Picture the late set at Smalls in Manhattan’s West Village on a mid-August evening. Kevin Hays at the piano, rhapsodic and fluid. Doug Weiss on bass, intently attuned. And if the craning of necks can be trusted, a sizable portion of the audience focused mainly on Bill Stewart, whose posture at the drums suggests a kind of statuary: torso at an oblique lean, right arm extended, square jaw set. Wedged into a corner of the sardine-packed room, behind a pillar at the end of the bar, he’s the picture of rigid tension. But his playing enacts an agenda of looseness, at once assertive and adaptable, casual yet precise.
Even if you’ve never set foot in Smalls, you might understand why Stewart is the linchpin of this particular moment. There’s a good chance that you’re familiar with his work. Few drummers within the last 20 years have played as prominent a role in shaping the music, and even fewer have held posts in as many steady working bands. To have missed out on him, you’d have to beg ignorance not only on Hays and his trio but also an imposing assortment of groups led by guitarists John Scofield and Pat Metheny; tenor saxophonists Chris Potter and Michael Brecker; and keyboardists Larry Goldings and Marc Copland.