Steve Swell’s Slammin’ the Infinite brings the high energy on 5000 Poems, a hard-hitting collection of free jazz that bends perceptions and stretches the boundaries of music with fearless vigour.
I’ll admit that 5000 Poems has spent considerable time spinning its way through my speakers over the last week. Its mind-bending construction is a little hard to get into, initially at least, but Swell’s dedication to the freedom of his art turns out to be quite contagious and the experience is a confrontational and confusing one that proves rewarding in the end.
Swell, the leader and trombonist, grounds the rest of the players with surprising discipline and attention to detail. It might be hard to hear reed player Sabir Mateen or pianist John Blum go off on tangents and think “discipline,” but 5000 Poems is actually pretty precise. With drummer Klaus Kugel and bassist Matthew Heyner filling out the rest of Slammin’ the Infinite, the accuracy this band plays with is staggering.
That precision is hardly surprising though, given the fact that Slammin’ the Infinite has been together in all its glorious chaos for the past seven years now. Swell explains that “a steady group gives you an element of the known, but with these guys, I’m not giving up the unknown.”
Undeniably, it’s the unknown that sparkles, shines and shatters all over 5000 Poems.
The name for the record is taken from a Walt Whitman essay and speaks to the notion of reaching that one truly great artistic idea through lots of hard work and hammering away at various concepts. “Farmers after all plant many seeds,” the liner notes explain.
“Not Their Kind” kicks things off with a hell of a sleek melody, providing plentiful foundation for Swell and Co. to tool out some funky improv passages. The track lets Swell belt away with a sharp, raw-boned solo that coolly pulls in some superbly elongated lines.
Elsewhere, “My Myth of Perfection” shows the quieter side of Slammin’ the Infinite. The track builds edgily with slow, plodding precision for nearly four minutes before Swell mercifully interjects with a pressing and abstract bit of soloing.
The band’s interplay is almost always roomy, giving plenty of opportunity for solos and lateral thinking.
Mateen and Swell pull off some swinging duets with little regard for the unbending bonds of grumpy musical “appropriateness” on “The Only Way…Out,” showcasing their pluck as musicians and their energy as human beings.
5000 Poems won’t be for everyone, of course, as free jazz rarely is. The loose, intrepid, liberating playing of Swell’s Slammin’ the Infinite is riveting and lively stuff, though, and this record exemplifies the spirit of musical freedom as well as any other I’ve heard recently.