Guaranteed Swahili has attracted ever-increasing media attention since its
inception in the summer of 1995. The band's instrumentation consists of alto
saxophone, tenor (and soprano) saxophone, bass, and drums: producing an open,
vibrant sound that ranges from the lyrical and melodic to the experimental and
abstract. Guaranteed Swahili is influenced by jazz greats, such as Thelonious
Monk and Ornette Coleman, while also incorporating 20th century classical music,
world music, hip-hop, rock, and funk. The result is a unique and accessible
blend of original music and inventive interpretations of jazz standards.
Guaranteed Swahili has performed in Boston with world-renowned pianist Danilo
Perez, at the Karma Club; in New York City at the Fez, Detour and the Knitting
Factory; and numerous other venues throughout the northeast. Guaranteed Swahili
has toured regularly since 1999 throughout the Eastcoast, Midwest and Canada,
in promotion of their three CD recordings: 1999’s self-titled debut, Kewanee,
and their latest release, “Three More Years”(Fresh Sound/New Talent Records).
Highlights from past Swahili tours include performances at the Green Mill in
Chicago, The Dakota Bar and Grill in Minneapolis, The Regattabar in Boston and
the 501 Jazz Club in Columbus.
AllAboutJazz.com, May 2004With music that makes use of saxophone harmonies against a backdrop of free jazz, Guaranteed Swahili’s third release, Three More Years, intricately delivers expressive and tightly knit musical ideas. The piano-less quartet which now resides in New York was formed in 1995 in the vibrant Boston jazz scene with associations with other popular area musicians such as the sax group Dead Cat Bounce and widely known artists Danilo Perez and Joe Lovano.
The first thing that grabs the inner ear is the group’s sound. Though saxophonists Jason Hunter and Eric Rasmussen are the primary soloists, their counterparts—drummer Eric Thompson and bassist Tim Luntzel—are equally impressive. The individual performances are all noteworthy, yet group unity is really what creates the excitement. Each solo performance is accentuated by the other members' contributions, which in turn gives the music a multi-layered sound.
The recording has the feel of an open jam session as musicians layer their instruments on the opening track, “New Diet Revolution.” Things take a more structured turn on the next piece, “Remembrance,” which quietly introduces the theme and then blossoms into different tempos and impressive solos all encased in a third world rhythm. Other selections are more exploratory, such as the free for all “Chad’s Pregnant,” which spotlights exceptional electric bass work and drum kit magic.
Things take a turn towards the dark side on the introspective “Hair on My Pillow,” which combines elements of both harmony and dissonance as the percussion and bass compellingly pushes the theme. Rasmussen and Hunter clearly have a musical bond as they interact with ease. On the reflective “When,” the duality of horns results in contrasting tones that create some interesting balladry. The recording also benefits from exceptional sound quality that further accentuates the group’s noteworthy performance. - Mark F. Turner
Boston Phoenix, Feb 2003
It’s about time ~ Guaranteed Swahili’s crazy eightsThe "pianoless" quartet has always had a special place in jazz — the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, Gerry Mulligan with Chet Baker, and, a variation on the theme, Charles Mingus with Eric Dolphy. Without a chording instrument — a guitar or a piano — these bands have a spareness, almost an austerity. But they also offer tantalizing ambiguity: harmonic structures can be implied rather than stated explicitly. Horn players can engage in free counterpoint without tripping over piano voicings. In Coleman’s case, it meant inventing a whole new language. But even the most mainstream of these bands offer a pleasure that’s among the deepest of abstract art — transforming the familiar into something new that can’t quite be named.
Now come Guaranteed Swahili, the Boston-born quartet with Jason Hunter on tenor and soprano sax, Eric Rasmussen on alto, Tim Luntzel on bass, and Eric Thompson on drums. Although everyone but Hunter currently lives in New York, the band have been together since late 1995, when they emerged from the remnants of the Venus Band, of which Luntzel and Rasmussen were a part, a quartet that had held down a lengthy early-’90s residency on, of all places, Lansdowne Street, in the since-renamed Venus de Milo club, where they drew an avid following of young alt-rockers and music-school kids.
Guaranteed Swahili — with two independently released CDs and a third planned for spring release — have all the hallmarks of their pianoless ancestors. Hunter and Rasmussen are a classic tenor/alto match-up, with an uncommon expressive range. Rasmussen spins out endless skeins of melody in the manner of Lee Konitz, while Hunter’s tenor likes to explore the outer reaches of the chord changes — Coltrane by way of Joe Lovano. Hunter brings to the table the requisite expressive shrieks, split tones, vocalisms, and "false" registers that are the legacy of the tenor-sax avant-garde. But he also has a solid upper register, so he can honk and slither alongside Rasmussen’s melodic deliberations, or they can both take off, Konitz/Warne Marsh–like, on extended flights of airy, lyric counterpoint.
But that’s only the half of it. Rasmussen, as the band’s primary composer, loves to mess with time. Listening to Guaranteed Swahili, you’re aware of a strong rhythmic pulse you can’t quite count. Think of the surge of free jazz organized in a tight metric scheme. Rasmussen will literally write a piece with a different time signature in every bar. The classic tension/release of verse/chorus and key changes is transfigured in rhythm, with the solos arranged to bring out each player’s strengths. Or, as Hunter explains to me over coffee at the Trident Café on Newbury Street, "Eric will get the solo section that has a bar of seven, bar of five, bar of four, bar of three, bar of five — and then I’ll get the solo section that’s like a four-bar vamp in seven and then I can lose my shit and play kind of freely over it."
It’s a tribute not only to Hunter and Rasmussen, but especially to Luntzel and Thompson that Guaranteed Swahili can play this kind of music and have it come off not as a dry academic exercise but rather as highly charged, swinging jazz. Hunter points out that the common denominator even in Rasmussen’s most complex charts is still the eighth note — a guide for both players and listeners.
Another appeal of the band is its work with longer forms. "I’m trying to make a tune longer," says Rasmussen on the phone from New York, "so it’s not the listener hearing a ‘head’ and then five solos on the same form, but trying to have it so you have some material, have a soloist play on that material, have some new material, have a soloist play on the new material." A piece might start out with a rubato section for a single horn and drums, and gradually build to an exultant, bopping unison theme statement by the band. Mystery and narrative surprise abound in this music.
Rasmussen is all too aware of the pitfalls of writing exercises for blowing. "When I first started delving into this music, there was some exercise point to it, like: I want to be able to play in this time signature." He compares it to Coltrane, who "wrote something like ‘Giant Steps’ so he could learn how to play in those chord progressions." But another influence was a teacher who told Rasmussen to stop worrying about writing in eight- or 12-bar units, and instead to use more natural phrases that fit his horn playing. "I’m trying to write singable, hummable melodies that are challenging," he says, adding, "I see people tapping their feet. Or they’ll see me the next day and say, ‘Yeah, that was a really catchy tune,’ and actually whistle some of it back. They don’t realize that it’s a bar of 5/8 going into a bar of 3/4." - Jon Garelick
Cadence, May 2000"The Boston-based band Guaranteed Swahili take their name from an ubiquitious subway ad for a language school. This eponymous debut release features eight originals and one cover with tuneful grooves that start out with a slow simmer and then act as a launch pad for slippery, freewheeling solos by the two horn players. Altoist Rasmussen has a lighter touch, dancing across the thythms with a lithe sense of phrasing. His tone is full and lyrical, and his odd twists across the meters keep his solos full of suprises. Hunter has a darder edge to his playing, particularly on tenor. His darker, burred tone combines effectively with the alto on the tunes' heads, while his soloing has a relaxed swing that tends to hang just behind the beat, creating an elastic tension. Bassist Luntzel drives the music with lines that bound across the drummers's rhythms with melodically forceful energy. Drummer Thompson knows how to keep it all moving while keeping the meters open. He flits across his kit with an understated freedom while alsways managing to lay out flowing rhythms. The four are completely synched, even investing the travel-worn If I Were a Bell with lucid flexibility and evergy. There is nothing startling here. Just solid playing guided by keen listening; resulting in well-wrought ensemble interplay. - Michael Rosenstein
Boston Phoenix"not what you'd expect from a quartet of handsome young acoustic jazzers: rough unison horn lines, tilting rhythms, folk-like melodies more reminiscent of Ornette '59 than Wynton '95." - Jon Garelick
Northeast Performer"Individually and as a group, these guys have been beating up jazz clubs and miscellaneous holes-in-the-wall from Boston to New York for the last 7 years. So when Boston finally decides to have a Jazz Rumble - beware..." -Alan Levesque, Editor-In-Chief
"The Swahilis play three tiered bass-alto-tenor lines, full blown unison ensemble figures, Hunter's sax joins Luntzel's bass and the two play angular backing lines for Rasmussen's solos, the occasional free section wells up from under the structured playing. There is a camaraderie between Hunter and Rasmussen that defies explanation. They are two completely different players with completely different approaches - Rasmussen's jabbing, interactive alto and Hunter's sweeping, idea-barrage tenor - yet each is the other's perfect foil. Playing in unison they achieve a singularity that is beyond just good intonation and phrasing." - Jon Babu
The Indianapolis Star, March 28, 1999"The loose, early-Ornette Coleman feeling of this band can't disguise the tight organization of the tunes. The arrangements and compositions build on the funky Southwestern sound laced with the sort of freethinking eccentricity that Coleman brougt out of Fort Worth 40 years ago. The Massachusetts quartet continues a tradition that commands much interest wherever acoustic jazz thrives: a free-jazz aesthetic harnessed to bop "heads" that seem to spill out as unpremeditated as the solos that follow. Saxophonists Jason Hunter and Eric Rasmussen operate at a level of intense telepathy. They're relaxed but coordinated in the ensembles, and their soloing is complementary: Rasmussen steers the middle course on the alto, with Hunter either above him on soprano or below him on tenor. Tim Luntzel provides a subtle underpinning on acoustic bass, and a precise, cooly flamboyant Eric Thompson mans the drum set authoritatively. Their original tunes are primarily abstract with a blues-funk undercurrent, largely anithetical to pop tunes of any era. That's why it's so much fun to hear them have a go at Frank Loesser's If I were a Bell, with it's introduction parodying the Westminster chimes; it's the only standard, but it fit's right in. - Jay Harvey
3 out of 4 stars.