Magical Listening Hour – Live @ Southstreet Seaport (Cadence Jazz Records)
Steve Swell – Planet Dream (CF 148)
While these two new discs from trombonist Steve Swell may exhibit elements of contrasting methodology, at the root of both projects is a somewhat utopian idealism, wherein humanity’s collective process of identifying with sound leads us closer to more harmonious coexistence.
The Magical Listening Hour is the collective improvising quartet of Steve Swell, trumpeter Nate Wooley and saxophonists Louie Belogenis and Michael Attias. Live @ The South Street Seaport documents the ensemble’s first public performance and consists of two lengthy tracks, one just under a half-hour and the other just past the 40-minute mark. The performances are not so much two distinct pieces as related views into a collaborative dynamic that allows for sound to exist in a space with other sounds. Ideas come and go and form is not a matter of executing a distinct architecture as it is a question of allowing sounds to dictate their own life span.
Wooley and Swell have worked together quite notably in Blue Collar, which has released two discs and has a third on the way. Here they continue their inquiry into the sonic extremities of brass instruments, allowing their attention to rest on the various incidental sounds that listeners, and often performers, tend to overlook. Belogenis and Attias are both masters of manipulating reed instruments to conjure new sonic intrigue.
Swell has worked with cellist Dan Levin and saxophonist Rob Brown before in various contexts, but a tightly woven trio environment provides for a very exposed look at how three distinct identities can contribute to a meaningful whole while maintaining individual directionality. Planet Dream forgoes Magical Listening Hour’s concept of experiencing the gradual passage of sound and time in favor of a pursuant drive towards an abstract goal. In this charged trio, the true meaning of the quest is not to reach a finish, but rather to continue to coexist. An excerpt from the liners is illustrative: “One person may have his or her own dream, but when it’s shared and acted upon by others, it no longer belongs to one person alone, it belongs to everyone who shares in it.”
The improvisations are intense, whether on a microscopic plane like the one that opens the title track or the densely maximalist polyphony of Swell’s tune “Juxtsuppose”. The disc is balanced between fully improvised pieces and Swell’s compositions, the ensemble dynamic making for a free-flowing liquidity that ties everything together. The improvisation “City Life” illustrates the conundrum of maintaining one’s distinct identity while contributing to a meaningful group dynamic: Levin’s dynamic solo introduction gradually is overtaken by a forceful ensemble statement, only to reveal a sublime duo for Swell and Brown. The trio returns, transformed, yet with the same ubiquitous consideration for balance and cooperative development.