Over the past 15 years Bill Stewart distinguished himself as one of the most audaciously creative soloists and reliably swinging drummers on the scene. His own recordings as a leader-two overlooked, out-of-print Blue Note gems in 1995's Snide Remarks and 1997's Telepathy-also revealed him as an accomplished composer-arranger with an ear for advanced harmonies along with a penchant for both somber beauty and giddy humor. Recorded in 2002 by the late David Baker, Keynote Speakers is the drummer's most idiosyncratic, musically diverse and fully realized statement to date.
Joined by Kevin Hays, who alternates between piano and electric piano, and Larry Goldings on Hammond B3 organ, Stewart's trio runs down 11 of his originals and one highly deconstructed version of the Comden-Green-Styne jazz standard "Just in Time." The surging opener, "Good Goat," has Hays playing spiky electric-piano tones through a ring modulator while Goldings supplies insistently walking bass lines and Stewart swings out in typically assertive and interactive fashion. The two keyboards then switch roles, with Goldings burning a blue streak on B3 while Hays layers on dense chordal clusters and intricate contrapuntal lines. "How Long Is Jazz?" is a bluesy vehicle for some greasy soloing by Goldings, while Stewart showcases his adeptness at loose, lazy N'awlins second grooves on the funky, Metersesque "Don't Ever Call Me Again." The raucous, free-form "Enjoy It" is a more of a tongue-in-cheek dare to listeners than an open invitation, while on the other end of the dynamic spectrum they summon up dark, Zenlike delicacy on the funereal "Chorale."
Elsewhere on this highly eclectic outing, Stewart reveals a decided Monk influence on "Divine's Intervention," then showcases his mastery of metric modulation along with his signature swing factor on the adventurous, early Weather Report-like "Squid." He paints in somber tones on "Ballad of Kae," gets experimental on the time-shifting "Florgan," then has some fun on "Wayne Cooler," which has Goldings and Hays engaging in spirited exchanges on piano and electric piano while also triggering wacky samples and whistling. Stewart also displays his considerable drumming skills on the vampish closer, "Haze," which has him traversing the kit with aplomb.