Yesterday was drummer Bill Stewart's birthday, so I spun several tracks that featured him (not that I ever need an excuse to play his music). He's stylish, funky, adaptable and he continually extracts new colors from the drum kit. Even his swing feel is distinctive, wide and unflagging. Maceo Parker can attest to his sense of groove in soul/funk settings, and his work with John Scofield is evidence of his idiomatic fluidity, readily fusing creative rock with modern jazz. He can also be heard running the gamut with contemporary talents, including Seamus Blake, Kevin Hays, Joe Lovano (one of his teachers from William Paterson University), Chris Potter and Pat Metheny. His longest musical partnership, however, is with one of my favorite units, the Larry Goldings Trio (with keyboardist Goldings and guitarist Peter Bernstein), which has remained together since its inception at Augie's in 1989.
In a recent interview with me, Goldings recounted how Maceo Parker recruited Stewart and him:
It was at Augie's that this very eccentric gentleman walked in and it turned out to be Maceo Parker. Maceo was looking for a drummer for a record he was making the next day! [...] And I just remember Maceo kind of jumping around the room, looking at us at different angles and studying us and smiling and making noises and he loved it, and hired Bill.Before embarking on the tour for that record, Roots Revisited, Parker called Goldings to join the band.
Speaking of funk, Stewart is often thought to have had a brief stint with James Brown but performed with the Godfather of Soul only for one set on an HBO special in the early '90s (though it is certainly a notable performance). In an interview with Mike Brannon for AAJ, the Des Moines native recounts a humorous exchange between him and Brown: "Rehearsing and playing with James had me on the edge of my drum stool. He asked me, 'Drummer, where you from?' I said 'Iowa.' He replied 'Iowa!... Aint no funk there!'"
Beyond Stewart's authoritative grooves, his sophisticated trap-work in jazz settings comes from a truly creative place. When I caught the Larry Goldings Trio last year in L.A., the clutch to Stewart's hi-hat cymbal broke halfway through the first set. Undeterred, he and the band pressed on through the next set and a half, and the playing was as thrilling as ever (he even found some new uses for one of the hi-hat cymbals). Necessity might be the mother of invention, but Stewart's witty approach is always apparent.
Check out some performances of Stewart's at Drummerworld:
Larry Goldings: "Going to Meet the Man" from As One:
Stewart's dry, textured cymbal work maintains the song's forward motion, complementing Goldings's swirling organ colors. It's a waltz, but the vamp figures are in the B3, so Stewart's contribution is more than "playing time"; his patterns move across bar lines, joust with the organ and guitar and often take on a life of their own.
John Scofield: "Wee" from EnRoute:
You get a pretty concise feel for Stewart's groove and palette within the first couple minutes of this tune. Around the 0:45 mark, the repeated buzz he gets from pushing the stick lightly on the snare drum struck me as a classic Stewartism, and he milks the idea just enough to keep you interested without exhausting it. His fills throughout the tune have their own dynamic range, swelling and subsiding, accenting the tension and release. Trading fours with Steve Swallow, his ideas often straddle bar lines, once again, and suggest a greater pulse than the "time" we already perceive. His ideas are spontaneous but there's a larger sense of architecture to them, as well.
Larry Goldings: "Why Don't I?" (Live video):
This is a Sonny Rollins number the trio frequently plays at their shows. Stewart is as much fun to watch as to hear -- more tricks with superimposed rhythms in his solos, tasty cymbal work and his dynamic range makes him all the more expressive.
Check out more mp3s and another video at the Drummerworld website. YouTube has some choice clips, too, particularly Pat Metheny's "Lone Jack" and Kevin Hays's "Stellar," though the latter doesn't have a good view of him and the former doesn't have any drum solo.
He also has a handful of albums as a leader:
Think Before You Think