Probably the most underrated aspect of Steve Swallow’s music is the joyously puckish attitude he sneaks into many of his compositions. The dozen Swallow originals comprising Into The Woodwork are highlighted by this slightly giddy elegance, which has become his secret weapon. An electric bassist of modest temperament, refined taste, wry humor and a thirst for adventure, Swallow can’t help but mess around with the conventions of exquisite chamber music or technically adroit jazz-rock fusion. That’s how he comes up with the faux-melancholy of the perfectly-named “Sad Old Candle,” a bruised tone poem that flickers and forges ahead, shadowed by the smoke — in the guise of gentle cymbals — of drummer Jorge Rossey. On the flip side, “Unnatural Causes” is a bridled jazz-rocker containing spirited solos from saxophonist Chris Cheek and guitarist Steve Cardenas.
The fifth member of Swallow’s quintet is his longtime partner in music and love, Carla Bley, herself a formidable composer. Her swirling organ is the blood of this record, continually nourishing as it permeates the body of these songs. She sounds like Gregg Allman setting up a solo for brother Duane (it is Cheek’s sax instead) on the title track, twirls a curlicue circus riff against Rossey’s jackhammer drumming on “Back In Action,” and skulks around with Swallow’s bass on “Grisly Business.” But mostly, her even flow (no sudden burps or harsh chords) is perceptive and enriching for the ensemble tone and harmony.
Swallow rarely solos, coming closest on an extended duet with Cardenas on “Suitable For Framing” — another inspired title, since nary a note seems out of place. These evocative, winsome songs are his chief contribution. The best one, in which all five members graze against each other’s unpretentious goodwill in a seemingly effortless flow, is called “Still There.” After more than 50 years of strumming and plucking, the same can be said for Steve Swallow.