During his senior year at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Max Swan endured every instrumentalist’s worst nightmare: a broken hand.
The injury, sustained while playing basketball, could have sidelined Swan from music indefinitely. But instead, the jazz player decided to put those six to eight weeks with his cast on to good use.
He played the five chromatic notes he was able to with his other hand, over and over again. Then, he started fiddling with the music engineering softwares on his university-issued MacBook.
He started making beats, and got a MIDI controller keyboard to further expand his capabilities. Around the same time, he started experimenting with an electronic wind instrument.
Those elements helped infuse Swan’s sound from heady, instrumental jazz to a more modern take on the genre infused with R&B and funk. The sounds blend seamlessly in Swan’s work, and it’s hard to tell where one influence stops and another begins.
“It’s not as hard to make music that sounds current as it is to take influences that are deeply personal to you from back in the day ... and to translate them with the technology of today,” Swan says. “To play something from the same soulful feeling, it’s so enabling.”
Swan will play his distinctive style of music at Tellus360 on Saturday. He’ll be joined by a bassist, drummer and three trombone players.
Swan, who still lives in Philadelphia, was raised in Perkasie, Bucks County. His parents were supportive of his musical endeavors as a kid, but emphasized structure. If he wanted to play saxophone in the school band, his mom insisted he attend one-on-one lessons, too.
“I am so thankful that she started me learning from somebody one on one from the jump, because it gave me so much more clarity and understanding,” Swan says.
He found confidence and gratification through jazz competitions. He loved singing too, and participated in his church’s choir. But after singing a solo, his classmates made fun of him.
“It immediately removed any possibility in my mind that I would be interested in singing at all,” Swan says.
So, he focused on playing sax. Singing wouldn’t return to his life in a big way until after college, when he experimented with adding vocals to “So Much Chime."
Audiences were notably more captivated during “So Much Chime” than Swan's strictly instrumental songs. But after devoting so much time to instrumental music, he worried if making such a big musical shift was the right move.
“I don’t want to let anyone down that’s super supportive of instrumental music,” Swan says. “I am too. But when you have words to grab on to, there’s a human aspect to the music that really sticks out.”
He found validation he was on the right path when he was awarded a residency at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. There, he released “Fisherman,” his first album to fully integrate vocals and electronic elements with his jazz background. Swan also hosted the series “Mono//Poly” at the theater, in which he collaborates with other artists. A past participant: Lancaster’s own Tuck Ryan. Swan has collaborated with Lancaster guitarist Andy Mowatt, too.
These days, Swan’s feeling pretty good about where his musical journey has taken him. He’s aware of his tendency to overanalyze, and tries to keep that habit at bay to allow himself creativity without unnecessary doubts.
“Paralysis by analysis is very, very real,” Swan says.
But as of late, he’s had a string of very good days, staying up until the wee hours of the morning and relishing that inspiration while he’s got it.
“I believe I am my best self today making music,” Swan says.