For his 11th release, drummer/composer Bill Stewart joins tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and bassist Larry Grenadier on the ironically titled Band Menu. The literal menu listed on the CD’s inner sleeve offers such dishes as “Hand Rolled Drum Rug with Perspiration Reduction,” “Pickled Jazz Stalwart,” and “Pay Your Dues Fondue.” Stewart is both a clever drummer and a cunning wordsmith.
Similarly, his latest batch of tunes reflect the cerebral mindset of a drummer for whom John Scofield unsparingly uses the word “genius.” The performances on Band Menu are understated, but Stewart, Smith, and Grenadier’s approach catches up to you slowly and then knocks your socks off. The slowly unfolding title track opens the proceedings, Smith tracing a delicate melody under which Stewart drops dry bass-drum bombs, chopping rim clicks, hi-hat permutations, and articulate ride cymbal work. “F U Donald” ratchets up the pulse with forward-motion eighth-notes, as Stewart punches, carouses, swings, and generally fingers the pulse like a confident masseuse applying pressure points for pain and pleasure. The trio unleashes a bruising swing-to-Afro-Cuban juggernaut in the up-tempo “Good Goat,” with Smith blithely riding Stewart’s whirlwind.
The trio plays with such calculated understatement, keeping power in reserve, that it’s easy to miss the virtuosity on display. The flick of a wrist, a gentle string run, loudness levels to the lower end of the range—all contribute to a sizzling trio outing as cohesive as it is dynamic.