Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending a recording session led by tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart. Marc Edelman, the founder of Sharp Nine Records and the label's producer, was kind enough to invite me out to the Systems Two recording studios on Ditmas Ave. in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Grant recorded eight tunes with Tardo Hammer on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums—all for a new CD that will be released by Sharp Nine in February.
Hearing Grant Stewart in a studio setting was breathtaking. He has this massively confident lower-register timbre that cuts right to your heart. On up-tempo songs, Grant captures the deep knowing flavor of Sonny Rollins while on ballads Grant's intensity and patience recalls the introspection and soul of Dexter Gordon.
In both cases, references to these tenor giants are merely hints, for Grant has a deep-felt tone and technique that are all his own. What I enjoy most about Grant's playing is his ability to bravely run down to the very bottom of the instrument, hang around down there and never back off of an idea. When Grants does this, you get the full flavor of his intellectual honesty and intensity and the instrument's glorious brass sound.
Just after I arrived at the studio yesterday, I watched from the booth with Marc Edelman and engineers Joe Marciano and Max Ross as Grant counted down take #1 of You're My Thrill. Grant took the languid torch song at just the right pace—super slow.
Most artists play this song too fast, even when executing it as a ballad. Grant's approach was akin to versions recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee—both of whom sang the song at an even slower pace than Billie Holiday's famous version for Decca in October 1949. Despite a perfect rendition, Grant called for another take and turned in an even more amazing job on it.
Next up was a Grant original, yet to be named. It was an uptempo, zig-zagging tune based on Sweet Georgia Brown's changes with a Miles Davis Dig feel and Giant Steps changes mixed in. This one took three takes until Grant was happy. On the playback, the richness of Grant's horn and the complexity of the melody made the song addictive. I found myself wanting to hear it again and again.
The third track was Modinha, Antonio Carlos Jobim's heart-breaking love song that up until now was probably best executed by singer-pianist Elaine Elias on Sings Jobim. Grant's interpretation of this Brazilian masterpiece was humid and brooding, teasing out this mysterious melody to draw you in.
Hunched over the keyboards in a khaki T-shirt and headphones, Tardo Hammer took a wonderful solo that demonstrated his seasoned approach to chord formations. Joe Farnsworth's brushwork was ingenious—shimmering the cymbals with gentle strokes and just a hint of tension. And Peter Washington's bass held the ensemble together with its warm heartbeat.
The fourth track I heard before leaving to return to Manhattan (so you could read this blog today) was Johnny Richards' Young at Heart. In Grant's hands, the song had quite a few jack-in-the-box surprises. Marc Edelman suggested the song to Grant after hearing it recently at the end of the movie The Front.
Grant and Tardo start the standard as a duet—taken at a rubato tempo. But just when you think Young at Heart is going to be a ruminating ballad, Grant ingeniously kicks it up considerably, with Tardo, Joe and Peter joining in. Grant proceeds to give the tune a Rollins No Business Like Show Business-like workout, with ideas coming wave after wave. Grant and the group aced the song on the first take.
After spending some sit-down time in the booth with Grant, Tardo and Joe (I just had a minute with Peter), I realized that these guys are a perfect fit. On the personality side, Grant is easy going, focused and completely committed to the music and his horn (we spent some time analyzing Coleman Hawkins' On Broadway). Tardo also is intense, has a sharp wit and knows a ton of music.
Joe is all energy. When he isn't behind the drum kit in the studio, he's constantly working out beats with his hands or sticks. And he can play it all. And Peter, a huge admirer of Oscar Pettiford, is all class.
Grant and his group play every Tuesday at Smalls in New York, which is fast becoming the city's hottest place to see jazz. As Grant said with a big smile as I was getting ready to leave the studio yesterday, "Unlike here, you only get to hear the songs once there."
Joe Farnsworth is one of the busiest session drummers in the business and appears on more than 70 CDs. His most recent recording is Drumspeak on the Japanese Commodore label. Joe's site is here.
Peter Washington also has appeared on dozens of top-shelf jazz CDs. His most recent one is The Bill Charlap Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard. It can be found here.
Wax video clip: Go here to see a clip of Grant Stewart playing You Go to My Head at Smalls in September 2006.