Fire in the West
Cellar Music Group
Chances are that you will recognize some of the members of this quintet more so than the leader, the British Columbian bassist and composer Neil Swainson, who is releasing only his second album, 35 years after his acclaimed debut, 49th Parallel, released in 1987. Like that one, in the classic quintet format featuring trumpeter Woody Shaw and saxophonist Joe Henderson, Fire in the West this one has a front line of trumpeter Brad Turner and tenor saxophonist Kelly Jefferson and the more familiar names of his rhythm mates, pianist Renee Rosnes, and drummer Lewis Nash. This is not to say that Swainson has this hugely intermittent recording history; he has spent most of his career as a sideman, notably accompanying George Shearing as well as Woody Shaw and Roberta Gambarini. Yet, his compositional style here, with the quintet sound in mind, resembles that same aesthetic from 35 years ago.
There are a couple of catalysts for this release. First, Cellar Music group’s leader Cory Weeds was in the process of reissuing 49th Parallel, originally issued on Concord and Swainson felt it was time to do something in a similar vein. Secondly, at a Bamfield, British Columbia ‘Music by the Sea’ concert performance he was impressed with the tenor-trumpet coupling of Kelly Jefferson and Brad Turner, which he described as having a “magical quality with phrasing and sound unlike any trumpet/tenor combination he’d heard before.” As stated, Swainson has long been a fan of the sound dating to the ‘50s bands of Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver (as evidenced by his own tune here dedicated to the pianist, “Silver Mine”). Swainson had played with all of these quintet members previously but never together. Weeds arranged a live performance at North Vancouver’s beautiful Kay Meek Arts Center. Swainson sent the challenging charts ahead and as he says, “…there was no stress. We just sailed through the gig and the recording.” To clarify, this is not a live recording; the studio sessions followed the live date.
As you might guess, it was the wildfires in the summer of 201, especially those in Okanagan Valley, fires viewed by the leader who was airborne at 2000 feet, that inspired the title track. Consequently, it moves briskly with solos from the horns, Rosnes, and a brief bass-drum sequence to take it out. The delicate balladry of “Fool’s Gold” rather quickly presents Swainson’s robust plucking along with melodic lines from Jefferson, Turner, and Rosnes while Swainson’s pizzicato bass intro sets the swinging pace for “Cascades” which has the quintet locked in full throttle. The pace retreats for “Stand Back,” another uplifting ballad that characterizes Swainson’s compositional style.
“Fell Among Thieves,” another pensive piece, featuring Jefferson and Rosnes, references a biblical parable that Swainson relates to “wonderful” people he has known who fell into difficult company and circumstance. Listen to how Swainson precisely fills the spaces with his robust bass notes. Rosnes is especially elegant in her solo here, in all a remarkably gorgeous piece. The expansive “Kyushu” reflects Swainson’s time spent on this Japanese Island, as the music evokes cool breezes, breathtaking scenery, and energetic activity. “Late Afternoon” moves at mid-tempo, as if to suggest that it’s time to relax, with Turner the first to eloquently state the melody, followed by the leader, who passes it back to the trumpeter with Jefferson then delivering his trademark low register solo, and Rosnes’ glistening keys – sublime stuff indeed. “Near North” follows, another strong one for Rosnes with Turner then dancing on top of her comping before passing the baton to Swainson who comfortably struts forth before Turner rejoins. “Gone Away” keeps the introspective, moreover a melancholy mood, intact with a restrained trio rendering before the horns harmonize around the three-minute mark. This sets up the most swinging tune of all, the soul-jazz strains of the aforementioned “Silver Mine” with Jefferson and Turner blowing with abandon, bringing the set to a somewhat symmetrical close with bookend burners capping mostly a mix of ballads and mid-tempo tunes in between.
Let’s hope we hear again from Swainson sooner than later. His compositions are precious.
- Jim Hynes