Nelda Swiggett’s Stringtet
by Steve Griggs, October 2011
Clumps of notes. That’s how pianist Nelda Swiggett describes musical shapes that are the basis of her compositions. But don’t be misled by the word clump. The notes are not dissonant, grating or random. Her music is precise without being dry, clean without being dull, and light without being fluff. The sound is as clear, direct and crisp as the gaze of her piercing blue eyes. And behind those eyes teems a sharp mind that leaves plenty of air within and around those clumps.
Swiggett finds material for composition by improvising at the piano. Her hands strike the keys, she finds pleasing sounds, and figures out harmony and time signature later. But the improvisations do not grow from the blues like much of jazz. Her roots penetrate classical music. “I was a serious classical pianist growing up, and now have my own piano students playing Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. I’m rediscovering all that great music as well. It’s all fodder for the imagination. But everything goes through the jazz filter.”
“My son Dylan became good friends with [Seattle Symphony violist] Rachel Swerdlow’s triplet boys in the Washington Middle School concert band years ago. When I set my sights on adding strings, I realized I had wonderful players right in front of my nose.” Swerdlow and Seattle Symphony cellist Walter Gray were enthusiastic about the project. “We’ve been having a great time sharing our different areas of musical expertise. Rachel is nervous but excited to be playing jazz for the first time. They’re showing me what incredible sounds and textures can be pulled out of the cello and viola.”
The repertoire for the concert will include “Salute Ledru Rollin” from Swiggett’s 2010 CD This Time on OA2 Records, “Last Laugh” and “Tra La La” from her 1999 CD Hands On, plus ten new unrecorded pieces.
For this performance, Swiggett chose to add viola and cello. “I’ve been fantasizing about writing for strings for some time. Once I imagined strings, that was it. I was sure what I wanted to do.
The rhythm section is anchored by Chris Symer on bass and Byron Vannoy on drums. “Chris and Byron have performed my music with me for several years now. They’re both incredibly musical. Have huge ears. They go wherever I go. Can swing hard, but drop to a whisper. That’s why I play with them.”