more visceral approach to performance taken by the Impossible Gentlemen. I admire and enjoy both, and if forced to choose one or the other, I would have to impale myself upon the horns of the dilemma.

    Swallow's own music is a sumptuous repast unto itself, playing out on more and more levels as one listens more closely. The Gentlemen revel more openly in the process of playing, gloriously, building upon frameworks perhaps less compositionally intricate but no less sturdy, and taking no prisoners, an invigorating context for players so able and imaginative. When I heard them, at set's end I felt as though someone had either given me a full body and mind massage, or else throttled me from head to toe, and in either case, it felt good.

    The intimacy of A-Trane made my connection with the Gentlemen feel more direct, just as with Swallow's band at Birdland. What I would be inclined to conclude from our exchange(s) is that in London, the Impossible Gentlemen were more overtly successful in bridging that feeling of distance, a gap not common in smaller venues, but relatively inherent to the larger, more formal setting of the concert hall.

    Admittedly, I am favorably predisposed to both Swallow and Bley, and have been enthusiastically so for about 40 years now. I never know what they'll do next, but it's always different, and always engagingly interesting.

    Though with less longevity, I feel no less favorably predisposed toward Messrs. Walker et Simcock, from each and both of whom I am sure more great music will emanate. When I hear younger players of their calibre, I cease to worry about the future of the music, and, for that, I am thankful as well as relieved.

  4. I found Steve Swallow's set pretty soporific myself. Enjoyed the Impossible Gentlemen though: both the music and the Mancunian humour.

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