In 1981, Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist and, at that point, world’s foremost interpreter of the music of J.S. Bach, rerecorded the composer’s Goldberg Variations, an aria and collection of 30 adaptations with which Gould had begun his recording career in 1955. As the 1981 recording would be Gould’s last, these two highly variegated interpretations, like two friends (to invert a Paul Simon lyric), bookend Gould’s career. Conveniently, the presence of this second recording provides an “other,” against which to compare, contrast and, tapping into the most agency-rich impulse of humanity, to look for evidence of growth, betterment, and evolution within Gould’s musical development. Given that the concept of self-determinism and harnessing one’s inner locus of control is a uniquely species-specific impulse, teleologies, “before and afters” and comparisons continue to fascinate.
Neil Swainson, the British Columbia-born bassist, composer and bandleader who has spent much of his life as a dependently brilliant side person for musicians both local (Pat LaBarbera, Don Thompson, Kirk MacDonald) and international (Woody Shaw, George Shearing, Roberta Gambarini), has no intention of making the fine recording his last. That said, a Swainson-led recording is a rarity indeed, and the fact that Fire in the West shares ensemble aggregation, similarly provides revelatory insight into Swainson’s challenging yet decidedly beautiful modern compositions, and offers excellent musical contributions from all principals involved, makes it a wonderful career and sonic analogue to his 1987 recording, 49th Parallel.
“Actually,” Swainson states from his Toronto home, “this recording came about because Cory Weeds was in the process of reissuing 49th Parallel [originally released on Concord Records]. In the process of preparing for that re-release, I thought that it was time to do something in a similar vein, using the same quintet format on some current tunes that I’d written.” Not surprisingly, Weeds was eager to offer Cellar Live as a home for a Swainson’s proposed project, and the two men began strategizing ensemble casting.
Now to be clear, it would be difficult to top the sacrosanct personnel of (late musicians all): Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Gary Williamson and Jerry Fuller, who appear on his first quintet recording. But, as Swainson recalls, it was at a Music by the Sea concert in Bamfield, British Columbia, when he performed with (and first experienced) the unique tenor-trumpet coupling of Kelly Jefferson and Brad Turner. “It had a magical quality to it,” elaborates Swainson, “the phrasing and sound was unlike any other trumpet/tenor combination I’d heard before. Like Woody and Joe, they were better than the sum of the parts.”
A long-time fan of the front-line pairings of the 1950s bands of Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Horace Silver (for whom “Silver Mine” is dedicated), Swainson shaped both his compositions and the blue-chip rhythm section of pianist Renee Rosnes (with whom he’d worked in the 1990s cross border band Free Trade) and Lewis Nash around this stylistic post-bop conception. “For me, that’s a classic jazz sound,” states Swainson definitively.
United in the intersectionality of swing, taste and fantastic playing, yet quadfurcated in the postal/zip code locales of ensemble members (Toronto, Vancouver, Phoenix and New York), it is doubtful that this will be a band that performs together regularly. But, thanks to Cory Weeds, wearing his impresario hat, the quintet came together for a concert (and this recording) at North Vancouver’s beautiful Kay Meek Arts Centre in November of 2021 (having been postponed due to COVID restrictions). “I had met and played with everyone before,” continues Swainson, “but never all together. However, I sent the charts ahead of time, they all did their due diligence on these fairly demanding tunes and, as a result, there was no stress. We just sailed through the gig and the recording.”
With compositional dedications to musical influences (the aforementioned “Silver Mine”), to impactful places (“Kyushu,” a musical reflection of time spent on this Japanese island), to people (“Fell Among Thieves” references a biblical parable that Swainson relates to some “wonderful” people he has known who fell into difficult company and circumstance), this new recording offers a personal glimpse inside Swainson’s musical and compositional mind.
As for the titular track, “‘Fire in the West’ came to me when I was flying out to Vancouver in the summer of 2021. Although we were two-thousand feet up, we flew right through the smoke and over the widespread fires that were wreaking havoc in the Okanagan Valley at the time.” For a part of Canada that—between natural disaster, flooding, and interior burning, not to mention COVID—has been through so much as of late, the fact that this inspiration can manifest into a compelling and important new Canadian jazz record is welcome news indeed.
released August 19, 2022
Neil Swainson – bass
Renee Rosnes – piano
Lewis Nash – drums
Brad Turner – trumpet
Kelly Jefferson – tenor saxophone
Executive Producer: Cory Weeds and Giulio Recchioni
Produced by Cory Weeds and Neil Swainson
Recorded at Pineapple Sound in Langley, BC on November 18th and 19th, 2021
Engineered by Dave Pugh
Mixed and Mastered by Chris Gestrin
Photography by Cory Weeds
Design and layout John Sellards
Renee Rosnes appears courtesy of Smoke Sessions Records
Four-time Juno award winner jazz bassist Neil Swainson was born and raised in the province of British Columbia moving to his
home base of Toronto in the late ‘70s. Over his career he’s recorded on albums with George Shearing, Jay McShann, Walter Norris, and Woody Shaw and performed with Diana Krall, Nancy Wilson, Mel Torme, James Moody, Tommy Flanagan, Joe Williams, Lee Konitz and many others....more