At just over 50 years of age, drummer Bill Stewart must be nearing first place as having the most recordings at the top level of modern Jazz. The number of drummers who possess an instantly recognizable style is not large: Roy Haynes, Ed Thigpen, Max Roach, and Paul Motian are prominent examples. Beyond their astounding mastery of time and pulse, these drummers are often praised for “musicality,” a redundant term for a musician, by which is meant a melodically-complex expressiveness. While the treatment of time speaks to the body, their percussive figurations make us want to hum along with the drums, or better yet, to get pen and paper and transcribe the paradiddles into the tunes they were meant to be.
The first time I heard Bill Stewart was on John Scofield’s 1993 recording Hand Jive. Scofield is all about simple grooves on this hard-swinging and danceable record. The second track, Dark Blue, features a minimal blues hook, the smallest melodic idea that could justify the term “head.” While the laconic front men prod the tune along, Stewart has a much fun as any drummer fancying up the rhythms in a dozen different ways. As it happens, Scofield’s best recordings depend highly on Stewart’s kit work.
A close examination of his technique, reveals that the clarity of Stewarts lines are linked to tremendous hand velocity, delivering whole ideas, sonically diverse, one giving way to the next with playful rapidity. One sees this in recording after recording: division of hands, layered melodic notions, fanciful and surprising figures in response to the musical moment. It is cleverly inventive, occasionally distractingly excessive (on some of the more cerebral piano trio outings), but always entertaining.
In Band Menu, we see the drummer’s name in slightly bigger font, framed by Walter Smith III on tenor and his long time collaborator Larry Grenadier on bass. There is a wonky food theme in the presentation: a plate with a single-pea, a nightmare menu as liner notes and some inspired “fork art” on the back. (Kudos to the album designer.) The set includes seven tunes by the leader, along with one by Smith and one by Bill Evans, Re: Person I Knew, which strongly references Paul Motian.
The title track unfolds with a deliberation of whole-notes. It is the first indication that the energy of the session will not spill out of the horn of Walter Smith III. Earlier experiences with this impressive musician inclined me to expect melodic deconstruction and leaf-blower vehemence, but that is not in evidence on this session. Perhaps in his new pedagogical role, he has turned towards a clarity of logical exposition. In fact, his playing throughout the session is rewarding, alert and expressive, but decidedly self-effacing in the interest of letting the drums occupy center On the well named F U Donald we might expect either Shostakovich-style horror or incendiary rage, but instead, we get something closer to Mingus-like snideness and sarcasm–the universal taunt inflection on the saxophone supported by a whirl of changing figures from the sticks. If the tune falls short of the genius of Fables of Faubus, it at least is a worthy demonstration of percussive athleticism as well as a shoe flung in scorn at the horrible adversary.
Re: Person I Knew is a signature Bill Evans ballad, a real tear-jerker. Smith and Grenadier shine in legato unisons. The trio achieves the whisper and hush without getting mawkish. Four originals follow this stand-out performance. These are quirky tunes with riotous and always inventive drumming. Huge quarter notes from the bass and a fantastic rapport make this a fun ride. Invocation stands above the others for shimmering cymbal work which matches the perfection of Walter Smith’s balladeering. The trio sets a high standard on this piece.
On a couple of tracks, the sax gets stranded on longish drum solos riffing maddeningly in a loop. Modren is driven along by a stupendous many-handed percussion storm but becomes frighteningly neurotic. The flogging seemed much longer than the stated 4:37. Apollo, penned by Walter Smith, reminds one of stately Coltrane tune, circa 1961. Stewart wields brushes but is up to his usual tricks, a continual stream of shift, ebb, flow and swirl without losing track of the time. It is a masterful performance and a record-breaker for number of notes played by a single instrument: the drums.
A very enjoyable recital ends with the clever Think Before You Think. Here we are in bebop territory. Grenadier takes a well-deserved solo after the brief but snazzy head. The leader has become an octopus by now, all eight sticks hitting everything in sight. The saxophone holds up the thinking part and orders a longish set of “fours” which shows just how unbelievably tightly the unit performs. It is a stirring piece, exuberantly playful yet constrained by heroic technical discipline that could be equaled by few groups. This recording makes a big statement of what is possible on a drum-kit. It also represents a first-rate effort by an outstanding trio ensemble.
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