Around the world, the finest players of mainstream jazz huddle like leopards on the prairie. One evening about six years ago I attended a performance of tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart at the café Murphy’s Law in The Hague. It was a blowing session that the Canadian resident of New York City managed to cram into a high-profile festival schedule in cooperation with the top-notch Dutchmen pianist Peter Beets and drummer Eric Ineke. Stewart valiantly took care of business.
Usually likened to Sonny Rollins, Stewart has been part of the close-knit Big Apple scene since the early 1990s and honed his craft with such contemporaries as Peter Bernstein, Peter Washington and Brad Meldhau. The Lighting Of The Lamps is Stewart’s fourth album on Cellar Live and his second session recorded at the legendary studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey of the late Rudy van Gelder. It’s relevant to mention because the typically warm and resonant re-produced “RVG sound” perfectly suits Stewart’s 21st century hard-bop style.
Stewart may hark back to the golden era of mainstream jazz but there is nothing nostalgic about his approach. His take on tenor playing has many individual aspects, notably the urge to go off the beaten path and find notes at the outer spectrum of the chords, much akin to the labyrinthine ways of the web that Spiderman spins through the symmetrical grid of Manhattan. His choice of repertory is striking and withstands the current pressure of delivering wholly original works. His sole contribution A Piece Of Art is inspired by a line of Art Tatum and succinctly reflects Stewart’s writing skills.
The band swings the hip changes of Elmo Hope’s Mo Is On to the ground, especially the outstanding pianist Tardo Hammer. During the classic ballad Ghost Of A Chance, the lines of Stewart and trumpeter Bruce Harris intertwine like cuddles of teenage lovers. Typically, Stewart’s playing is powerful, witty and well-structured. Harris, gifted with a crackling, buoyant sound, is a good match and feels like a fish in the water of such sprightly themes as Clifford Jordan’s waltz Little Spain, which stems from the lesser-known Lee Morgan album Take Twelve from 1962.
It is excellent and zestful deepening of traditional contexts like The Lighting Of The Lamps that keeps the flame of modern jazz burning and Grant Stewart certainly remains a first-rate torchbearer.
Little Spain; A Piece Of Art; Ghost Of A Chance; Out Of The Past; Mo Is On; I’m A Fool To Want You; Bearcat; Bitty Ditty (56.01)
Stewart (ts); Bruce Harris (t); Tardo Hammer (p); David Wong (b); Phil Stewart (d). New Jersey, 5 November 2021.
Cellar Live 110512