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Bill Stewart: The Tie That Binds

Bill Stewart
Bill Stewart

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.

Stewart has earned the fierce respect of these and other colleagues. “Words can’t express how much I admire his drumming,” Scofield wrote in his liner notes to EnRoute, a live trio record issued on Verve in 2004. Metheny, speaking to the Austin Chronicle in advance of a similar release, Trio Live, was just as kind: “This guy’s a bottomless pit of ideas. He’s thrilling to be on the bandstand with. He’s not just one of the best drummers, but one of the best musicians I’ve ever been around.”

That last formulation-not just a drummer; a musician-comes up often in appraisals by Stewart’s various associates. To some extent it’s a useful distinction, awarding credit where it’s due. But even on the heels of Incandescence (Pirouet), his second album of new compositions for a distinctive trio with Goldings and Hays, Stewart occupies his stature partly because of a true-blue commitment to his craft. While perhaps accurately understood as a musician’s musician, he has never stopped being a drummer’s drummer; his example underscoring that there can be laudable rigor in both ideals.

One week after the stand with Hays, Stewart is sitting in a tiny dressing room at Jazz Standard, awaiting the opening set of yet another trio gig. The bandleader this time is guitarist Peter Bernstein, and the bassist once again is Weiss. Both musicians have known Stewart since he first hit the scene in the mid-1980s, and they manage to work with him, in one setting or another, with a fair degree of regularity.

At this moment their sound check is faintly audible from backstage-the tune is “Brilliant Corners,” by Thelonious Monk-while Stewart is talking about his role in the band. Or any band, really. “I’m always thinking of ways to orchestrate what’s going on with the music,” he says, “and trying to find ways to make it sound different each time, while still serving the music as a whole.”

Stewart, who has lived in the same Brooklyn apartment for nearly 20 years, is a thoughtful but hardly voluble conversationalist, giving the impression of an acute yet guarded wit. This summer the Zildjian Company introduced its second run of K Custom Dry Complex ride cymbals, designed with his consultation, and the tonal attributes of the series seem particularly apt. Stewart is a dry and complex kind of guy.

Don’t mistake reticence for passivity, though, certainly not on the bandstand. “Obviously I’m listening to the other people in the band, and contributing things,” he says on the subject of interplay, “and leading the way sometimes with new ideas, and hopefully things that make others play differently as well. It’s not always listen and react. Sometimes it’s jumping in there and shaking things up a bit.” A pause. “When things seem to need, um, shaking up.” He allows himself a laugh, self-conscious and quick.

Stewart does his share of journeyman work as a sideman, but he seems to better savor the vibe of a working group. “With people that I’ve been playing with for a while, I feel more confident about what I might do, and maybe more confident about taking chances,” he says. “When I go on a gig with new musicians, I try to get to that point quickly.”

He frowns for a moment, reconsidering. “I don’t know. … I think chemistry among musicians, in most cases, is pretty apparent right away. But I have had experiences where I’ve played with someone for the first time and then it did get better later. So that can happen too.”

The set with Bernstein and Weiss, drawing heavily from the Monk canon, will go on to illustrate the depths of a proven rapport. Before the gig, Stewart’s bandmates take a moment to articulate what he brings to the table, from their perch at the club’s back bar:

Weiss: [immediately] “He makes it easy. That seems to be one of his first things, not playing a bunch of bad shit, although he does that too. His thing is about making everyone comfortable, making it feel good. It’s always been that way.”

Bernstein: “From the start-we’ve all known each other since ’85 or ’86-Bill had the blend of being solid and at the same time as far out on the high wire as you can be.”

Weiss: “Being able to push everyone a little bit, too. I remember in school, he always wanted to check out different forms, try different ways of playing standards. We did a lot of sessions like that. Some of it would be cool and some would be a miserable failure.”

Bernstein: “He’s a musician who plays the drums. There are a lot of great drummers out there, but Bill is a total musician. He hears everything that’s going on.”

Weiss: “And just his grasp of tempo. Set a tempo on a song, he’s got this feeling of it that’s very unique. You just get used to that: you play with Bill for a week and then you go play with someone else, and it’s like, ‘Wow, that was really something special.'”

Bernstein: “He can make every band sound like a band. He makes the music tighter, but in a good way, not a restrictive way. In a cohesive way.”

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, in October of 1966, Stewart had limited access to a local jazz scene in his formative years. Not that this was much of a hindrance. “I grew up in a very musical household,” he explains. “My dad was a trombonist and also taught instrumental music in schools. My mother was a choir director, and my grandmother taught piano lessons. So we had a lot of music around the house.” His interest in drumming came after his general interest in the music, when he began to play along with his father’s records.

For about six months during his high school years, he held down a bar gig with a Top 40 band. “So I was playing five or six nights a week, two or three sets,” he says, remembering a wedding-worthy book that included Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” and Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue.”

Meanwhile, he was absorbing jazz influences, including a coterie of drummers whose styles lurk somewhere within his own: Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, Philly Joe and Elvin Jones. At no point, he says, did he ever fixate on one source above the others. (And for the record, his broader list would surely include dozens more.)

Stewart spent one year at the University of Northern Iowa, followed by a more fruitful stretch at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Among his drum teachers there were Horacee Arnold and Eliot Zigmund; his other instructors included bassist Rufus Reid, pianist Harold Mabern and, auspiciously, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano. He also connected with musicians in his peer group, both in school and beyond.

“The amazing thing to me about Bill,” says Hays, who first called Stewart for a no-pay gig at a sushi restaurant, “is that he had that Bill-ness from the beginning. You could hear the Tony, you could hear the Roy, but he really put it together in his own way.”

Goldings met the young drummer around the same time. “Initially I was intimidated by him,” he attests. “In those days especially, he wasn’t quite as social as he is now. He’s really come out of his shell. Back then he had this reputation as someone who had locked himself in a practice room for 12 hours a day. I had an idea that his playing was going to confuse me. What I quickly found was that even though he was very advanced, especially in terms of polyrhythm, there was always this great clarity about his playing.”

The Bernstein-Goldings-Stewart band quickly became a staple of the low-rent New York scene, forging a sound that alluded to classic organ trios from a non-idiomatic perspective. Their weekly gig uptown at Augie’s (now Smoke) became a hang. “We played there every Thursday night, and passed the hat around for money,” Stewart says.

One night at the club, there was a surprise visitor: Maceo Parker, the charismatic alto saxophonist famous for his long association with James Brown. He was in town to make a record, and a last-minute cancellation had intensified his need for a drummer. “I think the recording engineer, David Baker, was the one who said, ‘You should check this guy out later tonight,'” Stewart recalls. “So Maceo came and sat in. We were on the sidewalk out front, and he said, ‘Can you do a record with me in two days?'”

The result, Roots Revisited (Verve), was among Stewart’s earliest commercial recording sessions. Its sound spanned funk and modern jazz, underscoring the commonalities between them. Stewart handled the gig with enough authority to land a place in Parker’s touring band, and on the album’s sequel, Mo’ Roots. (He also had the chance to back James Brown on a 1991 HBO special, shortly after the Godfather’s release from prison.)

But Stewart wasn’t looking to be a funk drummer, and the records he made with Parker capture only a single facet of his talent. He functions better in a looser groove environment, which is one reason why the call from John Scofield was so fortuitous. At that time one of the anchors of the Blue Note roster, Scofield had produced Landmarks, a 1990 release by Lovano that marked another of Stewart’s first record dates.

“I loved playing with Maceo and it was a great experience for me,” Stewart says. “When John asked me to join his quartet, that was maybe more the kind of music I had been preparing myself to play.” With some understatement, he elaborates: “It played more into my hand as far as what I could bring to the table.”

The John Scofield Quartet was one of the finest working jazz groups of the 1990s, and it showcased seemingly all of Stewart’s strengths as a drummer. It was a groove-minded band with soulful undertones, but also an adventurous postbop outfit steeped in modern harmony. The interplay between Scofield and Lovano presented a flexible frontline dynamic, and the openness of the rhythm section created a wealth of possibilities for texture. Consult the band’s first album-Meant to Be, with Marc Johnson on bass-and you’ll notice that everything already works seamlessly. Or track down a bootleg called John Scofield Quartet Plays Live, and listen to the expressive drumming on a track titled “Stranger to the Light.” The press rolls and chattering hi-hat are vintage Stewart, and so is the temperament of his solo, which manages to feel both logical and startling.

The appointment with Scofield ensured a new profile for Stewart: In almost no time, he became jazz’s consensus pick for up-and-coming drummer, winning polls and acclaim. His ease within the Scofield band, which came to include the late bassist Dennis Irwin, extended to a number of other settings, eventually including his own.

Stewart had already made one solo album for a Japanese label-Think Before You Think, with a group that notably included Lovano and bassist Dave Holland-but the follow-up was his breakthrough. Snide Remarks, issued on Blue Note in 1995, found him leading a quintet with Lovano, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist Bill Carrothers and bassist Larry Grenadier. And in addition to showcasing his steady hand as a bandleader, the album exclusively featured Stewart’s original music, with results that reflected his interest not only in jazz composers but also modern classical masters like Messiaen and Ravel. It was an accomplished, resourceful and subtly ambitious record; in the New York Times, critic Peter Watrous named it one of the Top 10 albums of the year.

Still, whatever the impact of Snide Remarks-and its 1997 sequel, Telepathy, which enlisted two saxophonists, Steve Wilson and Seamus Blake-there was a good deal more work for Stewart as a sideman than as a leader. His sessionography attests to careful choices, including gigs with Copland (the pianist) and Pat Martino (the guitarist). In 1999, side by side with Goldings, he appeared on a Michael Brecker album called Time Is of the Essence. (The album, a study in groove, also features the legendary Elvin Jones and the powerhouse Jeff “Tain” Watts.) Around the same time, Stewart and Grenadier were tapped by Metheny to form a new trio. Their work together, captured on a studio album, a live release and probably hundreds of shows, was widely hailed for its earthiness, rigor and flexibility.

Meanwhile there was the all-too-occasional flash of Stewart’s own music, as on the Chris Potter album Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside), which opens with “7.5,” one of the snappier tunes from Snide Remarks. (The track, named for its unusual structure, also includes a textbook illustration of a mano-a-mano between saxophone and drums.) When Stewart self-released Keynote Speakers in 2005, it had been eight years since his previous solo release. Incandescence, on a French label, came after a much shorter wait.

On both albums, Stewart leads a trio with Goldings on Hammond B3 organ and Hays on piano-an unusual format, but in some ways a natural one. “It made sense to me, when Bill said that this is what he wanted to do,” Hays affirms. “For one thing, I know that he speaks of Larry as being probably his favorite bass player. But he also knew what he was hearing, and he had a good idea that it would work. It was a pretty ballsy thing to do.”

The potential pitfalls of an organ-piano-drums trio are numerous. There might be overcrowding in the midrange; an unsteady low end, depending on the organ player; a general soupiness within the group. But Stewart, comfortable with the abilities of both his colleagues, focused on the upside. “I was thinking of the instrumentation as something to write for,” he says. “I play piano at home, so I know that writing for two keyboards could be like writing for an orchestra. There are a lot of possibilities there.”

In some cases his compositions, especially on Incandescence, do convey an orchestral fullness. At other moments the tunes feel purposefully skeletal, ready for active interpretation. “Opening Portals,” an uptempo swinger, features some contrapuntal back-and-forth between keyboards; “Four Hand Job,” the latest illustration of Stewart’s wry approach to song titles, begins in a busy unison and then opens into a section of moody abstraction. Harmonically, too, there are unusual touches: “Tell a Televangelist” includes a bridge almost suggestive of Motown soul, which feels surprising every time it cycles around. The title track employs a gently insinuating dissonance, over a long crescendo.

Throughout the albums Goldings and Hays function variously as an acrobatic team and a dialogic pair, managing to avoid crossing signals in the process. “Kevin is one of the great listeners,” Goldings says. “When he hears me laying down a certain texture, he’ll avoid it to create something on another plane, to fill it up in a way that he sees fit. Because I’m playing organ, as intellectual as I want to get sometimes, it’s inevitably going to have to have some of that grease to make it sound like an organ in a jazz context. So you have that strange mix of something that’s swinging but has got this harmonic weight to it, and this sort of Bitches Brew-esque kind of texture going on. It’s unique.”

Obviously both albums make a case for Stewart as a musician, and not (just) a drummer. And yet Incandescence features the ultimate indulgence on a drummer’s record, in the form of “Metallurgy,” a two-minute overtone aria consisting entirely of cymbal work. In a similar vein, it’s perhaps mildly instructive that Stewart had two prominent gigs as a leader this fall: one at the Jazz Gallery, a nonprofit bastion of progressive jazz, and another at the Modern Drummer Festival Weekend at SUNY Purchase. Only one of those occasions was likely to feature queries from the audience about the use of a match grip.

Stewart is well aware that younger drummers look to him as an example, transcribing solos and copping grooves. It’s the fate of any drummer with a style as pithy as his-just ask Roy Haynes, or even Tain Watts. This circumstance leaves him feeling, as he puts it, “somewhat flattered and somewhat embarrassed.” (He doesn’t teach all that often, but every once in a while he meets a young player who has obviously studied his playbook.)

Whatever Stewart’s next move as a bandleader and composer-he professes no immediate plans-there’s sure to be more refinement ahead. Meanwhile, there’s the constant renewal of the bandstand. “I try to listen to the band when I’m playing almost as if I were listening in the back of the room, and try to hear what the music needs,” he says. “It might need me to play something simple, or it might need me to fill up the space. And though I’m tied up with trying to be relaxed and focused and creative, I try to come to the gig with a clean-slate approach. I like situations where it pays off when you can do that.”


Cymbals, all Zildjian:

14-inch K Hi-Hats

20-inch K Custom Dry Complex Ride 2

22-inch K Custom Dry Complex Ride 2 (1 rivet)

24-inch K Custom Dry Complex Ride 2 (1 rivet) or 22-inch K Constantinople Prototype (2 rivets)

9-inch Oriental Trash Splash

Gretsch Drums:

12×8-inch Mounted Tom

14×14 Floor Tom

16×16 Floor Tom

18×14 Bass Drum

Ludwig 14×6 1/2-inch Hammered Brass Snare Drum

Remo Ambassador Drumheads

Zildjian Bill Stewart Artist Series Signature Drumsticks Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).