Chris Swansen ‘Album II’ (Badger, 1975)

Not long after Wendy Carlos officially ‘Switched-On’ the world, Bob Moog and a collection of electronic music pioneers gathered in the gardens of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to stage the first live performance of the Moog synthesiser. It was late August, 1969 – the instruments were barely ready and the ground was damp from rain. Into this high-pressure scenario stepped Chris Swansen, Moog’s composer-in-residence, who had been with the company less than a year. With onlookers sitting in trees and climbing the walls for a look, Swansen and his cohorts (including future guitar legend John McLaughlin) made synth history.

A graduate of Dartmouth and Berklee, Swansen had earned his chops by studying with musical luminaries such as composer Aaron Copland and playing with jazz artist Stan Kenton.

According to Albert Glinsky’s Moog bio, ‘Switched On’, Swansen turned up at Moog headquarters in Trumansburg, New York one day and took to the switchboard-sized Moog modular “like a duck to water”. He was hired instantly.

Fast forward a few years, and the tracks that Swansen had been accumulating inside the company studio were released on his own Badger Records label. While his first album, 1972’s ‘Pulaski Sky’, showcased his facility with the behemoth modular, and leaned slightly more towards his jazz roots, it’s the follow-up where Swansen really began to stretch out.

I wound up diving headlong into the simply titled ‘Album II’ during a recent road trip to visit the site of that original Moog factory in Trumansburg. Beginning with the groovy, Steely Dan-meets-Radiohead piece ‘Moondog, Can You Hear Me?’, the record quickly presents more of a pop face than that of its predecessor.

Of the several cover versions included on it, tracks like ‘Try To Remember’ (from the 1960s musical, ‘The Fantasticks’) get such subtle treatments that they create a distinctly different resonance. Even when tackling something as iconic as The Rolling Stones’ ‘Bitch’, the nuances that Swansen builds in show off his immense skill when it comes to arranging.

What’s perhaps most impressive, though, is the variety of sounds that he manages to coax out of his gear. Stacking monophonic parts to the heavens, as on his take of Michel Legrand’s ‘Once Upon A Summertime’, is stunning.

Despite being at ground zero with the original incarnation of Moog, Swansen is a name largely known only to the most dedicated enthusiasts. He died from a brain tumour in 1995, and sadly didn’t get to experience the analogue synth revival that encompassed the brand he played such a big part in shaping. Luckily, Brian Kehew of The Moog Cookbook lovingly remastered both albums for CD in 2014, so 21st century fans don’t need to spend a fortune searching for original pressings.

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