Qualm Before the Storm: Steve Swell’s Kende Dreams
A patina of anticipation hung over 40 intrepid music-lovers on Friday the 13th, as Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares assembled at the Northampton Arts Trust to witness the last concert of a small tour by Steve Swell’s Kende Dreams. The typical pre-concert buzz of excitement was overlaid by mild dread in the face of the uncertain arc of the gathering pandemic. As we awaited the performance of Swell (trombone), Rob Brown (alto saxophone), William Parker (bass) and Michael T.A. Thompson (drums), there was a dawning realization that this might be the last live music any of us would hear for some time. For someone whose passion and purpose is bringing together world-class artists and open-minded audiences, it was an evening filled with swirling emotions. Perhaps it was that sense of impending qualm, mingled with our love for the music, that produced the palpable intensity and beauty we heard on stage.
When Silkheart Records offered Swell the opportunity to record an homage to Béla Bartók in 2014, his research led him to Hungary and the kende, the spiritual leader of the Magyars, who lived in the region before the founding of the Hungarian state. The kende served in a dual-monarchy with the gyula, or war-chief. (Unsurprisingly, all power was later usurped by the gyula.) When Kende Dreams performed at Hampshire College in September, 2016, the band was reeling from the recent death of their beloved pianist, Connie Crothers. This time, the musicians were staring into a future of canceled gigs and lost income.
In 1997 Fred Ho told us to Turn Pain into Power! (OODiscs), and Swell’s quartet did just that. They played with the conviction that comes from decades on the front lines of cultural production; they advanced the music with a righteous authority. Their 80-minute set brimmed with feelings of all kinds.
Brown and Swell have played together regularly since 1994, when they met in Parker’s famed Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra. They have built an amazing rapport, not only finishing each other’s sentences, but able to talk and listen at the same time. Their interplay was so seamless I sometimes heard them as one instrument. During recurring moments of high energy, when I sat inside their throbbing cacophony, I was convinced it was the calmest place in the world.
We saw Michael T.A. Thompson at Augusta Savage Gallery last year, in a delicate recital with violinist Jason Kao Hwang. This March 13th concert provided a fuller picture of Thompson’s impressive drumming. He was given lots of solo space, which he filled with forceful intelligence. The drum solos I like best have a clear scaffold of motifs to serve as points of departure, signposts used to tell the story. Thompson’s solos had that architecture. His brief use of harmonica lent a soothing, slightly mysterious air to the proceedings; when Swell joined playing plunger mute, the passing colors had a cleansing effect.
The compositions were all Swell’s and they guided us through moods of deep reverence, agitated indeterminacy and off-the-ground elation. Their full throttle, swinging unison passages were thrown into even greater relief by earlier periods of muted introspection.
Seeing William Parker so soon after his Feb. 27 appearance with Gerald Cleaver and David Virelles was a joy and a comfort. Over dinner, the droll godfather of the avant-garde reveled us with stories of his colorful Lower East Side neighbors, including Horizontal Man and Hot Dog. His anecdotes and his unflappability boosted my spirits, and maybe my immune system. His unaccompanied bass solo was impressive, not for its technical brilliance, but for its slow unfurling of a resonant sound world that enveloped us, and, if only for a moment, made us forget the madness.
It just so happens this Northampton concert, and earlier ones at Rhizome (Washington, DC), Keystone Korner (Baltimore) and Bop Shop (Rochester, NY), were supported by Jazz Road, a major new grant program administered by South Arts. Swell likened the four stops to “European style touring,” meaning the musicians could make some actual money. The irony that this brief taste of decent pay will be followed by a precipitous, virus-induced drop in income is cruel. This will cause real harm to artists and the citizens they serve. But jazz musicians, having always existed in the gig economy, are rarely surprised when things go from bad to worse.