by Jeff Potter
His appearance on the new John Scofield album marks thirty years of one of modern jazz's great partnerships. But of course that's only part of what he's been up to lately.
When Bill Stewart made his first cover appearance on MD's March 1996 issue, it was clear that he had become more than just an in-demand drummer; he'd arrived as an impactful influence on the instrument. Today the revered drummer/composer/bandleader is enjoying several three-decade anniversaries in his fruitful jazz career. One landmark is his longtime musical relationship with John Scofield. His gig with the star guitarist put him on the jazz map, starting with the 1991 recording Meant to Be. That title couldn't have been more apt: over the past thirty years—with intermittent hiatuses—Stewart has been Scofield's frequent go-to drummer within various band configurations spanning more than a dozen albums and numerous international tours. "With John, I've always felt like I could be myself musically and play the way I wanted to play," says Stewart.
Scofield's latest release, Swallow Tales, revisits his partnership with Stewart and iconic bassist Steve Swallow. The trio lends their remarkable organic interplay to a compelling set of nine compositions from the Swallow canon, including earlier classics such as "Falling Grace" and "Eiderdown".
Another long-term relationship, now surpassing the three-decade mark, is Stewart's inventive co-led organ trio featuring Larry Goldings and guitarist Peter Bernstein, whose most recent inventive release, Toy Tunes, furthers their path in redefining the boundaries of that classic format.
It's also been thirty years since Stewart debuted on disc as a leader with Think Before You Think, followed five years later by Snide Remarks, a recording that proved his prowess as a formidable and progressive composer. His eleven discs as leader have explored diverse band formats, including the most recent, 2018's Band Menu, featuring a sax/bass/drums trio.
As a drummer with a consummate command of jazz styles from straight-ahead to the cutting edge, as well as a flair for finessed funk, Stewart has proven to be a master of responsive improvisation. With his swinging multilayered orchestrations, he offers wells of organic ideas and a keen melodic sense while maintaining deep supportive groove. Besides his own groups, Stewart's brought his skills and taste to the music of Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter, Marc Copland, Joe Henderson, John Patitucci, Kevin Hays, Pat Martino, Lee Konitz, Dave Douglas, James Moody, Nicholas Payton, Maceo Parker, Seamus Blake, Joe Lovano, Don Grolnick, Jim Hall, Lonnie Smith, Dayna Stephens, Renee Rosnes, Steve Wilson, Wycliffe Gordon, and numerous others.
Reflecting on his multiple long-term band anniversaries, Stewart cites the many reasons why these fortuitous relationships have flourished. There is, of course, the practical reason of plentiful work, in addition to the well-matched musical/personal chemistries and consistently high performance standards. But there's a key quality that especially keeps the innovative drummer happily on board. "The music feels different every night, which is important," he explains. "We go for different things in every performance. There are plenty of bands that sound quite good, but don't sound that different from night to night. I definitely prefer that spontaneity." MD caught up with the pioneering drummer via phone at his home in Brooklyn.
Throughout Swallow Tales, there's a strong feeling of spontaneity. On the opening track, "She Was Young," the outro evolves into a long, extended segment that just keeps building. It feels totally unplanned.
I'm happy you felt that way about it. I can tell you, for this record there was no preparation on my part whatsoever. [laughs] The whole record was done in about four or five hours in the studio. And when we did it, I had no idea that it was going to be a record. I thought, "Well, maybe something of it will end up on a record." But I didn't think the whole thing was going to be a record.
It was like a very old-school session, in that we just went in and recorded. John and Steve both live out of the city, a bit north, so I think they got together and went over Steve's tunes, but I didn't join them. I think John sent me what tunes of Steve's we were going to do; I know most of them basically anyway. So I might have reviewed a form or two before the session, then just did it. And there wasn't much talk about takes. Maybe John had some simple instructions at one point or another. But it was mostly just playing, like we do.
One of the great qualities of your drumming that's been repeatedly praised is your sense of clarity—even within complex, layered parts. You'll hear drummers discuss the virtue of playing few notes or perhaps the potential excitement of playing a lot of notes. But the point is lost in defending those differences. Either approach can be great—as long as there's clarity. If the drumming becomes an unfocused wash, the ensemble is sure to follow.
Right. I value clarity in terms of expressing yourself on the drumset. If you play a rhythm on a cymbal, I want to hear what the rhythm is. I want to hear what I'm playing on the cymbal; I want to hear every limb clearly, actually, whether it's a tiny note or a louder note. And if there's one rhythm being played against another, I want to hear that.
I've tried to get a clear sound, but also with some resonance, in terms of the drums and cymbals; I want them to sound rich enough also. Otherwise, someone could get a very dry ride sound and it may be clear, but might not sound pleasant. I've honed my sound over the years, and it's gradually changed slightly, but not a lot. And I continue to work at it.
It's hard for musicians to recognize clarity in the performing moment. I imagine recording also helps—being able to constantly listen back to yourself.
I've learned things from listening back to myself on recordings. But what I'm trying to get better at is hearing it when we do it. That's the thing. Because a lot of people are surprised at how they sound when they hear themselves back. That's because musicians tend to be too wrapped in what's right in front of them, what they are doing.
It's nice if you can hear the overall music while you're doing it. You have to be a little more relaxed in order to do that. Also, when performing, I've been trying to hear the band as if I'm out in the audience, rather than being so involved with what I'm doing at the drums.
And obviously, there's listening involved and thinking about how the drums sound in the overall mix of the music: how dense the music is, who's playing in what register, where the spaces are being left—all these kinds of things can affect the choice I might make. If I hit a tom at the same time a pianist hits a Middle C, I could eliminate their note. A drummer has to be conscious of those kinds of things; that helps with the overall clarity.
Regarding clarity of cymbal choices, you're extremely attentive to cymbal sounds, and you collaborated with Zildjian to create a line. Are those still the central sound of your cymbal setup?
Yes, most of the time I'm playing some of the second line of the K Custom Dry Complex ride series. I still often play the 22" and the 20" models of that. Occasionally I mix in other cymbals. I have an unmatched pair of hi-hats that I've been using for years that are newer Zildjian cymbals.
I've been using a flat ride for a crash as well. I ride on it once in a while, but it's mainly for a crash. I used it on the new record, but I don't really ride on it much; I think I ride on it during a bass solo.
Collaborating with Zildjian, were you trying to nail down a specific sound you were seeking?
I've worked with Zildjian a lot, and it's developed over the years. Paul Francis is the cymbal maker there, and he's been great to work with. I was going for a sound that I had in my head, based on cymbals I had heard or that I own. We were certainly going for an old K kind of tone, but with clarity. Not an old K that washes out on you or one that's harsh. The two lines are a little different too because, on the first line, it was a bigger bell, like an older A bell.
Another long-term musical relationship is the trio with Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein. Your last record, Toy Tunes, is a wonderful example of powerful subtleties and mature, judicial playing.
In fact, that's [my longest-running] relationship. It was in either late '88 or early '89 that we started playing together. We used to play at a place called Augie's [in New York City], which later became Smoke. We played there on Thursdays. For a while we passed the hat, the whole thing. We kept the band going, kept coming back to it over the years. In recent years we've been working a lot, touring Europe and the States. We play our own compositions in the group, which is a nice outlet.
You've sometimes been averse to speaking in great detail about technique. You see it more as a means to an end.
I do believe drummers should work on their technique, but with the goal towards getting a good sound and making music. When I practice, I do work on technique, but I work on things like my left hand, which I feel is my weakest limb. So I work on that: leading that way. Or I work on being even-handed—being able to come out of a figure on either hand—those kinds of things. I think about the tone on the drums, and I work on playing the drums at all different dynamics.
I guess what I don't like so much are the displays of fast chops just for the display itself. That has never really interested me. Tony Williams has great technique, but I don't ever get the impression he plays something for technique's sake; it always has a musical feeling. Even if he's playing a double-stroke roll on the snare drum or a single-stroke roll, it sounds like an opera singer or something. [laughs] It's musical.
Your drumming pays constant attention to the development of ideas. You're a true improviser who responds well to everyone. A musician can have great chops, but it doesn't necessarily make them a great improviser.
That's for sure. Timing is very important for all musicians, but for drummers especially. I do feel it's possible for a drummer to have really good time, some interesting ideas, and have a lot of things together, but if you play those things at the wrong spot in the music, it's not going to work.
As a bandleader, you haven't rested on your laurels. You've explored diverse formats, several of them unusual. You've led the two-keyboards/drums trio with Larry Goldings and Kevin Hays that's featured on Keynote Speakers and Incandescence, the piano-less sax/bass/drums trio heard on Band Menu, and a quintet with a two-sax frontline on Telepathy. Was that diversity largely inspired by a desire to explore as a composer?
Yes, writing for different people and instrumentations can bring out different things. I play some piano, so when I wrote for the two keyboards, that was helpful. But because the piano has a lot of notes available, it was sort of like approaching it orchestrally with two keyboards. It's fun to write for that format, and I'd like to revisit that group again at some point.
And then writing recently for my trio with Walter Smith [saxophone] and Larry Grenadier [bass]—that was a new challenge for me, to write without chords. Because every band I'd composed for before always had a lot to do with harmony—I've always been interested in harmony and chord color—I hired keyboardists that had a lot to say in that area in order to make everything sound modern and varied harmonically, as opposed to sounding like just the normal jazz chords all the time.
You do write with very sophisticated harmonies.
I've tried to keep my ears open, in terms of different sounds. A long time ago I started checking out a lot of different music, not just jazz. If you want to get into harmony, you've got to get into some classical music.
Were there particular classical composers that inspired or influenced you?
It would be hard to point to the exact influences, but I listened a lot to the Twentieth Century composers: anything from Stravinsky to Bartók, Ravel, Messiaen, Satie. Also Brahms, Webern—all kinds of stuff; I still enjoy listening to that.
Also, when I first heard that music, I could connect it to other things that are very influential to me, like the Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony. You hear Herbie's modern harmonies that are extremely varied and sound like things from Stravinsky, Ravel, and others.
Growing up in Iowa, you were attracted to R&B as well as jazz. You've cited Bernard Purdie as a major influence. You certainly got a handle on funk because you were prepared when Maceo Parker suddenly offered you your first big gig.
It was wild how that gig came about. He hired me on the spot for a record date that was two or three days later. [laughs] I didn't have time to review. I had spent several months playing with a Top-40 band in Des Moines called Hip Pocket and also a few other local groups where I played backbeat stuff. And I grew up playing along to records with groups that included Purdie, Harvey Mason, Idris Muhammad, Steve Gadd, Roger Hawkins….
But there's a huge leap from playing with records to driving a date behind a soul legend.
I did my best. I knew some of the James Browns music but not enough perhaps. It's much easier to research that stuff now. You can search any tune at the press of a button.
Well, you obviously hit the mark because he hired you for two more records, plus touring. And lo and behold, you also ended up playing with Maceo behind James Brown on a TV special.
Yeah, I did that one! I only wish I could have played better. [laughs]
I'm sure you learned valuable lessons from the long list of top artists you've drummed with, including a legendary figure we've recently lost, Lee Konitz. [Kontiz died from COVID-19 in April at age ninety-two.]
I was saddened by that, but glad to know he certainly had a great run. I learned something, not necessarily from him directly, but from being in his band. Lee always wanted to play very freely, but also get to tunes somehow. But there was no direction on exactly how to do that. By tunes, I mean standards that he knows and plays over and over again, like "Stella by Starlight." I played with him in late '89. We had a regular Sunday gig at the West End Gate uptown and made a record called Zounds that captures that time.
You learned more about playing free?
I'd played free music before that. But he was the first person I ever played with who would play a whole set and not discuss one song, one tempo, on anything before going onstage. I can't say specifically how I learned within that. But you have to listen really well, and you have to pick your spots; there are points where the music can get boring if someone doesn't do something to shake everyone up. There were some nights I remember where the music would be stagnant for a little too long. I remember Lee mentioning to me, after he'd been listening to some tapes: "If it gets boring, do something!" [laughs]
A good mantra. You've done more than a dozen albums with Scofield. There's a common thread through all of your recordings with him that's also a strong attribute of Swallow Tales: everyone contributes and responds evenly, and every offered idea goes somewhere ensemble-wise. Nothing's wasted.
It's very conversational. I'm playing with people that have really big ears. Their radar is always out to all things, like dynamics, phrasing, and not stepping on each other in conversation—a little similar to being at the dinner table sometimes.
Dynamics are a strong factor in the Goldings/Bernstein trio.
The organ and the drums both have a wide dynamic range. The organ can get really loud in a way that piano can't. And with a quick shift in the pedal, it can be very soft. We use that in that group: the ability to get dynamic range. I can play loud sometimes, and also very soft, like I play with a piano trio. That creates drama in the music. We get into the subtleties of all that.
On that trio's last release, Toy Tunes, that's evident. And the band often achieves something powerful through an understated, hushed groove.
Yes, the subtle things in music are what make it even stronger.
Interview: Brent Keefe DRUMMER Magazine
The renowned jazz drummer Bill Stewart discusses his latest release Space Squid, the art of listening and sticking to musical form.
Bill Stewart is one of the greatest and most creative jazz drummers of his generation. Hitting the New York scene in the 80s, one of his most enduring working relationships hsa been with guitarist John Scofield, featuring on several Scofield albums, including his most recent, Past Present. Other recent recorded appearances include Danny Grissett's The In-Between, Renee Rosnes' Written In The Rocks, Nicholas Payton's Letters, Power Quintet's High Art and Lage Lund's Idlewild. In addition to being an in-demand sideman, Bill has also written and performed his own music since his 1988 solo debut Think Before You Think. Having explored the unusual piano/organ/drums trio configuraton on his 2008 release, Incandescence, Bill returns with a regular piano/bass/sax/drums quartet on his latest release, Space Squid. Bill explained how the latest record was born.
"I had written some new tunes that I wanted to record and I had a gig at a festival in Philadelphia, so it seemed like a good idea to do a recording at the same time. Jason Seizer at Pirouet was interested in recording the group so he came to New York and recorded us. Although I had already written some tunes, as the recording date approached, I needed to write some more music and, with those newer tunes, I definitely had the individual musicians in mind when writing. Any time that I use Bill Carrothers (piano), I keep in mind his skills because he has a unique approach and he's very good at improvising over unusual harmony." I was definitely thinking about how he plays when writing a few of the tunes. Seamus Blake (saxophone) can play anything well and Ben Street (bass) is also very flexible, so I knew it would be cool - and it was.
"In the studio, 'End of Earth', 'Septemberism' and 'Dancing in the Dark' were all done in one take and, although we did more than one take of 'Space Squid', I think I ended up using the first take... but nothing took a long time to get together. 'Paris Lope' probably took the longest to get a take that I thought was good. 'Dead Ringer', which is in five, was one of the more challenging ones but it wasn't challenging in terms of the improvisation section because that's open; it was basically just about getting the written material together. I think we did two takes of 'Dead Ringer' and I used the second."
'Septemberism' is unusual, in that Bill plays a backbeat throughout as opposed to his more usual free flow of ideas. Bill gave us some background on the tune. "'Septemberism' is based on some chords I was just messing around with the night before the session and all I wrote was basically just chords; I didn't have any time or other concept so I just decided to put that 12/8 groove to it on the spur of the moment when we played it in the studio and, to be honest, I tried to play like Bernard Purdie. I'm kind of copping his stuff on there, although I added in some other things as well. I used to play that sort of stuff with Maceo Parker, so I've done that before, but I don't do that so much, especially on my own records."
The title, Space Squid, is also somewhat unusual. Bill explained its derivation. "'Space Squid' is derived from two of my other tunes, 'Space Acres' (from my second album Snide Remarks) and 'Squid' (from Keynote Speakers), so I called it 'Space Squid'. It contains melodic material from both compositions but has chords that are different from either one and it has a different form and groove. The album closes with 'Dancing In The Dark'; I always liked that tune and I had been playing it at home on the piano and also playing the original interlude, written by Arthur Schwartz. In the fake book, the actual tune is on page one but the interlude is on page two and I like playing it as one long form because the interlude is different."
Space Squid features a variety of tempos, time signatures and feels as well as a few of the unusual forms that Bill enjoys, including the seven-bar form of 'Tincture' or the seven-bar bridge of 'Happy Walk'. The variety and programming of an album is an important consideration, he says. "I definitely give that some thought. I want an album to fit together well and I want there to be some variety, for sure. I want people to get a sense of the CD going some different places and I think most of my albums have that. As I got closer to the recording I was definitely thinking of the big picture, and whatever I wrote as that approached was based on considering what material I already had - I didn't want to wriate something similar. It's great to ahve the opportunity to compose and express something that is more how I hear things musically, as I don't always get to do that as a sideman."
Aside from his creative and technical abilities, Bill is clearly a great listener. When he listens back to recordings of himself, does he listen to them critically? "Yes and I usually want to sit down and listen pretty carefully on a first listen but I probably listen to them less critically the second or third time. I always hear things that I wish I'd done a little differently. It could be something about a tempo, if I want it to feel a certain way or maybe I wish I had played more or played less. It totally depends on the music. And of course, I don't want to listen to just myself. I want to hear the music and that's the main thing. I always try and listen to the whole of the music, but sometimes it can be a little challenging not to focus on what you did, when you are first listening to it. But that's the same when I'm playing music too. I'm trying to hear the whole of the music rather than hear what I'm doing with a little music around it."
So is listening the most important thing when playing music? "Definitely, and especially listening to non-drummers. If they like what you play and how you respond and how you make the music happen, they don't care about your technique... unless you're not executing what you are trying to play well - that could be a problem! Listening to what is going on around you should always inform what you play but it's very intuitive and the deepest parts of music are the ones that are hardest or maybe even impossible to teach. It's very hard to exactly put into words how music feels."
So how would Bill try and guide somebody in those areas? "I'd say listen to a lot of music and talk with people about what they hear. Sometimes I've learned things by hearing how other musicians have a different perspective and hear different things in music. To hear someone else's perspective on hearing a band versus what you thought about it is interesting. And you don't always agree on things, of course, but I don't think I'd try to explain it to them. Somebody told me that Roy Haynes was asked a question about music at a clinic and he said, 'Some things you just can't put into words' and they weren't satisfied with his answer, but in a way that was the best answer that he could give. Everyone wants to know the secret and there's no real secret; you just keep working and listening to music and playing music and finding your way."
Bill clearly enjoys and excels at playing over unusual forms. How does he retain the form in his head, expecially while soloing? "I rarely count. I just have to internalise the form of it. Most musicians can feel eight bars without thinking about it, so to feel something else, you just have to internalise it; you have to think about it or play through it and practice the form until it becomes as comfortable as an eight-bar form. Once you do that with several different forms, it becomes easier to internalise a new form quickly. It's just a question of having the form become second nature. Jazz musicians feel a 12-bar blues or 'I Got Rhythm' and they don't even think about it; they know the bridge is coming because it's been repeated som many times that it's just in your head. it's similar to playing odd meters; playing in seven may be hard for some but it becomes more comfortable the more you do it."
So, when presented with an unusual form on an unfamiliar tune that he is required to play immediately, does Bill ever count? "It's possible that I might count through a section but I rarely count out loud. If I'm counting, it's in my head. Usually, if I haven't seen the music before and I'm on the spot on the gig I just have to stay focused on it, but also while reading the music you have to listen too - some people don't listen when they are reading music. I always think, 'What if I didn't have any music and I had to play along with this band?' because when you're playing something new, part of you wants to look at the page and play what's written but there is also the part that needs to listen and react. People who play free music, for example, specialise in listening and reacting."
"So there's that aspect of playing music well the first time too, not just nailing the form because, presumably, other players in the band are also playing the form, so you don't always have to state it. Sometimes I sort of skate by; there are moments when I've lost myself in the music but hopefully it doesn't sound bad!"
Presumably, Bill's harmonic knowledge can also be an asset? "Yes, when reading new music, I like to have full lead sheets. I really don't like drum parts with lots of open bars because I don't know where I am if I get lost. If the chords are there, I like that. If it's a C diminished 7 then I can hear it and go, 'Oh, there it is! That's where we are.' That helps me. If I'm put on the spot on a gig to play a solo on an unfamiliar form then I'd probably be keeping my eyes on the music while I am soloing. I might reference the melody or, if there are some hits, reference something that lets the listener and the other musicians know that I'm not just playing with no form. It lets them know where I am in the form and I would probably try to not get too loose on it, that first time. I might not play the wildest solo and possibly play more time in it."
So how does Bill go about internalising the form? "I usually just have to hear the sound of the song. I listen to the phrasing, the chords and how the tension is in the harmony. If I'm playing a drum solo over this form, then I'm hearing this impression of the song in the background of my mind. It's sort of an impression of the general sound of the chord changes and the vibe of the song, but it has to be not in the forefront of whatever I'm thinking about because I want to be able to play some ideas. The weird thing about drum solos is that they are usually unaccompanied. When everyone else solos, they have chords behind them and then, all of a sudden, it's like, 'Ok drummer, let's see if you know the form.' We do!"
WORDS: GEOFF NICHOLLS
One of the most highly-regarded contemporary American jazz drummers stuns Rhythm with his boundless creativity and reveals some key ingredients of his crisp sound and extraordinary technical range.
Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, son of musician parents and college-trained, Stewart established himself on the New York scene during the late 1980s.He flexed his funk chops with Maceo Parker and James Brown, but soon proved himself a jazz natural with guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Joe Lovano. Simultaneously he began making albums as a leader/composer, adding classical and free jazz influences to his mastery of hard bop. He has since worked with pianists Bill Carrothers and Kevin Hays, guitarists Pat Metheny and Lage Lund, saxophonists Chris Potter and Michael Brecker, plus umpteen others.
Throughout he has sustained a flexible trio with organist/pianist Larry Goldings (James Taylor, Madeleine Peyroux) and guitarist Peter Bernstein (Joshua Redman, Brad Meldau). It was with these two that Rhythm caught Bill at Ronnie Scott's club in January. Unquestionably one of today's most musically intriguing drummers, he is characterised by an exceptionally sharp technique and dynamic awareness. His distinctive woody-clicky ride tone is decorated with the occasional splang from the stick shoulder, a sudden wake-up clacking on his snare and womping of his floor toms. Always maintaining a driving swing, he crosses hands, rhythms and meters while picking out melodic riffs on his bell-like toms.
Bill, watching the Larry Goldings Trio last night, you guys are so at ease with one another.
"Yeah, I've been playing with Larry and Peter Bernstein since late 1988 in New York City at a bar called Augies (today the jazz club, Smoke). Back then we'd pass the hat to get a little extra money, and that's how we got started. But we have kept playing - some years more than others, because we are all busy doing other things. It's a co-led trio. Everybody has songs in the repertoire."
On "Jive Coffee", with your big 5/4 drum solo, the audience would have been happy if you'd gone on all night!
"I was hoping not to overstay my welcome!"
No, it was mesmerising and the fresh ideas kept coming. Many drummers just string their practice room licks together.
"That's right. I try not to do that. I like to take a few ideas, work with them and develop variations on them, instead of the thing many drummers do where they get to their solo and throw the kitchen sink out there, one idea after another they've been working on. And come their next solo they have to play the same stuff. So it's better to conserve your ideas and make more out of them. And it is usually more musical that way too, rather than just a bunch of licks strung together. So I may take one thing that is a lick but find different ways to work with it - change the meter, change the orchestration on the drumset."
"I can take an idea and play if forwards, backwards, on a different part of the set, whatever, to keep it sounding like it is evolving during the music. And also that way you get a sense of motivic development. And it's good to save something for the next tune... and something for the next gig!"
You have a distinctive way of riffing around your three toms while vamping.
"I will play with the left hand on the toms and make a solo out of that. So I am sort of a rhythm section for myself. I'll play the ride in a more or less traditional jazz way, and then my left hand is more the improviser. I get into accompanying myself and then I can do melodic things with toms against the cymbal. This comes from working on that both in the practice room and on actual gigs. Also I feel like that fills up the space in a nice way where I don't have to play a lot of busy stuff on the drums, whereas if I wasn't accompanying myself on the cymbal I would feel like I needed to play more on the drums to make it sound full, not incomplete."
It's musical and there's always a sense of the groove moving forward, whether you are soloing or not. You don't stop and go, "DRUMS!"
"I don't want the groove to stop at the drum solo. If it's swinging, why should it stop at that point? If anything I want to get deeper into it."
I went home last night thinking I'm gonna tune my toms up! Your three always cut through, on recordings and live.
"And without any mics on them. In a club like that you don't need much [close] micing anyway, so overheads are great. Live, mostly I like a couple of overheads and maybe a bass drum mic. We can't afford to bring our own sound man, so with mainly overheads I feel I can control the balance of what is projected."
Do you tune to specific notes?
"No, but I bet they are about the same each time I tune them. On tour I encounter a different drum kit every day, hopefully in the same sizes, and I am used to tuning them up pretty quickly. I usually start with the bottom head on the mounted tom. I tap it, hear where it's at pitch-wise and tune it up to where it needs to be. Then tune the top head. I go 'round all the drums without hitting them with a stick and I can pretty much get them in the zone. It's possible on one gig they are a half step off from the gig last night, but they do come in pretty close to set pitches, except that I am not really going for a B-flat or F or something. Occasionally a drum might not resonate in a certain pitch range, in which case if it resonates better a step away I might do that. But I have an optimimum pitch zone and if it's a good drum then I think I put them in a similar place each night."
Is the bottom head higher than the top?
"Yes, the bottom head is usually about a whole tone higher on the toms, and on the snare and bass drum, a little bit wider range than that, but the same principal."
Your far right cymbal is a flat?
"Yes, a prototype Zildjian came out with called Light Flat Ride. I heard some at a thing they do in New York where they have a get-together for drummers and new products - like a cocktail party with cymbals! I asked [Zildjian R&D director] Paul Francis to send me a really trashy one. A lot of flat rides don't have a crash, or they sound polite. This one really opens up and I used it more as a colour cymbal and to crash, more so than a ride. But it rides nicely too."
And I noticed your hi-hats are parallel.
I don't like tilters. I always have that bottom cymbal flat. I pick cymbals that go well together. They're not a matched pair - the top is a Zildjian prototype from 10 years ago, a bit on the heavy side. The bottom is a lighter, a Special Dry 14", actually a top cymbal which I use on the bottom... somebody may give me a ticket for that [laughs]!"
Your use of matched grip still raises some eyebrows in jazz.
"I started out playing drums when my uncle bought me a set when I was about five. My parents were musicians and my dad [Steve Stewart] was an excellent jazz trombonist and a band director in schools. He probably showed me matched grip because matched was taught a lot to beginners and my dad was teaching kids who were 12 or 13 in Junior High. I did see others play traditional early on. One of dad's best friends was a drummer who played traditional. But matched was easier for me to get into and once I got going with it, old habits are hard to break. They do have different sound tendencies, and with my matched grip I try to approximate some things about traditional in terms of sound."
Matched can imply an all-'round classical percussionist's approach as well. On [pianist] Bill Carrothers' album, Duets With Bill Stewart (1999), I love your impressionistic and free playing, like on "Vito's Dream World", and the unexpected contrast of you rattling away furiously behind the calm balladeeering piano on "I Apologize".
"Ahh, juxtaposition, yes, I know the one you mean!"
So you studied classical percussion?
"Not much. Just in college at the University of Northern Iowa and it was all pretty new to me. For one year I studied, on an alternating basis, snare drum, timpani and marimba."
In your own compositions too, like "Four Hand Job" (Bill Stewart, Incandescence, 2008) I hear European avant garde, while "These Are They" (Bill Stewart, Telepathy, 1997) has a modern classical piano interlude. Is this from your own piano playing?
"It's from a few things. I do listen to a fair amount of 20th Century classical music - Stravinsky, Bartók, Messiaen, Berg, Ravel, Satie. I also like [19th Century] Brahms a lot. I studied theory a little in college. In my writing those influences creep in a bit. But also you may have heard Bill Carrothers improvising something that maybe I didn't write, because he is also heavily into that."
Still you always intended to be a jazz drummer?
"I think that was the way I was leaning, even by the time I got to college. I knew I could work, because at high school I played with a top 40 band in Des Moines with musicians who were much older than me. But I didn't know how specialised I could be, because jazz drums is fairly specialised and there are many who would like to do it, but only a few can, for a living. When I was 18 I went out to the East Coast for my second year, which was a very important move. In Iowa I wasn't meeting many people my age who were into the specialised music I was into. I needed to be around more musicians with something in common, and Paterson College [New Jersey] had teachers I knew about from hearing them on records. I never would have had contact with them in Iowa - and also I met students who were playing at a higher level."
Almost like in the movie Whiplash. Have you seen it?
"No, musicians who have, have told me it's terrible!"
Absolutely. The message seems to be that bullying pays off, and that great jazz is playing stupidly fast and getting blood on the cymbals! Still, you could have been that single-minded ingénue, arriving at college in New York. Was it ever like that for you?
"No! I never found the process of learning and studying music in college and coming to the East Coast gruelling or difficult. Don't get me wrong, I worked hard at it. But it didn't feel like something I didn't want to do. It was something I was really into. So I practised a lot. I guess I knew I had some talent, but I also could hear things I needed to do to get better. I can still hear that [laughs]."
Well you're hugely accomplished now, but do you recall any scary moments coming up?
"Not scary, but I was on edge when I was playing with Maceo Parker's band and he got a call to play with James Brown on an HBO Special  that involved MC Hammer. James had just got out of prison and we rehearsed and taped the show that night. Four classic tunes: "Cold Sweat", "Please, Please, Please", "Get On The Good Foot" and "I Got The Feeling". You had to watch for cues - moves with his hands and feet. Also, I was kind of star struck. I was about 24, and maybe partly because in that style I didn't feel quite as confident as I do playing more open, interactive jazz. I felt I had to play the gig the way it needs to sound. No Bill Stewart thing at all. So that was a time I felt edgy. You had to be alert."
Pretty soon though you were turning heads with John Scofield. I remember being hooked the moment I heard "She's So Lucky" (Hand Jive, John Scofield, 1994) with that sleazy-funky group of four eighth-notes. Are they flams?
"Yes, I think so. I play buzz rolls with both hands and so I can take any rhythm and play it with a buzz. I can play a paradiddle or flam with a buzz on each stroke. Either both ways, or it might all be left-right flams. But I will play any rhythm with that, either with one hand or with both hands to make a buzz roll, so if I play left-right really quickly as a flam it has a length to it and sounds fat. I have heard other people, like Roy Haynes, do similar things with buzz rolls and he is a big inspiration."
I always assumed that you went back to New Orleans.
"John Scofield has a New Orleans influence in his music and I think he wanted something in that direction. Previously, my first record with John [Meant To Be, 1991], had a track called "Chariots" [Watch it on YouTube...] with a similar thing - a quasi-New Orleans snare drum with snare and bass drum played like it's two different players. A vague marching band concept, but I didn't really check out any specific New Orleans tracks for that. I did what I thought might work. It's possible it came out better for not being authentic. First thing, it has to have a groove, and some of those figures I lay back a little and catch up later."
Your drumming has continued to mature and evolve alongside Scofield (every drummer should check out En Route LIVE!, 2004). But you've also made five albums under your own name.
"The sixth album is out in the Fall. It's a quartet with Seamus Blake on tenor and soprano saxophones, Bill Carrothers, piano, and Ben Street, bass. It was done in New York and will be out on Pirouette Records."
Is being a leader the most important of your roles?
"The most important is probably my gigs as a sideman, because that is mostly how I make a living. I could probably do more as leader, but I would have to make that a priority and it would be a bit more of a struggle in terms of making a living playing music. I have plenty of work as a sideman for various people. And I have also always done my own projects where I try to do exactly what I want to do, because in other situations I can't always do that. It's my opportunity to express something and to play my own compositions."
DRUMMER AND BILL STEWART FAN, STEVE SMITH, ASKS:
I dig Bill's ride cymbal time and his endless flow of interesting ideas while playing time and while soloing. Bill has an unusual grip that seems like it's based on getting a clear "knock" from the ride cymbal. How did that develop?
Bill: "A lot comes from the first finger and thumb - and the other fingers I use for support, to propel the stick and control the bounce. I can play with more of a closed grip on some things, a little tighter or looser, which affects the sound. The wood sound comes from where the hand is in contact with the back of the stick. Not from the tip of the stick hitting the cymbal. If I put my ear right next to my hand when riding, the wood click would be extremely loud in my ear. My first year on the East Coast I bought an old thin 20" K Zildjian I had to learn how to play. To use it as a main ride I had to really work at getting a defined sound and projections, so I practised it a lot. I tried subtly different things with my hand to control the sound and focus it more. Once I learned how to play that one if I went to another cymbal with better definition and projection it helped me on that too."
Gretsch USA Custom drums: 12" x 8" mounted tom, 14" x 14" and 16" x 16" floor toms, 18" x 14" bass drum;
Ludwig 14" x 6.5" Hammered Brass snare with tube lugs and regular, simple strainer (P-85). "I prefer the Ludwig metal drums. I like the silver [chrome] ones and the Black Beauties. The one I play at home is the Hammered Brass.")
Zildjian: left side, 20" Dry Complex ride; main ride: 22" Dry Complex ride; far right: 20" Prototype K Light Flat ride; hi-hats: "Top is a 14" Zildjian prototype from 10 years ago, a bit on the heavy side. Bottom is lighter, off the shelf, a Special Dry 14" top cymbal which I use on the bottom."
Interview: Brent Keefe
Since first appearing on the New York scene in the late '80s, Bill Stewart has become one of the leading jazz drummers of his generation, with a discography of over 150 albums and a CV that includes John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano, John Patitucci and Chris Potter. Additionally, although heard doing so less often, he can hit a very funky and convincing backbeat and earlier in his career recorded albums with both Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, even making a TV appearance with the legendary James Brown.
Additionally, Stewart has released five albums under his own name, including his two most recent releases, Keynote Speakers and Incandescence with Larry Goldings and Kevin Hays. His sixth as-yet-untitled album is already recorded and provisionally expected to be released before the end of the year on Pirouet Records.
For all of his abilities to walk into a freelance situation and deliver what's required with great time, dynamics and creativity, he's acutely aware of the advantage of developing ongoing musical relationships, as witnessed by his continued collaborations with Scofield, Peter Bernstein, Larry Goldings, Kevin Hays, Marc Copeland and Bill Carrothers.
While some drummers quest for speed, power and advanced coordination, Stewart's ongoing quest appears to be to simply improve his musicality, with his technical advancement being driven almost exclusively by the need to express a musical idea. For Stewart, technique truly is purely a means to an end.
Do you remember your first physical experience with drums?
Yes I do. When I was about five years old or so, my uncle bought me a toy set of drums, but they fell apart within days. My parents were both musicians; my dad was a jazz trombonist and taught instrumental music in schools and was a band director. My mother, who is now retired, was a choir director. When I would go to my dad's school, I would play on the drums and just mess around like a little kid would.
Literally just messing around or did you have some kind of concept?
I had heard a lot of music for all of my life, so I could keep the beat I think, or give some semblance of that. I think my parents saw that I liked playing the drums, so when I was in second grade, they bought me some drums. It wasn't a full set of drums; it had a big bass drum with a calfskin head and a tom tom, which I think was a 13-inch, also with a calfskin head and a really bent up metal snare drum of some kind that sounded pretty bad as I recall, and a cracked Paiste 12-inch cymbal, that also sounded pretty bad, but I had no hi-hat. I played those drums for a couple of years at home. I played along with records and was starting to be able to play some things and then, in fourth grade, I guess my parents felt I had advanced to the point where they thought it was time to get me an actual set. They bought me a Slingerland set, and that's when I first had a hi-hat, along with a couple of mounted toms, a floor tom and a couple of cymbals.
Had you seen many drummers play at that point?
Only around Des Moines, Iowa. I used to see a drummer called Jim Eklof, who was a friend of my father's. Jim still plays professionally now with a singer called Marilyn Maye, who is somewhere between a jazz singer and cabaret. She was pretty famous in the '60s and used to appear as a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She's still singing well and still plays in New York.
Anyway, Jim used to play with my father in the Des Moines Big Band and also in some small groups. He was the drummer that I saw the most around Des Moines, which is not a big cosmopolitan music center, but there were always some really good players there, so I was exposed to that and my parents had a very good record collection, which I got into.
Did Jim Eklof play matched or traditional grip?
He played traditional grip mostly but, by that point, a lot of traditional-grip players also played some matched grip and I think that was what was going on.
I'm wondering where the influence to start playing matched grip came from for you.
I started that at the very beginning. I don't remember how I was originally shown to hold the sticks. I suspect my father showed me, because he was a band director and was used to showing young students how to hold the sticks; by that time, in music education, they were teaching matched grip more because it was easier for beginners. So I learned matched grip at the beginning and I never really learned traditional well enough to play it. Still to this day, I can't play more than a few notes with that. There was a time, after I had already started making records, when I started working a little bit on playing traditional grip but I guess I didn't get it happening enought to stick with it.
Many people think of you predominantly as a jazz drummer and, as such, you are unusual in that you play matched grip.
Well, I could give you a couple of other matched-grip examples. In later years, maybe in the last ten to 20 years of his career, Max Roach played matched grip pretty much exclusively and, since the late '90s I think, Jack DeJohnette has played mostly matched grip. Also, people like Art Blakey, Roy Haynes and Tony Williams used both grips; you would see them in their basic timekeeping playing traditional grip and maybe when they went to the toms, they would play certain things using matched grip. I think there are a lot of guys all through the years that switched to matched for certain things.
You have previously stated that you often try to replicate the sound and touch of traditional grip in your matched-grip playing.
Yes. The significant thing I found about that was the angle of the stick hitting the drum. It seems that traditional-grip players are a little more "off" the drum; the butt end of the stick is more vertical than horizontal; it goes up more and so, when it hits that drum, it has a different sound. A lot of traditional-grip players also tilt the drum, however, if the drum is tilted, that angle would be minimized, but now I see a lot of drummers playing traditional grip where the drum is not tolted. In that case, I feel like the drummers, I sometimes feel like there's not enough difference between unaccented and accented notes, so I've tried to get the stick off the drum more, a little more up in the air, which means that sometimes I actually lift up at my elbow slightly for certain sounds; it looks a little awkward but that's what I need to do to get the sound I want.
Is that a conscious thing or is it more intuitive at this point?
I was conscious of it at one point and I find myself also changing that angle to get different sounds - if I want it to sound a little warmer, I will make the angle more. So it's conscious, yeah.
It's interesting that you didn't have a hi-hat to start with and subsequently have become known as one of the proponents of freeing up the left foot and using the hi-hat extensively. Was that merely a coincidence?
I was so happy to get that hi-hat, I can tell you. I don't know if it's a coincidence but I did get into playing the hi-hat.
So you were initially playing along with records. What were you playing along to?
The first record that I owned of my own was Quincy Jones' Walking In Space and I'm sure I played along with that one hundreds of times. But there were many others. I playedalong with all kinds of records, including J.J. Johnson's J.J. Incorporated and Aretha Franklin's With Everything I Feel In Me, which has Bernard Purdie and Grady Tate on it. Coincidentally, Walking In Space also had Bernard Purdie and Grady Tate on it, so those were two of the drummers I heard early on and liked, just from hearing them on record.
I was talking to Mover about you and he said he sees you within a group of drummers including the likes of Jack DeJohnette, who play jazz but also have a rock influence in their playing. You definitely seem to have some rock, soul and funk influence in your playing.
Sure. I really got into Aretha Franklin and had a lot of her records and a lot of other things that had back beats on them, such as later Quincy Jones records. Later, when I was in high school, I played in a Top-40 band in Des Moines called Hip Pocket; I played with them for at least six months, maybe a little more. That would have been around 1983 and we did a variety of things including "Footloose", "Electric Avenue", and "Just The Two Of Us" by Bill Withers, along with older hits like Elton John's "Your Song". We did some instrumental numbers too; some stuff that was a little toward jazz on a slow night when people werent' there to dance. I didn't always like the material, even at that point, but I had fun with it. It was a great gig to have at that time because I was in high school, playing a gig every night and making decent money, and that was something, because I hadn't done that before.
Did you take any lessons when you were in Des Moines?
Not really. Before I went to college, Jim Eklof, who I mentioned before, helped me with some classical percussion that I needed to work on in order to audition at the University of Northern Iowa, where I went to school for my first year of college. Jim worked with me on timpani and snare drum and maybe marimba as well; I can't remember. When I was in junior high school, I had a few lessons, maybe eight or ten lessons with a drummer named Woody Smithc. I don't remember a lot about it but I remember him using the Jim Chapin book and we worked on some coordination and reading also, which I wasn't good at early on; I'm still not great at it, but it's much better.
You subsequently studied at William Paterson College in New York.
I did my first year of college at the University of Northern Iowa and my second year of college was at William Paterson College in New Jersey, about a half an hour from New York City. I made the switch after my first year.
That was a renowned college and John Riley teaches there, I believe?
He did teach there but I don't know if he does currently and he wasn't the regular teacher when I was there. When I was there, he was starting to sub and he may have been teaching there full-time by the time I left, but he was never my regular teacher there. Horacee Arnold was my teacher for a couple of years and Eliot Zigmund for another year. John substituted maybe three times for Eliot and a little bit for Horacee.
Did you decide to move to New Jersey because of the people teaching at the college, to be closer to New York or both?
It was both, but I think the thing that got my attention was that when I looked at the people on faculty, I saw that these were people I had heard on records. I knew who they were and I wanted to study with people who were really good at doing what they do, instead of studying with jazz educators or music educators, which is different.
What did you work on with Eliot Zigmund? I can only recall hearing him on some Bill Evans records.
Playing with Bill Evans is what he is most famous for, but far. With Eliot, it was kind of overll; he would set up two sets of drums and we would trade sometimes. We would trade choruses on jazz tunes that we were keeping in our heads, so that was fun. Also, I remember working with hom on Anthony Cirone's Portraits In Rhythm book but I can't remember what else. Horacee Arnold showed me something on brushes that really helped me; he showed me a counter-clockwise left-hand stroke that he had seen Jo Jones and Elvin Jones use. That really helped me with my matched grip actually, because going clockwise with matched grip with my left hand, swirling on the snare drum was very difficult and it still is; I never go that way. I always go out away from my body because I have all this room out here. Horacee showed me that brush thing and it really stuck with me.
Were you playing in many ensembles?
Yeah, I was playing in ensembles a lot and different well-known people would lead some of the ensembles such as Rufus Reid, who was the head of the program, and Harold Mabern.
And when John Riley subbed, you got to study with him also?
Yeah. John's a very good and very perceptive teacher. I studied with him way before he was as well-known for teaching as he is now, but I can see why he's become so well-known as an educator, because he really is good at it.
You said that he was perceptive. What did he perceive in your case that led to you making that remark?
He would listen to me play and he would make comments. I think he liked what I was doing but I remember him saying something like, "Yeah, it could be a little more supple," something like that. That was the word he used and I think, at that time, I had a harsh-sounding, heavy cymbal, so he was probably correct.
When you first came to New York, did you have any specific plans or specific goals or was it just a case of landing there and being the best you could be and seeing what happened?
It was the latter. When I went to William Paterson College, I really did land there. I remember flying from Des Moines into Newark airport and I looked out the window at the area around Newark airport and thought, "Wow! This is where I'm moving to?" I saw all of these chemical plants and stuff and it didn't look good, but once I got to William Paterson College, it wasn't like that.
I was just going to be going to school basically; that was my job, to be a student. I didn't have a car for a year and a half at William Paterson College, which meant that I couldn't do any gigs. So, where I probably couuld have been working a little bit at that time, I wasn't. Basically, I landed there and went to school and, as you said, I was trying to do the best I can and get better as a musician and show up for my classes and I was doing a lot of playing informally at night or on the weekends with musicians there.
One of the important things about moving to the East Coast and going to William Paterson College was not only meeting a lot of the great musicians who taught there, but meeting a lot of other people my age who were heading in a more similar direction. I could find a lot more musicians who I had common ground with thatn I could in Iowa, especially regarding people my age, because in Iowa, I played with musicians that were almost my dad's age.
What happened when you left William Paterson College? The Scott Kreitzer album, Kick 'n Off was the first album you recorded and I guess John Scofield was the gig that really put you on the map.
Pretty much, but right before playing with John, I played with Maceo Parker, although that didn't last as long. It's an interesting story how the Maceo Parker gig came about. I was playing with the exact same organ trio that I am playing with tonight [Larry Goldings and Peter Bernstein]. This would have been February 1990 I think, and we were playing at a place we used to play on Thursday nights in New York City at 106th and Broadway called Augie's. The club still exists but it's now called Smoke and the vibe is quite different. In those days, it was just a local Columbia University area bar that was full of smoke. We played three sets there every Thursday night and I would go home with my entire body and clothes smelling of smoke. I think we were guaranteed about 20 bucks each and we passed the hat at the end of the night. We did that for a year or so at least, playing there regularly when we could.
Anyway, Maceo was in town to do a record with Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis but it was going to be Maceo's record and a mix of funk and Ray Charles swing/jazz. I guess they were hung up for a drummer at the last minute - I don't know if negotiations fell through with somebody or whether somebody canceled - but they need a drummer and the session was two or three days away. I guess they had a production meeting with David Baker, the recording engineer, who has since passed away, was a fan of our organ trio. He had recorded us once by then and he told Maceo to come down and hear us. Maceo came down and he sat in, I think. I didn't even know what Maceo looked like at that point because I'd only heard the James Brown records. Maceo was almost a mythical figure. So, there was Maceo and we played. I remember being out on the sidewalk between sets and he said, "You know, I've got a record date. The rehearsal is tomorrow and then the recording is on the next two days. Can you be there?" I showed up to the rehearsal and we rehearsed with Don Pullen playing organ and Rodney Jones playing guitar, along with Maceo, Fred and Pee Wee. Bootsy Collins also played on the record, which was Roots Revisited. I like to tell people that Bootsy Collins has played with me, but I haven't played with Bootsy Collins because he overdubbed in Cincinnati. That's how I met Maceo. I ended up doing some touring with him and another record, Mo' Roots, and a track or two on another record, Southern Exposure.
Presumably James Brown was an influence on you?
Yeah, I had some James Brown records but not as many as I do now. In a way, I wish I had researched it a little better at that time, but it was fun.
Was it nerve-wracking?
[Pauses to think] I doon't think I found it nerve-wracking, but we did do one gig and TV show with James Brown and I found that...I don't know if nerve-wracking is the way I would put it, but I was on edge. Only because there was a very limited amount of rehearsal time and James had all of these moves that he did; little things that he did with his feet or whatever that were supposed to cue something or a little interlude - things that the drummer has to really look out for. It was thrown together quickly so I was a little on edge, but not so much that I was shaking in my boots.
Did he give you a hard time at all?
He didn't give me too much of a hard time. Actually, he did say something to me at the rehearsal. First, he asked me, "Drummer! Where you from?" and I said, "Iowa." He said, "Iowa? Ain't no funk there!" The whole band cracked up and they started using that phrase a lot after that. James did say one other thing to me. He said, "You can't lift your sticks so high to play my music" and, you know what? It's not a fat, wide funk kind of thing; it's crisp and accurate and in the middle, you know? Not laid back, so I think I know what he meant.
How long after the Maceo gig did the Scofield gig come around?
Not too much longer. I did the first recording with Maceo in February of 1990 and did my first recording with John in last November 1990. I was playing with Maceo for close to a year and then John asked me to join his quartet, but under the condition that I would have to make all of the gigs. I couldn't sub out at all. I had to make that my priority, which meant that I couldn't do all of Maceo's gigs, so basically I switched from Maceo to John at that point. I would have played with Maceo longer otherwise, but John's music was in a direction that was really good for what I was prepared to do at that point, given what I had been working on in the year previous. It was a really good band with Joe Lovano on saxophone and Marc Johnson on bass, so it really was a special band to be a part of.
Was it a tough decision?
I think it was clear that it was the right decision for me. I really liked Maceo's gig and I would do it again, but I don't remember agonising over the decision. It seemed pretty clear that that's what I should do.
What do you feel you learned or what growth do you feel you underwent with Scofield?
I remember reading a quote from Max Roach where he said, "It's easier to find your own style if you play with a regular band for a while," as opposed to doing a diversity of freelance gigs. So I think being with John and playing mostly with one band for a while, helped me to develop whatever my sound is. Also, John, for the most part, let me figure out parts and what to do in his music. He didn't tell me what to play or give me a lot of instruction or try to micromanage what I was doing, even early on, so I felt like I could be creative. The music was very open and different every night with that band and it was such a good band; the level was high and John and Joe had a real chemistry and I really like playing with Dennis Irwin, who came in on bass after Marc, and Marc as well in the early days. It just had a really good chemistry.
And you still continue to work with Scofield.
Yes, last October/November, I did a 23-date tour of Europe with John and Steve Swallow and it looks like we'll be doing some more this summer. I'm also supposed to be doing a week with John, John Medeski and Ben Street in the United States.
When you stopped working with John Scofield full time, what did you go to then?
I played with John's band regularly from about Spring 1991 to around June 1995, and in that time, there were also other tours. Larry Goldings joined the band around 1993 and there were a couple of years at least with Joe Lovano and Dennis Irwin was still there. We also did a record called Hand Jive eith Eddie Harris and toured some with that; in fact there are some videos of Eddie with that band, easily seen on "you know what". It was great to play with Eddie Harris. Wow! What a great player. I worked with John regularly until mid '95 and I left the band at that point and just did various things for a few years.
Why did you leave John Scofield at that point?
I had been with John for a while and John generally has a lot of work. I wanted to try some other things at that point and see what other kinds of things I could do. I'm not sure it was actually the best decision in that case, but that's what I did.
You later went on to play in Pat Metheny's trio. Was that a call out of the blue?
I had played with Pat previously with John Scofield. We recorded the album I Can See Your House From Here and we toured a little with that. That was at least five years before I joined Pat's trio but that's the only other time I had played with Pat; that's how he knew about me. I think he had also heard me in various contexts and I had seen him at various festivals but that's the only time we played together on that tour before I played in his trio. So yes, the call to join Pat's trio came out of the blue. He needed a drummer for his summer tour in 1999 and I got the call. Larry Grenadier played bass.
Did Pat offer any particular concept for the trio or just that it would be an acoustic trio?
It was more the latter and there was no record planned initially, but once we went out and did a few gigs, Pat decided he wanted to record it. We did the record in '99-'00 and we ended up doing a year and a half of touring and a live record later. So it ended up being quite a lot of work.
I've heard some musicians say that Pat knows what he wants from musicians and can be quite specific. Did you find that?
No, I didn't find that but I think that may apply more to the Pat Metheny Group concept. With me, he mostly let me come up with stuff, similar to John actually. You'd have to ask him, but maybe he trusted that I would come up with something that he liked. If there was something that wasn't working, however, he would say. I remember at one point he had an issue with my mounted tom being in a similar frequency range to where he plays a lot on the guitar. That was fine. I understood what he was saying and I just tried to only play that tom when he wasn't in that register.
You didn't change the tuning of the tom at all?
No, I didn't. I was just more careful about where I used it but that's the only thing I can remember. I don't remember getting a lot of instructions from Pat.
In the summer of 2000, you toured in a quartet with Pat, Michael Brecker and Larry Goldings. That was a pretty formidable band.
Yes indeed. That was a lot of fun. Pat and Michael had some history together so they had a strong connection. Larry Goldings was playing organ and of course, I have a long-time connection with Larry, and I also played with Pat with Larry Grenadier. So there were a lot of connections within the band and it worked pretty naturally.
The Brecker thing came out of a record that he did called Time Is Of The Essence which featured three drummers; Elvin Jones, Jeff Watts and myself, and then I did the extensive summer tour with Larry, Pat and Mike.
Did you reference 80/81 at all before going out on the tour or did you consciously not listen to it? And, how did you approach preparing for the gig?
I certainly didn't have any agenda to reference that record, although I like that record and Jack DeJohnette sounds great on there. I didn't think much about that; I just show up and play the music.
I suspect by that point everybody knew what you were about but did you get much direction from Michael Brecker?
They knew what I was bringing to the table; they knew how I played and I guess they wanted that and that's good. I like that. I like to work for band leaders that let me find stuff because otherwise it's kind of a drag [laughs].
Can you recall any situations where you felt particularly restricted or bound by somebody else's vision?
Occasionally I will record with people that I don't normally play with and they want to do that; they want it to sound like their demo or something.
Can you give any examples?
I don't want to name names specifically, but it could be anything. One guy wanted me to catch my cymbal at a certain point and choke it and I thought it sounded so bad. I think I ended up doing it on the record but when I listened back I was thinking that I shouldn't have done it. Most of the time, I do resist actually. If it's something that doesn't sound good to me, a lot of times I'll say, "I don't really want to play that." I'll go there, you know [laughs]. It would depend on who it is maybe too. It doesn't happen a lot, to be honest.
What's happened in the past when you have resisted? Were they cool or was there some dialogue or stand-off?
I've never had a stand-off.
Presumably they trust your musicality?
Yeah, I hope so. As a band leader, I try and hire people and not give them a lot of instruction myself because I want them to do what is comfortable for them. I think the music usually ends up sounding better that way. It depends on the music too.
What are your criteria for selecting musicians? Can you give any examples of why you might or why you have selected particular musicians?
Most, in fact probably all, of the musicians that I have used on my records are people that I have played with in other bands, so I may be used to working with them or I know our chemistry musically. Sometimes I will put different people together that I have worked with in different situations. For instance, I played with Larry Goldings a lot in the Larry Goldings trio and I played with Kevin Hays a lot with his groups and I played with both of them with John Scofield. You don't usually hear two keyboard players together, but I put them together because I like playing with both of them a lot and also they are both really good rhythmically; they both can play swing rhythms great and other things as well. I felt like we could get the stuff grooving with that combination. That would be one example. That line-up is featured on my albums, Keynote Speakers and Incandescence.
On my first record, Think Before You Think, I hired Joe Lovano and Marc Copeland. I had worked with both as a sideman in their bands but I had never worked with Dave Holland; he was the odd man on that. I hired him based on his reputation and knowing his playing. I also just recorded a new record of mine that will come out on Pirouet Records in the fall. The pianist on that is Bill Carrothers, who played on a couple of my Blue Note records and he brings a unique thing harmonically and vibe-wise, that is very personal and tends to work well withy my compositions, because they are a little off center harmonically sometimes. They are a little weird... but hopefully not in a bad way. Ben Street is the bassist on my new record. I've played with him in vaious situations including a few recordings with Lage Lund and with Scofield. Seamus Blake is on the record also and I've played on several of Seamus' records. Seamus is also on my record Telepathy. So I tend to play with musicians that I've played with in otehr contexts.
When you've thrown guys together in the past, have you had any surprises or has it generally worked out well?
It generally worked out well. That's an interesting thing because I think a lot of band leaders put together people that they like and they are not always the sum of their parts; sometimes they are less. I've heard that happen. I try to have a band where everybody just makes everyone else sound better.
Persumably, you select people based on their musicianship but also their personality? If you had some fantastic player who was an egotist, you would probably realize that there might be some issues ahead.
Maybe. It depends. I've met a couple of likeable egomaniacs in my life but obviously it has to be people that you like to work with too because otherwise, forget it. It would have to be a pretty ridiculous player to put up with a lot of crap!
Do you recall any combination turning out considerably better than you imagined or just differently?
There are always little surprises along the way; little musical moments as such but I think generally I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to be like.
Did you write in a more orchestrated way to accomodate the two keyboards on Keynote Speakers and Incandescence?
That's what appealed to me about doing that; with the two keyboards I could really write some interesting stuff that I might not write for another instrumentation because there are a lot of notes available with four hands and different sounds too. The first record, Keynote Speakers, in particular, had some differnt keyboard sounds on it with more electric piano and effects, whereas the second one, Incandescence is mostly piano and organ.
Did you just want to return to the standard quartet format on your upcoming record or did you feel you had said all that you could with the two keyboard line-up?
I had a tentative offer from Pirouet to do another record; not with any deadline but just when it seemed right. I had a gig on the East Coast with this quartet, so it seemed like a good opportunity to record. They were silling to record us in New York, so it worked out. It was just a matter of logistics and also bringing Bill Carrothers, who doesn't live in New York City, to that area to record.
In the first instance, what was it that made you want to record your own album, because you didn't write most of the material on your first solo record?
So it wasn't driven by a desire to play your own music?
At that point, I think I had already recorded for Jazz City, the Japanese company that made my first record and I had done some stuff with David Baker, including my first record with Scott Kreitzer, which you mentioned. That was the first record I had recorded on and I recorded with David with other people including Armen Donelian. I think David put in a word for me with Jazz City and the producer there, Masuo. Then I just got an offer to do the date. It wasn't like I was looking to do a record; the opportunity appeared and I took it. I just thought, "Yeah. I can put together a record." Then it was just a question of who I was going to call. I had a certain budget and that's when I selected the band. Now that I think of it, David Baker, the engineer recommended me for a lot of stuff; Maceo, my first record... he was a very important guy that I met.
By the time you made Snide Remarks and Telepathy, things had changed in as much as you wrote nearly all of the material on both records.
My first record, Think Before You Think, was recorded in August 1989 and my next record was recorded in February 1995. So there was a five-and-a-half year gap and, in that time, I was really starting to write a lot more. By the time Snide Remarkes came around, I could present a record of original material and I wrote some more leading up to that record, knowing that I had a record date coming up. I thought maybe it would be nice to do a record of all my own tunes so I worked hard on putting some tunes together. It inspred me to do that.
Did you approach Blue Note or did Blue Note approach you? Were you looking to do another record of your own at that point?
I think I would have been interested in doing my own record at that point for sure, but I wasn't actively shopping it or pushing it. Actually, in those days, a lot of people did do their own recording and then shopped it around to try and sell it to a label but, in this case, I had been on a lot of records for Blue Note with John Scofield, one with Joe Lovano and one with Don Grolnick.
So they had heard a lot of me and I knew Bruce Lundvall and some of the people there. They had already signed Kevin Hays, Javon Jackson and Tim Hagans, so they were doing some records with younger artists, maybe with a little lower budget than they were used to doing. I know John Scofield put in a word for me with Bruce, saying that I might be interested in doing something; I think a lot of it had to do with John saying something and he was recording for them at the time.
I got a call from Bruce so I went and had a meeting with them. We talked about what I might like to do and we agreed on a path forward with that. For both of my records, they really let me do what I wanted, and I'm really pleased that they did because a lot of time, in those days, major labels would be more hands-on and tell you who to play with or what to record but that wasn't the case in my experience. My second record, Telepathy, almost didn't happen but eventually it did. They wanted to do a second Blue Note All-Stars record before they did any more records from the people who were actually in that band. Bruce had already agreed to go ahead with my second record but then other executives said, "Well, we can't do that now." I had to go back to Bruce and say, "You agreed on this, right?" Anyway, it did happen.
Does your upcoming solo record contain all of your own compositions?
I don't know quite how it's going to be put together yet but I think it's going to be mostly my material. It's already recorded and we've recorded more tunes than we will need. A release date hasn't been set yet but I suspect it will come out in the Fall and we haven't discussed touring to promote it either. All of that might become clearer soon.
Bill Carrothers is on your upcoming record and you've previously recorded the album Duets with Bill and a few of his records, including Joy Spring. The Duets record features some of the more free playing from you that is documented on record.
Yeah. It has to be with the right people - people who are good at that. Bill is good at that, for instance. You just have to be a clean slate and be open to finding whatever is in the moment. You have to be very alert and listening and intuitive, and you have to make musical decisions. When you are playing on songs, a lot of the decisions are made for you, so that's a big difference. There are a lot of things like knowing when to push the music ahead or to stay in one spot. I mean, I've heard free playing that was absolutely boring and some that was really great. I do like doing it. I also like to bring a free approach to playing over forms and also find forms within free playing; I like to blue the distinction between the two actually.
If you are talking about finding forms within free playing, how do you communicate that to the people you are playing with?
They have to hear it.
But they may or thay may not hear it...
It has to be something that we create as a group and everybody hears it and, when I say form, I mean that really loosely; I don't mean anything exact that repeats over and over again. There might be an eight-bar phrase in something that's free that repeats or a four-bar phrase or a vamp or something. Those are all forms, so you can definitely create a vamp in free playing, for instance. That's a small form.
Would you say you find free playing easier or more difficult than no-free playing or does it again depend on the context or the participants?
I think it really depends on the participants. It's a different challenge. Playing a difficult piece of music that has a challenging form or something can also be very hard and I'd have to prepare more for that. Whereas, in free playing, I don't feel that I have to prepare for that. I just have to bring the right mindset, be relaxed and bring good energy to the gig, like I always have to.
You mentioned earlier about making musical decisions. Do you try and not think too much, in general?
I think of it as being more intuitive than really thinking. It's kind of being relaxed and letting creative ideas flow. There's always a little editing process. Sometimes I think of things to play that I don't play in the process. I also do something, and this applies both to playing on forms or playing free...I find myself just about to play something and then something else will happen in the music in that split second and I'll be like, "No! I'm not doing that." I do that a lot actually. I'm on the edge of being just about to play something and then I hear something and I think better of it.
I remember the fist time I ever say you play with John Scofield in London and I can distinctly remember you going to play something on the small tom and then hovering above it, almost air drumming, but not actually playing it. Was that likely to have been part of the editing process?
It might have been. I might have been prepared to play something on the tom and then just realized it wasn't the right spot. That happens in an instant, of course. I'm not really thinking about what I'm going to play a second in advance or something. It's not even that much.
You seem at ease with syncopated rhythms and polyrhythms, often taking a phrase or motif, and permutating it or superimposing it. Is that something you particularly worked on much?
Yeah, I came across things in my practicing that interested me in that regard and I would try to develop them a little bit.
Maybe an odd grouping and also things that I heard other players play that interested me in that regard. For example, Tony Williams played things that were in odd groupings; Roy Haynes played things fairly early on that were kind of odd grouping. I have recordings of him playing with Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk where he plays hemiolas, for instance, that are six over four or five over four, pretty early on. I heard things like that.
I took a lesson with Ed Blackwell once. He was one of the few people that I actually asked for a lesson. Usually, when I was in New York, I would just go and sit next to guys and listen to them and watch them play and that was kind of a lesson, and a great one at that but, in Ed's case, I ran into him in Tower Records in Manhattan, back when there were record stores. We had both gone there to see Max Roach play solo; I think Max was promoting a record so he played a little solo at the record store. Afterwards, I was shopping in the aisle and there was Ed, so I got to meet him and I asked him for a lesson. He lived in Connecticut and taught at Wesleyan University, so it was a little drive, but I drove up from New York and took one lesson with him. He showed me how he worked on his stuff. he would write one idea at the top of the page and then he would write a second idea that was based on the first idea; then he would write another idea based on the second idea and so on all down the page; an assortment of ideas all basically coming from the first idea but, by the time you got to the bottom of the page, you might not know that idea ten came from idea one. I only had one hour-long lesson with him but that kind of thinking was interesting to me.
And he did work out some stuff; a lot of stuff that he played in solos. It wasn't a rehearsed solo, but it contained ideas that he had worked on and Max Roach was a little similar in that regard; he worked on stuff. There was a compositional process that probably happened in the practice room, but then, being able to apply those things spontaneously - that's another thing.
When you say "six over four", that is an odd one but isn't that just like quarter-note triplets?
I don't mean "six over four" in terms of triplets; I mean 6/4 against an eight-bar phrase that's in 4/4. It's just overlapping meters, basically.
I've heard you play some things where your phrasing is slightly elastic; you have stretched it somehow or other or are playing some sort of more off polyrhythm. Have you worked on that sort of thing or is it more likely you would've just thought of a phrase and stretched it a little? Some people, for exampe, have studied Gary Chaffee's books.
I didn't really study that. It doesn't come from any books, for the most part, althoug there were some snare-drum books that I worked on that had a couple of things like that in them
As far as what I apply to the drums, I work on idea in the practice room sometimes and I think about different ways to apply them; I could change the meter on an ida or add anote, or subtract a note and being able to play all of the different meters all against each other. So being able to play in 5/4 when you are actually in 4/4, or in 6/4 when you are in 4/4 or maybe 7/4. I do stuff like that a lot because I don't want to be caged in by bar lines and ends of phrases and things, in many cases anyway.
I think most people would find difficulty in that, not so much in playing in five or seven but retaining one's place within the original meter.
Yeah. That's a hard thing to describe and a hard thing to teach as well.
When you play those things, you sound at ease. How did you reach that point of making it sound so easy? How do you keep track of where you are? Is it just the repetition and familiarity of doing it?
I try to internalize forms or phrases so I can feel that phrase while I'm thinking about something that is not obviously in that phrase. If the band is playing while I'm doing this, then I have some sort of guidepost or landmark in terms of harmony and things that I can use. So, if I'm listening, I can play some stuff against that and maybe even get lost for a little bit and find my way back.
Because you can hear where to land, so to speak.
Yeah and the time is always going on anyway. So really, in terms of form, to me it's the harmonic rhythm that usually defines that in most of the music that I play; it's not so much what I play, it's what the harmony does or what the song structure is.
If you are playing a solo in 5/4 or 7/4, what are your own internal mental guideposts? Are you just hearing the harmonic rhythm?
I would be hearing that, if that were going on. With five, for instance, there are different ways to divide it up; you know, you can divide it as 3+2 or 2+3 or right in the middle of the bar on the 2+ and you can do the same kind of thing in seven.
You can do all of that, but if you want to superimpose another meter for example, and the band is not playing a vamp, how do you keep track in your head of where you are?
I'm never really counting in my head; that's one thing I'm not doing or almost never doing.
Do you use things like splitting 12/8 into 7 and 5 and knowing that however you permutate that, if you play an equal number of 7s and 5s you will land on the downbeat? Do you use those sort of mathematical things, to some degree?
One thing I can say is that I practiced a lot of the things we've been talking about in the practice room and sometimes I did have to work them out. If it was a superimposition of meters, than I had to think about where they would resolve or land together. There were definitely some things that I had to think about and ideas that were maybe a little more advanced where I maybe had to write it out or think about some very specific ideas, but that's specific and you are asking in a general sense. In a general sense, it's harder for me to say, except that I did things like that and the more that you work with polyrhythms, the easier it becomes to play a new one that you encounter. If you are used to the process of doing that and you keep doing it, you get better at doing it quickly or hearing a form in your head while you are playing something that is sort of counter to the form or in another meter.
And you would be hearing that more in a harmonic sense?
If it's a song form, yes. That's what makes it for me, for the most part. But sometimes I use the melody as a guidepost too. Some people sing the melody in their heads while they're playing a drum solo, but I din't really like to do that because I find it requires another level of coordination to do that. But what I do hear is sort of a general sound of the phrase, maybe with a little melody in there; it's a little abstract imprint of what's going on in my head while I'm improvising or playing with a group.
Let's say you arrive at a gig and you are presented with a new tune which is in an odd meter, say 5/4, and has a 9-bar A section and a 13-bar B section and then you are required to trade the 9s and 13s. So you have an odd time signature and an odd form that you are not particularly familiar with. Maybe you'd like to get creative and superimpose 7/4 over that form or play some of the displace rhythmic motifs that you are renowned for. What would you be holding on to, to retain that form in your head? I'm sure you make mistakes like we all do.
I do [laughs].
But there are many recordings where you sound very comfortable. So what are you holding on to or your point of reference, in a situation like that? Are you likely to be a little more simplistic at first until you know the music really well?
I will be simplistic on it until I get looser on it and that actually happens a lot on recordings that I do. I find that players of a younger generation than me write a lot of stuff like that, which has complicated forms and odd meters and I do need to internalize it a little bit before I can get loose on it. Up to that point, I will play simpler. I will keep it simple if that's what needs to happen and then once I get comfortable on it, I can start trying some other things or think about some different rhythms to play against it.
So what is the internalization process? Is it purely repetition?
Yeah, pretty much. Though nowadays, if I'm doing a record date or something, people will send me the music in advance, often with electronic demos, which wasn't the case 20 years ago. Back then I wouldn't have gotten a demo; I would have just gotten the music in the mail. Now everybody has a demo and so I'll practice with it if it's something that needs my attention. If it's an 11-bar tune in 4/4 and it's pretty simple, I can almost show up at the date and just do that, but if it's something with odd rhythms, I have to look at it. So I will take the time to practice it or try to think about it. Once I'm thinking about it, I can think about it as I'm walking down the street or on the subway, and that will help me internalize it. I might be thinking about some different rhythms I can play over it or ways that might be interesting to me.
If you are doing something relatively simple liek 11 bars of 4/4, would you be likely to be thinking 4/4/3 or an 8-bar and 3-bar phrase?
It would depend on the harmonic structure and the tune. I couldn't say without hearing the tune because it might feel like six plus five, or 2/2/2/2/3. It's hard to say. It just depends on the music.
Do you adjust your playing much when working with different bass players?
I adjust as we are playing. I listen and I do adjust a little bit sometimes, of course. I'm always listening to and reacting to what everyone is playing, but obviously the bass and drums have a time hook up in a lot of the music I play; that's important. Sometimes I will flex a bit in terms of the time, as far as where different bass players put it. It's usually more important to me that we are together than it is in terms of keeping metronomic time. Sometimes if I feel that I need to hold my place, maybe just in terms of keeping a tempo in a good spot, then I may to that too.
I find that sometimes, if I am just listening, interacting and playing, I will suddently realize that the tempo has moved up or down slightly but I didn't feel it shift immediately. Have you ever experienced that?
I can usually hear it happening when it's happening, hopefully.
Pretty much immediately?
Not always, but I try to be alert to what's happening and I try to hear the music when it's being played as opposed to being surprised later when I hear it on a playback.
I didn't mean on a playback situation. I was talking of a situation where you're playing and you realize that maybe the music has gotten a little faster but you didn't realize it at the exact instant that it began to shift.
I don't always know perfectly what's happening, but I try. I can hear if the bass player is tending to fall behind the tempo that I'm hearing or tending to push ahead; I can hear both of those things.
If you are in a situation where a band leader counts the tempo off and you come in where you feel that temp wants to be and the bassist comes in slightly ahead or behind of where you are, are you likely to adjust and lock with them, or hold your ground for a minute and see if they come to you?
I don't want to get into a musical fight on stage, so I try to be somewhat flexible. Fortunately, I don't have a lot of problems with this because I play with really good bass players who have really good time. You know there's never any huge discrepancy; it's usually very subtle differences.
Also, I think every drummer's sound and every bass player's sound affects how the time feels. A bass player that has a legato sound is going to feel different to a bass player that has a detached, shorter sound, and with acoustic bass players, you have a wide range of sound.
What about when you are working with an organist with bass pedals? That's a different feel from the bass.
Soncially it's different. The sound of the Hammond bass is sometimes not as punchy and distinctive or as clear maybe as an acoustic bass. It doesn't have a much attack and it has a little more rumble in many cases but I don't approach playing the beat any differently.
How do you approach playing with soloists whose time is quite free and floaty?
I just do my best to stay relaxed and do the best I can. I don't know what else I can do.
Do you find that restrictive in terms of how you can interact with them?
Yes, very much so. You can't interact with something that's off center. In that case I'm going to probably interact a lot less. I'm probably just going to put a cushion of time out there and let the guy go all over the place [laughs].
You predominantly play jazz and a little bit of funk. Do you have any desire to play any other styles particularly? Do you ever feel like rocking out or going fusion?
I guess I never really saw myself going fusion. I could've practiced that stuff and worked on it and got a bunch of crash cymbals; I'd do that if I needed to do that to make a living. It's not that I just want to play jazz music but I guess I've gravitated towards the situations where I feel like I have something to offer or something to say. I don't like to take gigs where I just have to play a certain style or any preconceived thing. I play with some guys who are associated with their more fusion-style projects perhaps, but there are always elements of rock and rhythm and blues. I listened to a lot of old rhythm and blues records when I was a kid. I had the opportunity to listen to different things and a lot of them had back beats. I think I have avoided fusion that I see as technical and showy - the stereotypical fusion - but fusion really just means a combination of elements and every music that I play is a combination of elements. It's all fusion of a sort but you and I both have an idea of what "fusion" is. I don't play single-stroke rolls with one hand!
You've developed a very identifiable sound and style with the cymbal accents, the buzz rolls and the way you apply motifs. Did you consciously work on developing your own style? Did you have a concept in mind at the outset or has it just evolved?
Thank you for saying that. I think it's more the latter. It's just evolved to my taste. I think that if musicians follow their taste as far as what they like, then maybe they can find their own sound. Obviously, I have a lot of influences and there is a certain language I play in that I didn't really invent, but I try to do it with my own sound, style and touch. Everything, including the cymbals I choose and the way i tune the drums, might help make me identifiable.
What about your use of buzz rolls as that's a part of your style? Is that something that you particularly worked on developing to gain some freedom within that?
I liked it and maybe I recognised that something was developing so I kept doing it.
Did you actually work on it in the practice room or was it something you just tried on gigs?
I did it on gigs but I probably worked on it too. In the practice room, there must have been moments when I was working with that sound, but not like I sat down for an hour and worked solely on buzz rolls.
A lot of times when I practice, I just improvise, so I'm working on a lot of things. I'll stop and start. If I come across something when I'm improvising that I need to work on, since I'm in the practice room, I can stop and slow it down. I do that a lot. it's not that I always have an agenda when I go in to play the drums, to practice or something. A lot of times I don't, really. I just go in and I know I need to play and I start playing, and while I'm playihng I discover all kinds of things that I need to work on or could work on or could develop. I'm sure I did work with the buzz rolls but not in a really systematic way at all. I also heard other guys using them, including Roy Haynes.
I tend to associate buzz rolls with you; the way you use them to phrase in that slightly elastic almost New Orleans way.
I don't know where it all comes from. People use the term "New Orleans", but I didn't really study a lot of New Orleans music. I had an idea about some of it and I know more about it now. I actually recently visited New Orleans and I started listening more to historical stuff that came out of there, but that's more something that I've been doing recently. There's a lot of great music from there and such a great tradition. In some ways it was very different from what was going on in New York in similar times. It just has a different feeling to it.
Did you take any lessons or hang out with anybody when you were in New Orleans?
No. I mainly wanted to go down there for a vacation. I saw one gig with Nicholas Payton, who I play with sometimes, with Johnny Vidacovich on drums.
When was the last time you actually took a lesson with anybody whether on drums, composition or anything?
I don't think I've had a drum lesson with anybody since I left college, but I took a piano lesson with my friend Kevin Hays not so long ago. He came over and helped me with some stuff. He's given me lessons a couple of times. The first time it was more technical and the second time it was less technical...more musical.
What about hanging out with other drummers and just exchanging ideas?
Yeah, I do that whenever I can. Actually, I know Jack DeJohnette pretty well and I've been to his house and hung out with him but not for an official lesson; although there were a few little gems in there that I felt were lessons. He said some things which stuck with me. I didn't go there for a lesson but I knew I was going to get a little lesson out of it because he is fantastic and one of my heroes.
What were some of the things he said?
One thing that he talked about was how he can play a lot on the drums for an extended period of time if he stays relaxed, but if he doesn't stay relaxed, he isn't able to do that.
Also, he talked about the difference between playing using a relaxed grip and a tighter grip and I think that he thought that Elvin Jones was coming from more of a looser grip on the sticks, as opposed to the way that Tony played, which was more of a tighter, more controlled approach, not using much bounce. He said he felt that got a shorter sound for Tony, whereas Elvin's sound was more resonant, while Tony had more attack. He heard me play and I got the feeling that he thought, although he didn't actually say this, that I could get a more open sound if I used a looser grip sometimes.
You don't appear, as far as I know, on any records with big bands or vocalists. Is that just down to what gigs you've been offered or have you steered away from those settings?
I haven't been offered many big-band gigs to tell you the truth, and there aren't that many big bands out there working, so it's not something that comes up. Also, I don't think that people think of me when they think of big band, although I played with a Danish big band in Aarhus a couple of years ago playing big-band arrangements of John Scofield's music with John. I was the only other person apart from John that wasn't actually a member of the big band and that ended up being fun. I used to play with a big band in college a little, so I have done it before. I also remember subbing on a rehearsal once for Victor Lewis with the Carnegie Hall Jazz band. That was some time in the '90s.
As far as singers...yeah, I guess I haven't been in any singer's regular groups. That just hasn't happened. It would really have to be a singer that I really connected with to get me interested in doing that.
Actually, I believe you did play on Johnny 'Bowtie' Barstow's A Bowtie Christmas and More album, which has some vocals.
That's absolutely correct.
Was that a spoof record from Larry Goldings?
Johnny 'Bowtie' Barstow is a real singer and I think the music speaks for itself. It's available at www.cdbaby.com and that is some of my best work.
You don't really have any Internet presence. Is there a reason for that?
I see people on Facebook all the time and it seems to be time consuming to me to have to monitor all of these things. Even though everybody is doing it now, I come from a generation where it wasn't a consideration until maybe a decade agao. I'm slow to jump on these things. I was slow to get a cellphone. I'm not quick to jump on new technology and my e-mail box alone keeps me pretty busy these days. It's not necessary for me to have a website or Facebook in order to work. If leading my own band was my main focus, then I might have to get a website but it's not in the works yet.
You once said that you didn't really like the sound checks and preferred the first note of the gig to be the first note of the day. Do you still feel that way?
I don't mind sound checks. They are fine but I feel fresher on the gig if I don't do a lot of playing before.
You don't crave the sound check to enable you to flex and warm up a little bit?
Sometimes it does function that way, so sometimes it's a good thing.
You have also been quoted as saying, "Technique is okay, but it's not what I'm really about." However, one needs enough technique to execute one's ideas with ease. I can't imagine you sitting there with a pad and a metronome trying to increase your singles by 10 bpm for the sake of it.
I work on technique every time I practice. I come across things that I'm maybe not doing well enough so I will focus on whatever is bothering me, as far as execution goes. Obviously I work on technique, but it's in order to play what I want to play musically. I've never liked it when musicians play things that seem technical for the sake of showing that; showing fast hands, for example. It's usually something fast that people associate with that. That's not really where I'm coming from but obviously I do have to work on getting my hands and feet and coordination to all work well. To me, technique is about getting a good sound too; it's not just about playing a bunch of flashy stuff.
Of all the CDs that you have played on, which do you feel represent what you do the best?
I think my own CDs show what I can do well and the stuff with Scofield, Larry Goldings Trio and the trio with Peter Bernstein and Larry Goldings. Those are the things that I've probably done the most of too. I've always felt I was more in my element in those situations, and many others too, but I think I've done more gigs with those groups that I mentioned.
|12" x 8" Rack|
|14" x 14" Floor|
|16" x 16" Floor|
|18" x 14" Kick|
|14" x 6.5" Snare - Ludwig Hammered Bronze|
|20" Dry Complex Ride II|
|22" Dry Complex Ride II|
|20" K Light Flat Ride Prototype|
|14" Hi-hats - K Custom Special Dry / K Prototype|
|Bill Stewart Signature Stick & John Riley Signature Stick|
Falk Willis from JazzHeaven.com interviews Master Drummer Bill Stewart
Hello everybody, It's an honor to have Bill Stewart here today. Welcome, Bill!
Thank you, Falk!
So, let's get it started. If you don't mind, Bill, could you give us a quick background of where you come from, and what brought you to New York?
Sure. I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. And my parents were both musicians. My dad played trombone, played a lot of jazz, and also taught instrumental music in schools for many years. And my mother has always been a choir conductor. She has taught in schools and churches and also worked with organizing choirs at schools with choirs from all over the world that would gather in a central location for a singing festival. She did that for a non-profit organization for many years, too. So, I come from a very musical family. My grandmother also taught piano lessons. There was a lot of music from an early age.
What made you pick the drums?
Well, I was given a toy set of drums by my uncle. I might have been five of six years old. They were more or less disposable drums. They were broken within about a day or two. But I think my parents thought that I liked that, that I enjoyed playing them, and so my dad was able to bring me sort of a make-shift scrap set of drums shortly thereafter. Those were real drums... I had a big 26-inch bass drum and a snare drum and one tom-tom and one 12-inch cracked cymbal. So that was my set for a couple of years. And I got better on that set. So a couple of years later, I was given a more legitimate drum set. And I used to play with records a lot.
What was the first style of music that you were interested in?
Well, I was interested in jazz in the very beginning and it was around the house. My dad had a lot of jazz records. I was more familiar with some of that than all the pop music that was happening. Although I was familiar with some of that, too. I'd say, at an early age I enjoyed jazz music; also singers, like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles…
So, not just "jazz-jazz", but it was also some more funk stuff?
Yeah, and that was, of course, the 70s. The early 70s, and mid 70s, just when things were turning to disco. Just when all the soul singers were either dropping out, or being replaced by disco… (laughs)
So, that's what was starting to happen at about the time I was nine years old. So that was all in there…
And then how did that all transform into you moving to New York? What came before that or what led up to that?
Well, let's see: I played in school bands. Once I got into high school, I played in kind of a high school jazz band, as well as concert bands, marching bands, and all that kind of stuff. And, by the time I was a senior in high school, I was working five or six nights a week, pretty regularly, mostly with a Top 40 band that played a little bit of jazz, and other things. But we were working in hotels and clubs where people would dance. But I was in high school, and I was playing three sets every night, on all week nights…
So, I was sort of making money before I left high school and then I went to college, to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for one year, where I did all kinds of things. I was in marching band, I was in the orchestra, I was in a jazz band, I took a composition course. I took trumpet lessons briefly…
I was studying music, as well as taking literature classes, and I started doing all these things there. I felt spread very thin, and I was kind of doing a mediocre job on all of them. So, I started thinking about something else, or somewhere else to go where I could focus more on one thing, which was playing, more or less, jazz music. So, I ended up planning to go to William Paterson College in New Jersey, was accepted and went there, so that was my move to the East Coast. So, at my second year in college, I was half an hour outside of New York City. I didn't have a car. I didn't have any company, and I had a set of drums out here. But I was there, so I had access to a lot of the things that people have access to when they're in New York, or close to New York.
What year was that?
It would've been fall of 1985 when I came to New Jersey. I started there and immediately met people that were better jazz players, and more interested in the kind of things that I was interested in. The students that were there at that time… a few of which became known people later, that...
Let's see… During my stay at William Paterson College, Peter Bernstein was there for a year, and I ended up playing a lot with him.
So, you know each other over 20 years now?
Oh yeah. Let's see, who else was there… Jesse Davis, the alto saxophonist, Doug Weiss, the bassist, who I played quite a bit with. Eric Alexander was there. I think Joe Farnsworth was there, just slightly younger, but he was there at the same time for a couple of years. I am probably forgetting someone…
Well, that's good enough for now.
Yeah, so, anyway, there were a lot of people there, as well as pretty well known teachers that included people like Harold Mabern, Joe Lovano and Rufus Reid. Rufus was actually the chairman of the department.The drum teachers that I had there were Elliot Zigmund, Horacee Arnold, and also substituting from time to time was John Riley.
And since we're talking about your musical upbringing, sort of speak, I think that's a good segue into what influenced you or who influenced you, in terms of your style of playing. Which teachers?
What drummers in particular, you mean?
Well, just your influences in general…
Well, I guess I listen to a lot of jazz music, and I knew a lot of the history of it... I sort of gravitated towards certain music and players that I enjoyed the most. And the drummers that I remember, I still think of a lot: Tony Williams, especially the 60s Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, Joe Chambers, Paul Motian… I hope I'm not leaving someone out really…
I could name like 30 more people, really...
Sure. And in terms of influential drum teachers - are there any? Or you would say, mostly, the records?
I'd say a lot of the work I did on my own and with records, and also seeing players play live… But my teachers had some good advice, and good things to say, as well. I remember specifically Horacee Arnold showing me some things about the brushes that were very useful for me at that time. And Elliot made some perceptive comments about my playing, same with John Riley, when he substituted… They gave me some things to think about.
Any specific methods come to mind?
I don't remember any particular method or system or anything like that. I remember the lessons being fairly loose. I don't remember any particular method.
Do you practice a lot these days?
It varies pretty wildly. I go pretty long periods without practicing. If I have some time off, sometimes I won't practice. For example, if I've got a week off between 2 or 3 weeks of touring, sometimes I won't practice. Then again, sometimes I do. So, especially if I had something coming up, and I haven't been playing for a while, I'll practice. I still feel like I get a lot of good out of the time that I spend practicing, so I hope to continue practicing but… it's also good for me to lay off a little bit, to rest my ears, and just clear out a little bit. That sometimes has a purpose, too.
Right. Is there any regimen, for example if you had 2 hours of time and you would practice now, how would you split that up?
If I hadn't been playing for a while, I would either just go and improvise at the drums, or I might play along with CDs just to get in the habit of making those motions and connect with the instrument. I don't sit down and warm up or exercise.
Did you ever practice rudiments?
I'm sure that I did practice them at some point. But I can't say they were a regular or steady part of my practice routine.
So there's no sacred drill you always do before a gig or something like that?
No. Most days, when I have a gig, I'm not playing until there's a sound check. Then I'll play at the sound check, and if there's none, then, I'll play on the first tune of the gig. I don't really warm up…
I remember an instance, when I heard you years ago, and I hadn't heard you for a while before that. I made a remark to you then that I really enjoyed that your playing seems to always evolve - it was different than the time I had heard you before…
Yeah, I like that. I mean, I like to see all the things evolve, maybe even feel that I'm getting better… The musical learning process should be kind of a never-ending, kind of infinite thing. So it's nice to feel you're developing, rather than feel like you're playing the same old shit over and over again. (laughs)
Right. (Laughs) So, let's see. In terms of New York, what are your feelings now? Versus years ago, where it was "okay, if you wanna be a jazz musician, you HAVE to be in New York because that's where its happening." Do you also share that belief or the observation that over the last couple of years, all over the world the level of playing has gone up considerably, and there are many other places where there's a really high level of playing?
I think it's true that the world is getting smaller. There are players playing on a higher level, generally, globally, everywhere. It's just a smaller world, and everybody has access to recordings and things on the Internet, and also a lot of places have jazz schools now. And people are learning to play jazz in academia as well. So, I in the time that I've been a professional musician, I've definitely noticed the level rising in places other than New York City.
However, I do think that New York still has by far the most concentration of great music to hear, and great players. And I still think it's a great experience for less experienced or younger musicians to be here and take in some of those things. The scene in New York has changed, somewhat too, it seems…
What are your thoughts on that? And, if you compare this to when you first came here versus how it is now, how has that altered?
I think one factor is economics. I just think that, for instance, rents in Manhattan have just skyrocketed. When I first moved to New York, when I first started doing gigs and exchanging phone numbers with people, this would've been in the late 80s, it seemed like everyone had a 212 Manhattan number, or the majority of people. And now hardly anyone does. Everyone's in Brooklyn, Queens, Upstate New York, New Jersey. Musicians are more scattered geographically, I think. So in a way, it feels like less of a musical community. I think some of that are just economic facts. I mean, for instance, Steve Swallow told me when he first moved to New York, which must have been in the very early 60s, that his rent was so low that he could just play a couple of casual gigs, like parties, just to pay his rent, and then he'd be cool for the month. But that's not the case now. So, I think that's one factor and one thing that changed about the scene. And, of course, clubs have come and gone, and the price of hearing music in New York is higher generally.
You know the clubs are catering to tourists and charging higher prices. Now… if you work there… if you work at these clubs, in a way, it's better because the fees that they can pay are higher than they were 20 years ago. But let's face it, there are a lot of good musicians who aren't really working at those clubs. So, yeah, the scene has gradually changed, I feel. For myself, I feel it's a little less essential to live in New York at this point, but I still do think that it's advantageous. And given the fact that I really do enjoy the city, I seem to be here to stay at the moment. (Laughs) At least for now…
It's not like you feel like "I don't like it here, but I have to be here because that's where it's happening"? You enjoy being here?
I do still enjoy the city, yeah. Whether I like it more than 20 years from now, I'm not sure. It's changing you know, but, it's still a very interesting city, I think. And one of the few cities in America, where you can walk a lot of places.
Everywhere else you have to own a car.
Very true. Do you go out to hear music?
I do. Not as much as I once did, but I still do.
Any stuff you heard recently that you like?
Well, let's see. What did I hear recently?
That you liked. (Laughs)
Yeah. Well, let's see, I was down at the Village Vanguard a few times recently. I heard the Vanguard Big band for a fund-raiser for Dennis Irwin and they were playing with John Scofield. I was also there to hear Ed Simon's Trio, with John Patitucci, and Brian Blade, and both of those things were quite good.
Any advice for young musicians who are serious about it? How to succeed in this business? And also, how to make the move to New York, how to land ‘the gig of their dreams'?
That's a question I get asked a lot, but there's no big secret to that. Making all those connections is such a gradual process, I think. And it's gonna happen more quickly for some players than others. A lot of it is just being able to play well and being able to play with a variety of groups. I think when you first come to New York and you're looking for work, you don't wanna only be looking for the certain kind of work that's gonna lead to your dream gig… Because, you may never end up with your dream gig, but you might get another gig that's really good, that's actually gonna be your dream gig. You know what I'm saying?
So, I think it's a gradual process of making connections and also getting the experience of playing with a lot of people. When I first came to New York, I did a lot of what we would call sessions, and go over to people's places and rehearsal studios and play with them. I'm not talking about getting paid. I'm just talking about going to play, and making connections, and also, going out to hear music. Having people know you're kind of around, and you're there, and so you meet people that'll remember you. Maybe they hear you play somewhere, they hear a CD that you're on... It's about always trying to get better as a musician, learning from players that are better than you…
And that really can help you learn faster.
But, you know, when you come to New York, in the beginning, you can't be too picky. Someone wanted to take a drum lesson with me a while back and he made it clear that he was kinda shooting for this certain gig that he mentioned and… you can keep that in mind, but don't plan on it! (Laughs)
I could think of a lot of gigs that I probably would have liked to have along the way that I never had, and maybe never will. But that's okay…
Right. Here's an interesting sidenote on that… Many, many years ago, I took a workshop where Jeff Hamilton was the teacher.
And we kind of became friends, and he was a very sweet guy. He let me play on his amazing old Ks… And at the end of that workshop, which was over 20 years ago, he pulled me aside and said, "So what are the three favorite gigs you would love to have?" and that was kind of, his take on the question I just asked you. Well.., I told him, and one of them actually happened to be John Scofield, and he said, "Okay, as an example: assuming that you are at the level that John Scofield needs a drummer to play at - here's how you do this: Do you know somebody that knows John Scofield personally?" I said, "No." And he said, "Yes you do! John Clayton (bass teacher at the workshop) - his wife went to school with John…"
Yes, I think that's right.
And then Jeff said "So what you want to do is to make a recording that is in the idiom that John is playing, and where you're obviously playing at a level good enough to play with John Scofield. Then you wanna give this tape to this person that knows John, in this case, John Clayton's wife, and SHE has to give it to John. Otherwise, he'll never listen to it. And that's how that goes."
Uh-huh. Well, that's one approach. I know people do that sort of thing. I know John gets all kinds of things in the mail. Most of those things either don't make it to the CD player, or, if they do, they might not stay there for very long. I know a drummer who sent John a video for instance and, you know, I actually saw some of those videos, and it was not very good. (Laughs) Anyway… I mean, it can work sometimes. I guess that's one way to go about it, if you're willing to do that. I mean, people even try to give me CDs and tapes and things. Sometimes I end up with a stack of stuff at home that I haven't gotten to listen to. I can probably point to some things in this room that people have given me, that I haven't been able listen to yet, because I don't have time.
But, that is one way to do it, if you know somebody who knows somebody… But the thing is, they have to be really impressed with what you give them.
If they're not, then, it's not gonna help you. So not only do you have to give them a CD or something, but you're banking on the fact that they're gonna like it. So…
So, we're brushing over the fact that it better be damn good. (Laughs)
Yeah. Exactly. And even if it is damn good, there's a chance that it might not get listened to. Just because artists that are well known are just used to people sending them stuff and giving them stuff, and go, "Hey, give me a gig." And at a certain point, that can be a turn-off for some people. It's probably better if a musician that that person knows recommends you to the person.
Ah. I see.
A musician that they play with plays with you somewhere else or something like that - that's a more likely situation.
Okay. Well… Enough about that one.
What are your favorite sidemen gigs?
Well, let's see…
I have enjoyed all of the things that I've done in different ways, and the things that I've done on a semi-regular basis. I enjoyed playing with Scofield over the years, with the various bands that we've worked with. It started with a band with Joe Lovano and either Dennis Irwin on bass, or in the very early days, Marc Johnson.
That was a great experience for me at that time, at that point in my career, as far as the direction of the band and the quality level.
Thereafter, I played tours with John that included musicians like Larry Goldings and Eddie Harris. Also, I played with Larry Goldings' Trio for 20 years. Sometimes it's the Peter Bernstein Trio, and occasionally even the Bill Stewart Trio. So, it goes by different names but mostly it's been Larry Goldings Trio. We just did a week at the Village Vanguard a couple of months ago, and that was very nice again.
I even played with Maceo Parker, which was an interesting experience and really fun and educational.
You have to tell us that story about your experience with James Brown!
Well, I was playing with Maceo's band at that time and James was just getting out of prison. I think he had been there for a while, and so HBO, the Cable TV network, arranged a concert. It involved MC Hammer who apparently was influenced by James. But James hadn't been working, so they hired Maceo's band to accompany James and play some of James' material. So, anyway, we rehearsed during the day of the actual filming, so there wasn't much time to get it together. And when we rehearsed with James, he asked me: "Drummer, where're you from?"
And I said, "I am from Iowa." He said, "Iowa? Ain't no funk there." (laughs)
(Laughs) What was your answer?
I didn't have an answer, everybody just cracked up.
It was funny.
You know, even James' wife called him Mr. Brown. It was pretty strange.
Any other funny anecdotes that come to mind?
Actually, we were talking about sidemen gigs I hadn't quite finished on that.
Let's see, I played with Pat Metheny for a year and a half, and that was really fun, and really different than other things that I have done, and we did a lot of touring and that music went in a lot of directions in the course of one concert. I really enjoyed that. Let's see, other sidemen gigs…: Chris Potter's band was fun. And we just ended a week with Dr. Lonnie Smith, that was fun.
With Peter Bernstein?
Yeah, Pete was playing, and also Nicholas Payton and Donald Harrison. Quintet or extended trio, however you wanna look at it. I am trying to think what else I've been doing. I play a lot with Kevin Hays, the pianist, touring with the trio. I enjoy playing different kinds of things, as long as the music is on a high level.
I heard some of Kevin's music where he was singing and you were playing on it, and I really enjoyed it, and obviously didn't expect him to sing. I've really enjoyed how well you played that on-the-surface simple stuff, but it had so much depth and meaning.
Yes, it's challenging to play something simple and make it sound like something deep. I like trying to do that.
And I also thought: most jazz drummers couldn't hold their own in such a different style and still play at the same high level – and you obviously do and did that. As you did with Maceo and others. When I listen to those songs with Kevin Hays, it's so simple yet so well-played. It made me aware again, that one of those things I always admired in your playing was that level of attention to detail. It was so obvious that you've really cared about the nuances and the level of detail that went into your playing. Can you talk some about that?
Yes, sure. It's harder to play something simple that's great than it is to play a lot of notes. Because it's so simple, you can really relate, and communicate that feeling, and focus on the way it's played. So it becomes more a matter of how it's played, than what it is on paper.
And, when you're playing a lot of busy notes, it should also have that same depth. It becomes more obvious, though, when you're playing something simple, when it doesn't have that special thing to it. I think it's something I have been honing in on in recent years. Rather than playing things that are more complex, to try to play the simple things even better.
Yeah, that's great.
So, yeah, I think about that and I admire the players who have been able to do that.
Who comes to mind that inspires you in that direction?
I've heard pretty much all the great players play something simple that knocked me out. Let's see if I can give you an example. Let's take Tony Williams, who's known for playing technically incredible drum stuff and all that. But I like this track he did on Miles record, it's called Water Babies. He just played cymbals. It's pretty simple but it's all brilliantly placed. And it's not technically hard. That's one example.
And then I used to listen to a lot of drummers who accompanied singers. Like Bernard Purdie with Aretha Franklin, the way he would play with her - he plays something really simple but it had this feeling, too. It was special.
I remember, years ago, I heard Billy Higgins at the Vanguard with George Coleman.
Yeah, that's a good example, too!
That was a prime example. At that time, I was thinking "that's boring. I know that…" And boy was I wrong. And I've really changed big time in my opinion about that.
Right. I mean, Billy Higgins could just play that cymbal beat all night long, and I wouldn't get bored with that. I mean, who else could do it like he does it?
Yes. Now… We should definitely also talk about your projects, too. I know you have a record coming out.
It's called "Incandescence", and it's on Pirouet Records.
Do you want to talk a little bit about who's on that and what that was about?
Yeah. That's the group I've been doing a little bit of work with for a few years now. With two musicians who I've played with for many years, Larry Goldings, who plays mostly organ, and Kevin Hays, who plays mostly piano in this group. So it's two keyboards and drums. I play with Larry in the trio with Peter Bernstein for many years and really love that. But I thought of having an organ trio with piano, instead of guitar, and also the possibilities of being able to write for that because I play a little piano. I play at home - not for anyone's enjoyment, or lack thereof.
I play the piano at home quite a bit. So I wanted to be able to write some things for two keyboards. I put out a record on my own, that I recorded in 2002 . I must have put it out in about 2004 , called "Keynote Speakers", with the same group. This new one is on Pirouet.
Is it all your music?
It is, this time. And I'm pleased with it and pleased that it's coming out.
So there's distribution in the States?
Yeah, there's going to be distribution in the States. They're pushing it here. They've got a guy that's helping with publicity here. So, yeah, it's gonna be available here, which is great.
Any touring coming up with that group?
Nothing lined up at the moment. We did a tour of Europe that was not that long. It was about 10 days. It's a little challenging to get Larry and Kevin together because Larry's been living in L.A. and plays with James Taylor a lot, and also Kevin once lived in New Mexico, but he actually moved back to the East Cost, so I hope to do some gigs with them again in the near future, but there's nothing on the calendar at the moment. Which is perfect timing for the CD release, don't you think?
That's what CDs are for… replacement of musicians touring…
One thing that really comes to mind again with this recording of yours, is that both Larry and Kevin have that same quality that I really enjoy in your playing: that real depth in their playing…
Yeah, I hear that… I hear the depth in their playing, and I heard it develop over the years as well. And then it turns out we play well together, so that's even better. So… yeah, it's been fun to do that.
Great. So that's that. What are you listening to now when you listen to music? What do you put in your CD player? Or if you're on tour, do you listen to music?
If I'm touring, it seems that I don't listen to music very much, because I'm playing every night and that's the music I wanna hear for the day usually. When I'm traveling in a car I don't find myself putting on headphones very much.
You used to?
I used to do that more, yeah. But as the years have gone, gradually, I listen less and less on the road. Partially because I just wanna have my ears be clear for the gig. Also when you're playing music in an automobile, you have to turn up the music so loud to hear it, to keep hearing the bass over the engine noises and stuff. I don't find it to be very satisfying listening. So I listen to some at home now, but still, not as much as I used to. Sometimes, I listen when I'm cleaning the house, depending on what it is, But, you know, I still listen to jazz music and a lot of classical things, too, a lot of modern classical things..
Do you mind giving us some examples of what you would put on?
Yeah. I've been listening to Messiaen's Opera, which is incredible. It's called Saint Francois d'Assise, or St. Francis of Assisi. It's great. And it's long, it's 4 CD's worth. So, it's hard to listen to all of it in one afternoon, but I guess you could, if you wanted to. And somebody just gave me a copy of Lygeti's opera, so I'm going to check that out. But I always listen to stuff like modern classical music, Bartok, Stravinsky, etc.
More than jazz?
I don't know about more than jazz. I still listen to jazz and still put on old jazz records and stuff, that's more of my house cleaning music though.
No, I'll sit down and listen to it, too.
If you had to choose some of the most influential records for yourself?
You could probably give me anything by the mid-60's Miles Davis Quintet, I'll pick that. For me, that's an incredible group. Everything they did pretty much. So, let's start with that and then add on to that. There are Miles Davis recordings from other areas, too, like the stuff with Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb, and even the earlier stuff of Kenny Clarke, Percy Heath, and the Gil Evans stuff. I like all that.
But, you know, I also like older players like Ben Webster, for instance. A lot of the greats… Lester Young. Maybe a good recording of "The Rite of Spring". I'm probably forgetting something that I couldn't live without on that island. But anyway…
And how about some of the records that represent some of your own playing best?
Oh, let's see… well I would say some of my records as a leader, maybe this new one and the ones I did for BlueNote. Those I was fairly pleased with. And the things I've done with Scofield. Maybe one of the early ones like "What We Do", and "live at the BlueNote", the trio with Steve Swallow.
So you still enjoy listening to those records that you did many years ago? You don't feel like "Ah, that's not me anymore" or something like that?
Well, for once, I think it's not me anymore but I think the music is still strong. But I don't sit around and listen to that stuff. Once in a while, I hear it again, years later. I might think that it's better than I thought it was or I might think it was worse. I might think, "Oh, that's not as good as I remember it." (laughs) I wanna feel that things are getting better, too. I've made a lot of records that I think are good, with a lot of different people. The records that I made with Larry Goldings' Trio with Peter Bernstein or "EarthTones", which is under Peter's name. For the ones I did with Larry, I would say, I like "Moonbirds", which is on Palmetto.
I really enjoyed also the very first recordings of this band years ago, on Minor Music.
Oh… which one? There were two.
I don't recall now. I remember you were telling me that the choice of saxophone player was dictated by the record company…
The saxophone player on that record?
Right. And that you had wanted somebody else to be on the record.
That might've been true. That kind of thing happens all the time, but I don't remember the specifics to that, but ah… I don't know if the first choice wasn't available or the record company didn't want him or… (Laughs)
I think that the record company wanted this guy to be on there…
Now I do kind of recall that, yeah, yeah, yeah…
…which is a perfect segue… We have a couple of minutes left here… Any thoughts on the current state of affairs of the music industry? Recordings?
Well, it's hard to be really optimistic. There's just a lot of crap out there, and a lot of people listening to a lot of crap out there, and not really paying any attention to the music. Everyone's walking on the street with their iPods but I don't think that anybody is really listening to anything. It's just background to their lives. And it's funny, when I hear jazz, it's in restaurants where people are eating and talking. Maybe they think it's classier than playing Top 40... I don't know, but it seems we have become just background music. I think people's attention span is getting shorter. And of course, the record business is changing. People download music rather than actually buying something and holding it in their hand. I guess that could be okay but….
You see that as an opportunity also?
It's definitely an opportunity, it kinda levels the playing field for a lot of people, because now anybody can put out their CD and get people interested, and you don't need the record companies to approve of you as much now. Now you don't need to be found by Clive Davis…
Yup. That's a beautiful thing.
So that's kind of a great thing. But of course, the downside is that record companies have the ability to promote you and access to the retail stores. So, I don't know… I guess people have to promote themselves. And if you're not good at that, it can be a problem… I mean, I don't feel that I'm such a self-promoter myself. I just kind of try to play music, and get better at it.. But I find myself having to do more things, send more emails and stuff… (Laughs) It's definitely changing so quickly. I also wish there was more interest in people's original music. It seems like, for instance, if you want to tour the festivals in the summer in Europe, you have to have some kind of a theme or something for it to get the festivals interested. Like "tribute to Billie Holiday" or something. Some kind of a catch… It can't just be somebody's original music that's really good, or really different, maybe unlike what you've heard before. It's harder to do that I think. But… you know, people are persevering and they are doing it. Me personally, I certainly can't complain because I'm still playing a lot and playing a lot of music that I think is good. So I'm not one to complain but I definitely see things changing.
Any young guys, you enjoy listening to, or that you see when you play the festivals? Younger drummers coming up where you think "Well, that was interesting, or that's a talented guy"?
Yeah, yeah, there are some younger drummers that are really good. Like Rodney Green is a good drummer. Or, Francesco Mela, just heard him. He's a very good player. Then, there are some guys who are younger than me, that are kind of in their 30s or something that are really good, too. People like Eric Harland. I am probably leaving out somebody really good once again…
And really quickly, before we finish, I want to make sure we touch briefly on your equipment! What cymbals are you playing now, are those new cymbals? New Zildjians?
Yeah, in fact, there's a line of cymbals that I developed. It's out since the summer of 2008, I think. I developed cymbals before that were called "K' Custom Dry Complex Ride", and we made those in two different weights. So what's coming out next is gonna be called "K' Custom Dry Complex Ride II". And instead of being in 2 weights of 22", it's gonna be all in one weight, but 3 sizes… It's gonna be 22", 20" and also 24". Yeah, I've been using those cymbals a lot recently on my tours.
So you're actually playing them?
Oh yeah, for sure. I mean they are really knocking me out, to tell you the truth. I really think they're gonna be good. The first line people seemed to like, too. But these are different. The bell is different. It's a lower profile bell. And they've been made a little heavier now, and the bell kind of allowed that to happen. It kind of gives them a lower pitch so I didn't have to go so thin to get pitch that I like. Since I have been at Zildjian, the cymbals have really improved dramatically over the years, especially in recent years. I am excited about them.
I'm not just saying that to plug a product or whatever, but you did ask, so… (Laughs)
(Laughs) Do you remember that little story? I think it was in 1992, where I heard you play at a club in New York. And I thought "those are not the old K's that he usually plays" - And they were pre-aged K's. And then I went up to you in the break, and said, "that doesn't sound like the ones in the store that I bought". (laughs) And you told me that Zildjian had given you some and you didn't like them too much, and that you had started hammering on them and basically "custom-treated" them.
Yeah, I did that. Well, I think that particular one…, I don't even know if I would call it hammering… I basically put cracks in it, you know… I basically put little hairline cracks in it. I didn't quite know what I was doing with the hammer at that point. It got a little better at that after I saw you, I think, but I put cracks in that cymbal, and the end result was that it sort of dried and darkened it up and it was playable for me. So, yeah, I remember using that from time to time. And I remember you bringing your cymbal over at the club.
Right. I called you the next day and said, "Hey, would you mind trying it again on my cymbal…?" And you were interested in checking if you could replicate it. And you did. And it sounded great. I still have it.
Does it still play?
The cracks didn't spread so much that it just….
I think I tried to put them away from the playing surface, like away from where you'd actually hit it. Well, it's great that it still plays.
It's a very nice cymbal. I did some records with it as well. Sounded good.
Good. I don't think that the one you heard of mine is still playable. I don't even know if I have it. I think I might have it somewhere but I think I could have easily put it out on the curb at this point.
Okay, I think we are about out of time here… Our hour is up, and I want to thank you very much for doing this. I know you were extremely busy and about to leave to Europe. So, thank you for squeezing this in!
Any final words of wisdom you wanna give to our listeners?
I really don't think I have anything at the moment.
How about a musician's joke?
I have one if you don't have one…
Okay, go ahead…
Uhmmm… a guy calls a jazz club and says, "Hey, I wanted to ask about the concert tonight. I wanted to find out when it's starting." And the guy who picked up the phone says, "Well, when can you be here?"
Not true for Bill Stewart's concerts of course!
There, there will be no lack of people.
(laughs) Okay. Well, I'll keep that one in mind for future band rides.
Okay. Well, Bill, it was a pleasure. Thanks for sharing all of this with us and hopefully we can do this again another time a while from now.
That'll be great.
By Nate Chinen
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."
By TIMOTHY ORR
Bill Stewart's loose-limbed, post-bop fusillades have been turning instrumentalists' heads for close to 20 years. The Iowa-born drummer first emerged on the New York jazz scene in the late '80s, and since then has made his presence known worldwide with such artists as John Scofield, Maceo Parker, Pat Metheny, Larry Goldings, and many others. Stewart's strong rhythmic sense is melodically driven, using a multilayered, percolating approach that emphasizes both an outer dialog with other musicians as well as an inner dialog. His sideman and leader recordings are permeated by fearless, across-the-bar phrasing and loose funkiness with an open yet dry sound — Roots Revisited, Mo' Roots, and Southern Exposure with Maceo Parker, What We Do and Hand Jive with John Scofield, Trio 99-00 and Trio Live with Pat Metheny, and Traveling Mercies with Chris Potter are but a sampling of recordings as sideman. As a leader, he's released Snide Remarks, Telepathy, and Think Before You Think in the 1990s. We caught up with Stewart on a rainy day in Oakland, California in October 2007 as he was touring with John Scofield's group.
What's it like playing with Steve Swallow?
Playing with Steve is fun. He has a unique sound on the electric bass, not like other electric bass players. He has a very singing, lyrical way of playing, not just when he solos, but in the ensemble too. Steve brings a lot of history from his own career when we play with John Scofield. They've had a relationship for many years, from before I've played with them. But Steve also used to play acoustic bass and has played with a lot of great musicians, so his concept has an acoustic bass concept in it as well. Steve is really solid. We have a lot of fun playing, so it's always a pleasure.
What's the secret to melodic playing on the drum set?
Well, there's a limited amount of pitches usually. I don't play that big of a set — four or five drums and some cymbals — so I come up with some shapes and that makes a melody. Sometimes it's something very simple that seems most melodic. There's no secret there. I mean, you just try to play things that are clear and tell a story and are developed. You play a melody one way and then you can play it upside down and sideways to develop it — and then once you start doing that, you can do quite a lot with a limited amount of actual pitches, but there's no real secret.
What's been your most "out there" musical experience?
I don't usually play in contexts that are totally free. But I remember in college and later, getting together with people and just playing free a lot. I did some things that were pretty free with a pianist named Bill Carrothers; we did a record of duos and some of that material was free playing. It might not sound exactly like what people think of when they think of free playing, but I guess if I'm playing free I want it to be open enough not to be a particular kind of free playing. I like the concept of free playing — I think it's very challenging. Obviously it's more risky because you're not planning certain structural points in the music, so if you're playing free with people, you have to really trust their decision-making and they have to trust you. Collectively, you have to make decisions to go left or right — and that's a challenging and different mindset. With some of the musicians I play with, we play some free things. Even with John Scofield, there are some parts in the music that are very free. We have a piece we're playing this week where the improvisation is wide open. It's not planned; it can go anyplace.
If you could go back to 1940 and play with any musicians, who would they be?
1940? That's an interesting question [long silence]. It would be nice to play with Lester Young or Ben Webster. That would be pretty great. I'm named after the trombonist who played with the Woody Herman Orchestra, Bill Harris — a great player that not so many people are aware of. That would be fun too. Wow. There were so many people alive at that time, that's an interesting question. Wow. I got my choice of a lot of people there [laughs, long silence]. Well, that's a start.
What instrument would you play if not drums?
Probably piano, just because there are so many possibilities. I play piano at home and I probably play piano at home more than I play the drums at this point. Plus, you can think of the piano as 88 drums in a way — there's the percussive component of it. Rhythmically, I can do a lot of the things I do on the drum set, but there are all these other possibilities — a lot of other things to think about, like harmony.
Talk about your aspirations as a leader.
I like being a leader. I like writing music for a group and I like the process of actually making the music. I don't always like the other things that go into being a bandleader — you know, trying to hustle up gigs and recordings and various things. And if you don't have someone that's managing you and doing all these things for you, than you have to do them yourself. As busy as I've been as a sideman, I probably haven't pursued it as aggressively as I might if I had more time on my hands. But when I'm a leader, that's the time I feel like I can express my point of view musically. Otherwise, my playing has an effect on whomever the music involves, but I don't pick the tunes; I don't decide the order; I don't decide the direction; I don't decide the personnel of the band. So for me, the way to express how I feel about music is by doing something as a leader, and I do these things from time to time. I do a record or some gigs, and I've been doing them more recently. There's an album I just recorded that a company is probably going to buy, we're negotiating the final aspects of that. So I hope to have something new out next spring with a trio and with music that I wrote. I really enjoy being a bandleader, but it's challenging, especially for drummers and bass players that aren't usually thought of as being the lead voice. People expect the leader to be the horn player who's out front, or the singer. I think even some of the great players like Tony Williams ran into frustrations with that, even though he was very successful later on. I went out on a tour with a trio, and I pay the guys and see what's left over for me, if anything.
What are the qualities that make someone a great bandleader? Are they all different or is there a common thread?
I think a good bandleader should be good at putting a band together that has good chemistry with each other. And not all bandleaders are good at that. Some people put together bands where the components are mismatched; they might all be great players. It's nice if you can get a band where they're greater than the sum of their parts, you know? The great bands have had that. They might be great musicians, but together, they sound even better. Dealing with people is important, programming, picking the music, and having somewhat of a vision without controlling everything. At least with the music I play, it's nice if the bandleader can let the musicians be themselves and contribute in the way that makes them comfortable, rather than dictating what everyone does. Different bandleaders have different approaches.
You're known for your ability to play matched grip on just about anything. Any advantages? Disadvantages?
I started with matched grip and I never really got traditional grip together enough to really play it. So that's what I can play, and that's what I use. There's definitely a difference in the sound of the two, and I've checked out traditional grip enough to know some of the differences in sound and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each. In some ways, with my matched grip, I try to approximate the sound of traditional grip by holding the stick up higher, at more of an angle to the drum. Also, I play off the center of the snare drum a lot, which gives a different sound. So I've gone back and forth from the two grips and just listened to the difference in tone. If I want to get a tone similar to traditional grip, I can approximate it to some extent. It would be nice to play traditional grip — maybe I'll work on it someday. Occasionally, I'll play it when I'm performing, I'll play a little traditional grip just for the hell of it, to get that sound in my ear to see what the difference is. I think that traditional grip has an advantage for brushes, especially if you have a swirl pattern that goes clockwise. With matched grip, I can't do a swirl pattern in the left hand that goes clockwise very comfortably, because it seems that with matched grip, I need more arm motion to get that happening. So I end up running into my body, basically. That's why I play counter-clockwise — I think counter-clockwise works much better with matched grip. So with brushes, I had to work on getting that together.
What piece of gear that you own is most important to you?
Well, if I were to show up to a gig with one thing, it would be a cymbal that I could ride on. If it wasn't that, it would be a snare drum. But in that case I would probably be playing brushes all night.
What would you have done differently in terms of your drumming education?
Nothing. I'm sure there are things I could have done differently, but that would have changed however things have progressed. Early on, my drumming education was pretty loose. I played mostly with records at my house. So I didn't get the most traditional drumming education of lessons, lots of drum books, and rudiments and things. But I got into them a little later. I don't know, things developed okay for me, so I don't want to change any aspect of that.
Any rock drummers you admire? R&B?
R&B drummers, absolutely. One of my big idols originally was Bernard Purdie. I still love what he does. If I can think of some of the other people, well, Idris Muhammad crosses over into that area sometimes, and Roger Hawkins, who is on a lot of those Aretha Franklin records and such. I know I'm forgetting some people. I was just listening to the Steely Dan record the other night, Aja. All the drummers on that are just killing it.
What's the difference playing for Pat Metheny versus John Scofield?
Regardless of who I'm playing with, I try to go to the gig with an open mindset and be in the moment. Because Pat writes different music than John, those things are going to naturally bring out something different in me. So I don't have to go to John's gig with a different agenda than Pat's gig. It's just when I'm there, I listen and play, interact, and in the moment I create what's going to happen, from my part at least. But it does come out sounding different, of course. Both gigs are really fun; I feel like I can express myself. The music goes in a lot of different directions with both John and Pat, but not the same directions. I would say Pat plays more ballads, more even eighth-note things. John has more medium-tempo and funky things — New Orleans influenced. On both gigs I can hit the drums quite a bit, which is cool.
by Ken Micallef
It's been many years since Des Moines, Iowa's favorite son Bill Stewart burst on the scene with guitarist John Scofield and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano -- and was soon feautured in his first Modern Drummer cover story (March'96). It's also been a few years since Stewart's two Blue Note solo efforts, Snide Remarks and Telepathy (and Evidence's Think Before You Think), made a considerable splash in both the drumming world and the jazz community at large.
Chronology aside, Stewart's impressive impact has been felt and revered ever since his 1987 debut recording, Scott Kreitzer's Kick 'N Off. Now as then, Stewart's mighty command of the drums, his highly propulsive and ignitable time feel, and his seemingly endless imagination coupled with absolute technical control and dexterity make him a drummer other drummers never tire of hearing. Clarity, forward motion, and graphic rhythmic detail expressed through impact, projection, and power are only a few of Stewart's musical attributes.
A creative and private individual with a fondness for films and fine wine. Bill Stewart is as articulate in conversation as he is when playing his Gretsch drumset. Most can remember the first time they heard the drummer; whether swinging madly on Lovano's Landmarks, Scofield's What We Do, or Larry Goldings' Whatever It Takes - or even playing a skanky funk groove with R&B saxophone king Maceo Parker.
Since then, Stewart has recorded with Michael Brecker, Wycliffe Gordon, Lee Konitz, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, and more NYC underground musicians than a runaway subway train. In some aspects, Stewart's current drumming is simplay an extension of his early work. But holy cow, what an extension!
A handful of new releases exhibit Stewart's maturation and ongoing evolution with precision and remarkable diversity. Guitarist Peter Bernstein's Heart's Contenct (Criss Cross) shows the drummer in the hard-bop guise he wears with such great ease and effortless comportment. Saxophonist Chris Potter weaves his outside jazz spell around Stewart's super-logical but intuitive skill set on Lift: Live At The Village Vanguard (Sunnyside). And The John Scofield Trio's new one, Live EnRoute, shows what can happen when three combustible musicians well versed in each other's styles interact on the absolute highest plane of jazz improvisation. (By the way, look out for Bill's next record as leader, a trio outing with pianist Kevin Hays and Hammon organist Larry Goldings.)
EnRoute in particular is a high-flying, fire-breathing performance from Stewart. His drumming on it is nothing short of revelatory, be it the tipping bop of Denzil Best's "Wee", the odd-meter phrasings of alien-love ballad "Toogs", the maddeningly fast straight-ahead missiles "Name That Tune" and "Travel John", the suffle science of "Bag", the spidery stickings of "It Is Written", or the New Orleans marching rolls and rumpus walk of "Over Big Top". Throughout, Stewart plays with a mixture of remarkable clarity, uncanny feel, flammable intensity, and original, sparkling creativity that is both inspiring and highly daunting to any drummer who thinks he too is ready to make the trek to New York and take on the big boys.
Luckily for us, Stewart gave us a very in-depth interview this month, from his Brooklyn home. Not only did he discuss his playing on recent recordings, he agreed to sit down with sticks and drumset in his practice room to reveal secrets about his arsenal of courageous and at times infuriating drum sounds.
It sounds like your technique and means of expression have matured dramatically since your early days with John Scofield, and certainly with Maceo Parker.
That's probably true just because of all the experience I've had playing with different bands and going on tour and playing every night. Experience is a great teacher. And, of course, I try things every night, even though they don't always work. But I have this "memory log" of all my experiences. Because of it, it's becoming easier to get to a creative space as I get older.
What do you mean by "memory log"? Do you have photographic memory?
No, but I have clear memories of my experiences playing live or in the studio.
Do you remember specific things you played on certain records?
Sometimes I do, even though I don't listen to my records all that much. I listen to them when they first come out. I want to hear what's going on. But then I don't go back to them.
So it sounds as if your increased ability hasn't been a literal, technical practice method where you sat down and worked to get to a certain level. On the new Scofield record, your technical level and what you're playing in general is astounding. But on other new records, such as the Chris Potter or Peter Bernstein discs, you don't take it out as much. Those performances are more laid-back, your cymbal patterns aren't as broken, and it's more old-school.
That's partially due to the difference between the personalities involved, and the instrumentation. The Potter record was recorded live at the Village Vanguard with piano. Any time I'm playing in a club with piano I have to be very careful not to step on the piano player as far as what he's playing. And also, volume-wise, certain notes on the toms might cover the piano chords, etc. You have to be very sensitivbe to that.
With John [Scofield] and Steve [Swallow], it's a trio, so when John is soling there's no comping instrument, which leaves me a lot of space. And also, John plays louder than a piano. With one less musician in the band, it allows me to go nuts, if that's what I want to do. And I can do so without covering or overshadowing the other guys in the band.
I try to make the music happen in the best way for whatever situation I'm in. It's a pretty intuitive thing while it's happening. I don't go in to a project with an agenda of either going nuts or really cooling it. I'm just listening and reacting. I just try to play every gig with the best energy I can.
It also sounds like you're playing very quietly at times, using a great deal of dynamics.
That's something I've always done to some extent; maybe I'm doing it more now. One thing about the Scofield trio is that I can play witha really wide dynamic range. The electric instruments can match that. A piano can't. When my volume is maxed out, that won't work with a piano in a club. And the Scofield record was recorded a year after the Potter one, so maybe there's also some development there.
What's the difference between playing with Pat Metheny and John Scofield as rhythmic foils?
With Metheny, I play more ballads and what people call even 8th notes, feels that are influenced by Brazilian music, but looser. I also play more fast tempos with Pat. With John, the music gravitates towards medium tempos. Pat is more influenced by Brazilian music, and John is into New Orleans music and R&B. But they have the jazz tradition in common.
How do you develop new ideas? On the Scofield album, for instance, it sounds as if you're playing more cross-rhythms than ever before. Do you ever surprise yourself on stage?
Sometimes. I'll play things that I think I know how they sound, but when I hear them back they sound like something else. Sometimes when I practice I just improvise. Then, if I come upon something that's interesting, I'll work with it for a while, maybe developing one or two other ideas from that initial one. Then I develop other ideas from those. If you have one idea, you should be able to come up with ten more. By the time you get to the tenth one, a listener might not think it's related to the first, but it is.
Can you give an example of that process?
I'll take an idea, whatever it might be, and then play it backwards. Of it it's an idea that uses single strokes, I might play a double stroke where each single stroke is. Then I might play the same idea but change the instrumentation of where I play it on the drumset. And then, instead of a double stroke on every stroke, I might play a buzz stroke. Right there I'm up to five ideas.
This might all sound like a very organized way to go about developing ideas, but for me, when I work on things like this, the whole process is more of an intuitive thing. As William H. Macy says in Fargo, "I'm doing my best here." [laughs]
Another surprising thing on the Scofield record is your level of overall control on the set. You seem to be able to play anything you want at any volume level, at times playing explosively at a low volume.
I think most drummers have more trouble playing quietly than they do playing loudly. I've had a lot of experience in situations where I had to play super quiet. In fact, I just did a piano-trio gig in Italy in this big echoey hall, and they didn't have a PA. You know how high the decibel level of a drum can be in a place like that. So experiences like that are very helpful.
On that particular gig, at first I rolled my eyes, but then I realized it could be a nice challenge to try and give the music some intensity at that volume. The result of that is, when I play with a group that's a bit louder - like the Scofield trio - I can still use some of that "volume control" I've developed in other situations.
On the third set of fours you play a very call-and-response phrase up and down the toms. Are you thinking of a melodic phrase? Are you commenting on something Swallow just played?
It's just a rhythm, whatever I came up with at that particular moment. Two seconds before that, I wasn't thinking about it. I didn't plan it or work it out at home. That's about letting myself go creatively.
Also, it's very important to be relaxed in that setting. By being relaxed, you can some up with things like that. I think it's harder to be creative and be yourself if you're not relaxed or comfortable. If you're not relaxed, you're thinking about too many other things - extraneous thoughts - which get in the way of the music.
Is there every any hesitation on your part about what you'll play in those situations?
Occasionally there is, when I'm not having a good night.
That following set of fours sounds like some kind of a cross-rhythm. Where's the bass drum dropping?
It's playing dotted quarter notes. I'm not sure exactly what the snare drum is doing. I could transcribe my whole solo, but I'll leave that to someone who had the time.
Is the cross-rhythm idea something you've explored more recently?
It's something that I've been developing. That seems to be an area in drumming where there's quite a bit left to be explored. There are people who have done a lot with it, but it's still an area with a lot of possibilities.
I think I've gradually added to the kinds of things I can do in terms of cross-rhythms. And it seems that once I learn one type of cross-rhythm, it's like riding a bike, as they say. Just the experience of playing different polyrhythms makes it easier to play new ones.
That last four had a calypso or Caribbean feel to it. Is the genesis of that for you the influence of Ed Blackwell?
Yes. Ed Blackwell would be a big influence on me in that area. He played polyrhythms that actually sound like two or three drummers. He studied African music a lot and the drummers who play together in Africa. Ed translated some of that to the drumset.
I once took a lesson with Ed in 1987, after I met him at Tower Records in New York. He was there watching Max Roach play solo. I had gone to see Max, and Ed was there. So I went up to him and asked if I could take a lesson and he said yes.
The lesson was interesting. Ed didn't ask me to play. He didn't say, "Sit down and let me hear what you do." He immediately brought out these notebooks of drum music and said, "Okay, sit down and read from these." I began reading through it as best I could. I then realized that I was playing Ed's own ideas that I had heard him play on record. He had all of his stuff written down in a notebook from 1959.
Ed had obviously worked on polyrhythms. He developed them one idea at a time, building one upon the other. He did a lot of that, coming up with slight variations of a first idea that led to a second, which led to a third. Even though it was a very different drum lesson because he never heard the way I played, it was very educational for me because I got to see how he came up with some of his ideas.
Who are some of your other influences?
I've also been influenced by Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins, and Joe Chambers, plus forty other people.
In the beginning of "Toogs" you play another cross-rhythm.
That is triplets in a group of five.
Does a pattern liek that relate back to Ed Blackwell, or is it something different?
Actually, that relates to Max Roach on "Un Poco Loco". He playes a pattern like that, but I think he used 8th notes on a cowbell. It's the same kind of pattern but in a triplet form. Tony Williams also developed ideas like these.
"Name That Tune" from EnRoute is a pretty fast tune. Do you often play songs any faster than that?
Not very often. In fact, that's the fastest song I've ever played with Scofield. I don't play what they call "Max Roach tempos" very often. I find that I need to practice fast tempos now and then, because a lot of the gigs I play these days don't require me to play those kinds of tempos. If I haven't been doing it for a while, I feel like I've lost a little something on them.
What do you practice for speed, and what's the key to getting it as fast as you do?
There are at least a couple of ways I work on it. One is just by sitting down and playing a fast tempo for a long stretch of time. I'll also set a metronome to a fast tempo and then play along with it for a few seconds, and then turn off the metronome and continue playing for maybe fifteen minutes. Then I'll turn the metronome back on and see if my tempo has gone up of down. There's also a stamina thing about playing fast tempos; you have to learn how to conserve your energy at times in order to not exhaust yourself.
Do you keep a constant cymbal pattern at fast tempos, or do you break it up?
I practice both ways and use whatever works best for the music.
How does stick height come into play when playing fast or in how you pull off some of the very intricate stickings you use?
That's hard to answer, not really being a technically minded drummer. I know the feeling of how I get my sound. But my best guess is that when I'm playing fast, I'm probably not going to bring the sticks up as high as when I'm playing slow.
We move to Stewart's drum room, which is an 8 x 10 space in another part of his Brooklyn home, lined floor to ceiling with sheets of foam rubber carpet underlay. The floor has also been covered with acoustic deadening wallboard. The ceiling is fitted with foam rubber, and several shelves (also covered with foam rubber) act as baffles to cancel standing acoustic waves.
Bill's practice set consists of a Gretsch four-piece: two old round-badge toms (8x12, 14x14), a wooden 5.5x14 snare, and an odd-shaped Gretsch bass drum. "It's a custom-made 10x22," Bill explains. "I'm able to play it without any blankets or muffling in it, except for a couple of felt strips. It's less boomy than a 22" of normal depth. It's more compact and it responds very quickly. I haven't used it on gigs yet, but I'm waiting for the right opportunity to do so."
The room is also littered with cymbals of all sizes, including a small China. On the kit are two 22" Zildjian prototypes and a 14" pair of hi-hats (New Beat on bottom and old K on top).
When you're looking for cymbals, what do you listen for?
The first thing I have to do is play the cymbal. And it helps to be able to play it in a few different rooms. One room can be deceiving. I think sometimes people pick out cymbals at their local drum ship, where they might be surrounded by mirrors, glass, and all sorts of things that can affect the sound. Ideally, I like to hear a cymbal in more than one environment.
But don't you choose cymbals at the Zildjian factory in the big cymbal room?
Yes, they do have a special room to listen to cymbals. But the room is pretty dead. I've been known to take cymbals into the hallway there.
I notice that one of these prototype rides has only one rivet.
For me, one rivet gives a cymbal what it needs. It depends on the cymbal, of course. I like some cymbals without rivets. But if I'm using a riveted cymbal, one rivet is enough. With a dry cymbal, one rivet will allow me to play a slow tempo and fill out the tempo more.
You don't angle your cymbals very much.
They're not at extreme angles. It has to do with the sound I like to get from the cymbal and also how I feel when playing it. I've never been very comfortable playing cymbals at extreme angles. Also, I like to get different sounds out of a cymbal. This is nothing unique to me. All of the great drummers from before have done this. I like to be able to get a basic stick sound [strikes the cymbal with the tip] and a shoulder accent [strikes with the shank of the stick near the tip], which I use a lot. That's how I play accents a lot of the time.
Instead of hitting a cymbal harder, I'll use the shoulder of the stick. Some cymbals don't produce a good shoulder accent, so that's something I listen for in a cymbal. It's not a crash sound, it's somewhere between the two. I can place an accent with it within a pattern. It creates a different sound and a different tone.
In general, do you play the cymbal in different spots for different sounds?
I'll vary the spot slightly, but it depends on the cymbal. Generally, I have three sounds that I use on any cymbal: The ride tone, the shoulder accent, and the bell. And some cymbals produce nice sounds when you play them just next to the bell. It's like a little hollow spot that you can take advantage of as an effect.
On a really slow tempo, I might play towards the very edge of a cymbal to get more of a washy sound. I also might loosen my grip to allow the cymbal sound to expand. If you play a cymbal with a tight grip versus a loose one, you'll hear the difference. That applies to the drums as well.
Do you tune your toms pretty high?
Compared to your average drummer, they're on the high side. I tune my drums so they sound resonant and clear within the types of music I play. I like each drum to sound different from any other on the kit. Sometimes I'll hear a drummer with five drums that don't sound all that different from one another.
Do you also choose drums that have distinct tones?
I use conventional jazz sizes, although I did just add a 16" floor tom for a number of gigs. I use it a lot on the Scofield CD. It gives me a low presence - and I really enjoy that. Plus it doesn't change my setup. If I added a second mounted tom I'd have to move the ride cymbal over to the right, and I don't feel as comfortable having the ride cymbal further away.
I understand that you've been working on designing some prototype ride cymbals with Zildjian. What qualities are you looking for?
A complex sound, but a certain dryness as well. That's a hard combination to get. I also want a cymbal that I can get different sounds out of - a cymbal that rides as well as crashes great. I hesitate to call a cymbal a ride or a crash, because to me a good cymbal should have all different kinds of sounds. I'm looking for all of those characteristics, as well as a nice warm sound.
What types of things do you practice now?
When I have time, I try to get into a routine. I practice whatever needs work at that particular time.
Some of the figures you play on the Scofield record are very intricate. Is it all simply about having command over things like the rudiments?
I practice playing the drums. Some people practice out of a snare drum book or something like that. And I did a bit of that coming up. I worked on Anthony Cirone's Portraits In Rhythm, which has a lot of good dynamics in the pieces. That's good for control. But since I'm an improvising musician, many times I'll improvise on an idea that I'll read out of a drum book. That not only gives me the practice of playing dynamics or whatever I'm working on, but also the practice of coming up with ideas in the moment.
As far as playing ideas around the drums, I've spent a lot of time working on getting around the drums as efficiently as possible. I've worked on getting from one drum to another and hitting each drum where I intend to hit it. I've also worked hard on being able to do that at soft as well as loud volumes.
You have such command over single and double strokes, listeners can't be sure when you're playing one or the other.
To my ear, single and double strokes have a different sound. That said, I can't always tell what another drummer's sticking is. In general, doubles have a more effortless sound. Singles have a clarity - and sound more labored - like you have to hit harder to get the sound. I know people try to get the same clarity with their doubles as well as their singles, to match the second stroke to the first. That's a good thing to practice.
Are there different ways to strike the drums for different sounds?
I often play the snare drum off-center, about two inches from the rim. I like the overtones you get towards the edge. I like to play buzz rolls out there too. I like to be able to get some different sounds out of the snare drum, which is why I don't like those heads that have the muffler rings on the outside edge. They take away those overtones and make the whole surface of the drum sound the same. That's why I use resonant heads without any muffling.
What's your basic brush pattern?
I'm a counterclockwise guy. I studied with Horacee Arnold at William Paterson College [now University], who showed me a basic counterclockwise motion that I found very helpful. It works well for me because I play with matched grip. Counterclockwise gives me room to move away from my body, whereas with the clockwise motion you have to come across your body. That can be a bit awkward with matched grip.
Can you comment on your solo in "Name That Tune" from EnRoute? Is there any recurring rhythmic theme?
Not as much as I would like. But there's a little bit of superimposition of different meters - usually five and six. That's something I've been doing for a while, although I suppose that when I do something like that now I'm able to follow through with it better.
In "Hammock Soliloquy," you seem to have more of a painterly, impressionistic approach on the first half of the tune with buzz rolls and cymbal trills - more accompaniment than just timekeeping. What dictates that approach?
I didn't play a repeated pattern there, but you can keep time without repeating a pattern. You can sort of hear the backbeat in there, but it's not anything I'm stating clearly. John has a lot of material that falls in between different styles. It might be in between even and swung 8th notes. I've played things with him where it almost sounds like a New Orleans-influenced style. The bottom line is, I have to be open to a wide range of approaches with John.
What in your estimation needs work in your playing?
It all needs to get better. [laughs] I'm always thinking about ways to improve. There are peaks and valleys. It's easy to evaluate these things if I hear a recording I'm on or a gig tape. Invariably, I hear things that I wish I could have done better, and that goes for even the best of the records that I've done. There's always something to work on.
Would you say you have a methodical approach to solving these shortcomings?
I'm not very systematic or methodical in terms of how I work on my playing. For me it's more about coming across ideas I like, developing them, and maybe writing them down later. On the rare occasion when I can practice for a few days in a row, that allows me to get a little groove happening in one aspect of my playing. It could be fast tempos, brushes - any number of things. But I go with the flow in terms of what each day brings me.
By Ken Micallef
Photos by Paul La Raia
John Scofield has a few words for Bill Stewart. "It's always the same thing with that guy." says the renowned guitarist. "Music, music, music."
Try as an interviewer might to steer Stewart in the direction of technique and drumming concerns, the Des Moines, Iowa native always returns to the importance of musicality over chops, of interaction over sticking virtuosity.
Since coming east in the mid-'80s to study at New Jersey's William Paterson College, Bill Stewart's distinctive style and openness to all genres of jazz have earned him kudos from many musicians. From Scofield's bluesy straight-ahead to Joe Lovano's sophisticated swing, from Maceo Parker's R&B to Larry Goldings' "grits and gravy" organ funk, and from James Moody and Lee Konitz's bop to avant-garde work with Mary Ehrlich and Dave Douglas, Stewart's ascendance has been swift amid New York's jazz community.
Stewart's drumming combination of fire and finesse is in stark contrast to his shy demeanor. On the bandstand his red hair falls over an intense face that often resembles an impassioned Gene Krupa. But in conversation Stewart is reserved, carefully choosing the precise answer for each question. You can hear that depth in his drumming, sometimes surfacing in abstract punctuations of time and color over his aggressive, jabbing swing feel.
When Stewart found time to record Snide Remarks, his Blue Note solo debut, the choice of material was as unpredictable as his taste in music. Not content to repeat past playing experiences, Stewart's original tunes recall the dark beauty of seminal records like Miles Davis's Nefertiti or Wayne Shorter's The Soothsayer. With freedom and improvisation as the guidelines, Stewart's cast of Joe Lovano, Eddie Henderson, Bill Carrothers, and Larry Grenadier reacts to the drummer's sharp swing with warm meolodicism and bristling interaction.
When I initially spoke to Bill about this article, I expressed my interest in discussing his blistering chops and sharply defined swing feel. "Technique is okay," he replied. "But after you talk to me a while you'll realize that's not what I'm really about." Indeed, Bill Stewart is really about only one thing: music, music, music.
Throughout your recorded work, from Maceo Parker to John Scofield to Larry Goldings, you've largely avoided being labeled in a particular genre.
I like to play with people who play different styles. I just try to bring whatever I can to the music to make it better. I enjoy different music; I find that it brings out different aspects of my playing. I try to be broad-minded about music. That doesn't mean that there aren't things that I won't or can't do, but I certainly don't want to be categorized. I don't want to be limited to one thing.
In New York many drummers are called for one gig but not another, even if they can play many styles.
That's true. Somce of those guys may be only good at one thing, or maybe they only get called for one gig even if they can play other things. If things hadn't worked out when I played with Maceo Parker, people might not have thought that I could play funk, since most of my other work doesn't suggest that.
On Larry Goldings' Whatever It Takes your funk drumming is even more polished and true to form than when you were with Maceo. It reminds me of the organ-trio music of the '60s with drummers such as Idris Muhammad or Mickey Roker. It's got that on-top soul sound. Isn't that a different style than when you're coming from straight-ahead?
Sure. I grew up listening to that stuff. When I was in junior high, I listened to a lot of Aretha Franklin. I was very into Bernard Purdie, some James Brown stuff, and Ray Charles. I was into funk with a jazzy edge. I had a background in that. YOu think my playing in that style is more polished now?
Hmmm. I don't know why that is. Roots Revisited was recorded before I went on tour with Maceo. I found out about two days before that I was on that record date. I hadn't played that music in years. Since Maceo, I haven't been working on my funk playing, but maybe I'm just a better musician now and that enables me to do things on a higher level.
You're a very whole musician. You're never at a loss for the right thing to play in the diverse styles you cover. But you've got a distinctive style. Are you ever at a loss for a part?
Occasionally. I guess I try to avoid situations where I would be at a loss. If you put me in a Brazilian samba band I might be at a loss for what to play. I'm not experienced in that music or tradition.
Can the competence you have be developed, or does it stem from natural musical ability? You had your basic tools together on the Scott Kreitzer record [Kick 'n Off, Bill's first session].
A lot of it is developed. It's a gradual process. I think I have some talent, but I've worked hard on certain aspects of my playing, especially in the years when I first came to the East Coast to study at William Paterson College. I practiced a lot and spent time thinking about my deficiencies.
What were those areas?
[long pause] At certain stages I would work on tempos I was having problems with. I didn't use a metronome then, although I do now, usually to check myself. If I'm playing a tempo for fifteen minutes I'll start the tempo with the metronome, turn it off and play a while, then check and see where the meter is.
I worked on every aspect of my playing, but especially on getting a good sound, which comes from experience and hearing yourself on recordings. You figure out what snare sound is right. I spent time on brush playing - they're hard to play. In general I play brushes with a left hand moving in a counter-clockwise motion and my right hand moving clockwise.
But I think the key is that I had a lot of experience playing with people - that's the answer. Experience playing with people regularly is invaluable. Before, when I practiced without people, I would practice with records, to at least try and think in a musical context. But experience is the greatest teacher.
Would you transcribe solos?
I did Philly Joe Jones on "Stablemates." That's a deceptive little solo. And I also transcribed a little bit of Max Roach. That helped me figure out some stickings that I wouldn't have understood otherwise. When I got to the East Coast I could hear people live, and that was very helpful to see how guys got their sound.
When I was in high school, I went to a jazz workshop at Stanford University; Victor Lewis was teaching there during the time he was playing with Stan Getz. That was one of the first name drummers I got to see live. I was amazed at how high he would lift his sticks sometimes. You're always taught to keep the sticks close to the head. I found out later that you should do whatever it takes to get your sound. Live, you can see how the way drummers look affects their sound.
Can creativity, as well as competence, be developed? You play very abstract things at times.
I don't like to be bored. I really don't. I like surprises in music, and I really enjoy playing with musicians who play things that can seem far in left field yet are musical - not just a stupid idea thrown in the wrong context. That requires creativity and taste, which is subjective.
I think certain people are more creative than others. Creativity can be developed and encouraged, but some people are just more creative.
Were you inspired by Joe Lovano, who was an early mentor?
On the bandstand you can be very inspired by someone like him, absolutely. With someone like Joe, I don't seem to be at a loss for things to play. With Joe and a few others, I have the feeling I can play anything and it will work and not confuse them. Even with some very good name players, there are certain things I can't play because it will sound bad or confuse them, or they'll get lost. I can play pretty much anything with Scofield and it won't confuse him, [pianist] Kevin Hays too.
What interests you most as a drummer?
There'a feeling I get when I play music that is enjoyable. I like the interaction, and the feeling of different grooves.
Did Scofield hear in you someone similar to himself, a musician who could play funk yet is well-versed in jazz?
That's a factor. His music does have a lot of different influences. He has New Orleans grooves, though we never played any real backbeat stuff. He didn't want to do that. He wouldn't let me play backbeats. The music on Hand Jive, for instance, implied a backbeat. But it's not boom-slap, boom-slap. He's not interested in that now.
John's music can go in a lot of different directions, so I was open to doing that. But simultaneously, if it was a tune with a New Orleans groove, I wouldn't necessarily play some authentic groove. I'd always try to be open; even my swing playing might imply some funk. Even a single cut might have different influences.
The bands I worked with during that time with John were great bands, especially with Joe Lovano and Dennis Irwin. We played a lot of free things with no changes, and more conventional things as well. It was different every night, six nights in a row. It was never boring.
So why'd you finally leave?
I'd been with John for four and a half years. He works a lot. I wasn't doing too many other things then. After all of that time I started to feel that I wanted to do some other things, to be free to pursue some new directions and hopefully grow musically as a result. I'm still going to play with John. Steve Swallow [bassist] and I will be touring with him in Europe during April and May. John and I are on fine terms, and I certainly have an interest in playing with him in the future.
The time off has allowed me to do freelance gigs, which has been nice. I've done some things musically I wouldn't have done with John. Some gigs are softer than John's, like [bassist] George Mraz or Kevin Hays. I'm playing different grooves and faster tempos. But I'm missing some things I did with John; it's a tradeoff.
So it's not a case of the interaction growing stale?
No, I think the music was on a high level when I left, although John does have a recognizable style and it is a challenge to keep coming up with new things to add to that.
I don't know where you would've gone after Hand Jive. It sounded like R&B music at a barbecue.
Many people see that as a high point and loved it more than the others. I have my favorites as well. I loved playing songs like "Big Sky", "Big Fun", "Meant To Be", and "Lost In Space". I like the freer structures. John is a great writer. He comes out with piles of tunes, and it's always fun to find grooves for his music. Some of those are in-between types of grooves, which I really enjoyed.
Many drummers coming off such a prominent gig would've waited for an equally prestigious opportunity before departing - maybe vie for the chair with Sonny Rollins, Pat Metheny, Hank Jones, or Tommy Flanagan.
I've had some down time, but that's been good for me. I was on the road for a hundred and eighty days in '94. A break is good. Back on the New York scene I'll work with some players I haven't seen in a while. Then perhaps I'll do some bigger names if it's something I'm interested in. Just because it's a big-name gig with one of the guys you mentioned doesn't mean I want to do it. It also depends if you're making a living. I need to work like anyone else.
I recently did a gig with Joe Henderson and George Mraz, and I had a great time. There are many artists on that level I'd like to play with, but if I mention them here it will sound like I'm trying to steal somebody's gig.
Is playing with Dave Douglas and Marty Erlich yet another musical idiom to get your ears around?
It's a sextet with Dave. The music is a little more preconceived than the other things, although there are very free sections in the music besides the written-out parts.
How have you changed as a drummer from the Scott Kreitzer record through Lovano and Scofield and up to this point?
As a sideman I'm able to sit down and play someone's music right off the bat better than I would have eight years ago. I've had the experience of playing so many people's music that if I'm playing their charts for the fist time, I'm very comfortable. I can express myself on the first take. Before, I would've had more trouble. Generally I'm stronger, and my time playing is better. If I felt I wasn't getting any better, I'd be in a bad mood. [laughs]
On Larry Goldings' record your funk is understated. You're not pummeling the drums. It's more attitude than volume. Is it a misconception that funk drumming is always loud?
That's not how I go about it. If you listen to the James Brown records, you can hear how light that funk is. "Funky Drummer" sounds feather-light. I can't play it that light and make it sound good. I can't play it as lightly as Clyde Stubblefield. Lightness gives it some subtlety and it breathes more. Even on a recording you can tell. But there are times when you should hit hard.
On the old Prestige organ-trio records everyone has that laid-back, hip attitude.
Drums sound different when they're hit hard than when they're hit soft. It's not just louder and softer - it makes for a different quality.
You get a rich, full drum sound that doesn't change from record to record.
I certainly try for that. I don't really change my setup much. With Larry Goldings, I play funk with more of a jazz attitude anyway.
The groove on "Boogie On Reggae Woman" is so bright and popping - it's very nasty and sharp.
That was hard to do actually. If you listen, I don't play any drum fills or cymbal crashes in the whole song. They could've looped me but they didn't. When you're doing something like that and the track is five minutes long, you hope you're not going to flub. It's a challenge to play the same thing over and over and keep it happening.
Is there an art to organ-trio jazz drumming?
I don't think of it any differently from the other things I do. I don't approach the gig with a different attitude. Sometimes with the organ I feel the need to be more solid since there's no bass to really take care of business time-wise. The drums and orgain combination have a wide dynamic range that can be exploited, which I do. With a piano trio I would never completely "bash out".
Were the Scofield records as good as the live performances from an angle of improvisation and immediacy?
Most of the gigs were pretty good. The records represented the way we played, except live the songs were more stretched out. That was never captured on record, which is unfortunate. But record companies want six-minute cuts that the radio will play.
There is a bootleg record of the Scofield band with Lovano, Mark Johnson, and me that came out in Europe. It has the twenty-minute versions. As much as I don't like the fact that nobody is getting paid from the bootleg, that CD does show a side that was never documented. In a way, it's stronger than the studio recordings.
So you're never constricted by the studio?
Sometimes I feel inspired by it. I always take playing seriously, but especially when I know it's going down on tape. It makes me concentrate more. When I made my first recordings I felt nervous, but not anymore. The studio is no different from playing live. I don't think in different dynamics, or use different drumheads or cymbals.
Do you use the same cymbals from gig to gig?
Same hi-hats and left-side cymbal. With Sco I used one set of cymbals. I've been using the same cymbals the last three weeks on separate gigs. Sometimes I'll use a certain cymbal to make me play unusually.
You're using an icebell variation on Snide Remarks.
It's a little handmade cymbal, six inches across, made by a guy in Copenhagen named Hubbeck. I broke it anyway. Then [bassist] Dennis Irwin loaned me his and I broke it too.
You're very adept and quick at hi-hat phrasing. You can develop triplet combinations of snare drum, hi-hat - with your hand or foot - and cymbal seemingly anywhere. How'd you build that technique?
I just practiced those types of rhythms - putting the hi-hat on different parts of the triplet, trying to be musical and play some ideas on the hi-hat. I didn't have any real exercises I worked on. I tried to play musical ideas on the set.
When I do practice, being musical is my number-one priority. I try to practice musically. I don't practice exercises or warm-up routines or rudiments or any of that stuff. If I have time off, I practice certain tempos that I want to improve on. Sometimes I just improvise at the drumset - just playing for a while. It's valuable. I might practice brushes for an hour. So I'm not into the typical drummer's techniques: There are many drummers who can play rudiments better than I can.
You never practiced the rudiments?
Yes, I can remember having a page that had them on there. Twenty-six, is that how many there are?
I think that's right. Yeah, I remember running through them once or twice. I kind of know what they are. [drums his hands on the table] I know what a ratamacue is.
I know some guys who sit in front of the television for hours and play on a pad doing these exercises for their hands. I can't begin to understand that. I don't know why anybody would think that would improve their musicianship.
So you never practiced Stick Control or concentrated on snare drum technique?
I did play some etudes out of books. That can be helpful because it's musical and they have dynamics, and it's hard to execute the figures at the marked tempos.
If we went to Drummers Collective [school/practice facility in New York] right now, the place would be covered in practicing drummers.
I know, we used to rehearse there. I'd see five drummers in the lounge pounding away at their pad while watching some video of whoever the latest rock drummer is.
You see that as futile.
Maybe that type of practice is helping them. And I know name drummers who like to warm up before gigs. I don't do that 'cause it puts me in a frame of mind of concentrating on a technical exercise before I play the music. I don't understand how playing on a pad five minutes before a gig can improve my technique or make me play better.
Isn't the idea to loosen up the muscles?
I don't know. I'm not stiff when I start to play. If I haven't played for two days and I sit down to play, that's fine. I like the freshness of not playing on the day of the gig. I really like having that clear-mind thing. If I'm out on tour I prefer not having a sound check: Then when the first notes of the day are played they're the fist notes of the gig. It has such a freshness when you first hear the music.
Dennis Chambers said that when he was with Scofield he would start the set with the fastest song of the night, like "The Nag".
When I played with him the style of music was different from what he was doing with Dennis. We would be aggressive - that's okay. But I do like that freshness you get. I'd rather talk to somebody before a gig than play on a pad. I don't own a pad. My hands aren't that fast anyway. They're okay, they're decent.
There are certain things I associate with your drumming: ruffs on the snare and around the set; very rich tom-tom notes, and a polyrhythmic cross of rimclicks, hi-hat, and rumbling toms. I've heard the polyrhythm combinations live and on your record, as on "Crosstalk". And you have a clear, defined swing feel. The ruffs sound like Roy Haynes, but I can't place the other elements so easily.
The ruffs may come from Roy Haynes; he does stuff like that. But the sound I get isn't exactly like Roy's. I can't do it like Roy. I've worked on and developed the polyrhythms and I can do a few variations on them. I've practiced those - I didn't just play them one day. I try to play them in a different way, though.
I'm aware that there are things I do that are unique to me and some things I've gotten from other drummers that are not unique at all. Those that are unique I try to develop; maybe that's how a style is formed. You find your own slant. As long as I don't play those things the same way every time it's a good thing.
Your style initally reminded me of early '60s Tony Williams meets Peter Erskine. You had the fire of Tony and the clean execution of Erskine.
I know who my favorites are. I love Roy Haynes - the looseness he plays with, especially in recent years. I love Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, and Philly Joe Jones and early Tony Williams when he was playing the smaller bass drum and darker cymbals. I always liked his sound.
Sound is an important aspect of style too. You recognize someone's snare drum sound or cymbal sound. I always liked Tony's cymbals with Miles and Roy Haynes' snare sound in the "snap crackle" '60s era. I like that clarity. That's why I play a metal snare drum now.
I've read that you like African drumming. Perhaps that's influenced your polyrhythms.
I have a frew African records I enjoy. Ed Blackwell did a lot with that as far as bringing a jazz sensibility to it. As far as the polyrhythms, I hear a lot of things in 6/8 with dotted-quarter hotes. Sometimes I put that against 4/4. i'll keep a constant and improvise over that. I like to layer one rhythm over another. Or I'll play off-beats on the hi-hats and expand from that.
Snide Remarks sounds inspired by Wayne Shorter, late '60s Miles, and also twentieth-century classical.
Your review of my album said my music is based on Debussy, Messiaen, and Bartok. That's not true, actually. One tune is based on a scale Messiaen uses, but I've never mentioned Debussy. It gives people the wrong idea.
But there is that influence.
There is but it's not a real studied influence. I don't consider myself an expert of twentieth-century classical music. I'm just not. I enjoy hearing some of that music. It creeps its way into my music.
Most people would've expected you to rehash music you'd played before, but Snide Remarks is a departure from what you've done with former bandleaders. It's not yet another trad or bop record.
I didn't want it to be a drum album, I just wanted it to be musical. I also wanted to express my ideas as a writer, which are not always related to my drumming. i'm usually trying to express ideas that I can't express through my drumming. Sometimes I wish I would write things that are great vehicles for my drumming, but that's not how I go about it. It's a different outlet.
Are you happy with the album?
I was very happy with how the guys played. They made my music sound better that I expected. I tried to have each piece be a little different. I wanted to give the bandmembers some freedom in what they played.
For me, when I play as a sideman, I prefer it if they tell me less rather than more as far as what they want. Then everybody plays from their experience rather than just trying to please the leader. I attempted to diverse things format-wise within the music, like having Joe Lovano and Eddie Henderson trade choruses instead of playing complete solos. Or having everyone improvise together in some spots. There are places in "Mayberry" where the piano, bass, and drums are improvising simultaneously. No one is accompanying, it's an equal situation at times. There are some traditional solos and heads but also songs that are more collective. Three of the nine tunes hve an open format for improvisation.
What's your take on making jazz a classical form of music, with a canon to learn and a definite, prescribed path to follow? Jazz is not as rebellious as it once was.
Some people weren't satisfied with the rebellious music. They didn't think it was as good as the music from the past. I personally don't like to feel that I have to play exclusively in an older style or have to edit my playing in that way. I think everyone should play from their whole experience, play what they feel within the music as it's happening.
Some of the people who do play older styles do it very well, and I can enjoy that sometimes. But I don't think about playing in a particular era. And I also don't think about having to be modern or super-advanced. But I don't like music that's predictable. It seems like when people play in styles of the past you can hear what's going to happen before it happens, and it's usually not as good as the records they're trying to imitate. I like to be surprised with music.
You can tell Scofield and Lovano have listened to may different eras, not just one. If a drummer imitates one drummer as a model for his style, that person is doomed to failure. How can you sound more like that drummer than he does? How can you outdo the original? It's best to try to appreciate a broad range of music, picking up ideas here and there. That will inspire you and it will undoubtedly come out sounding like you.