Last fall I went out to Brooklyn to hear tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart record his new CD, Young at Heart (Sharp Nine Records). Afterward, producer Marc Edelman asked me to write the album’s liner notes. Considering that Ira Gitler wrote the notes to Grant’s previous album, I couldn’t resist.
What hits you immediately about Grant’s playing is his big, bossy, take-charge sound. On up-tempo songs, Grant reminds you of Sonny Rollins’ attack and phrasing. On ballads, you hear hints of Dexter Gordon and Coleman Hawkins.
But Grant’s no clone. His sound is distinct and unmistakable. He just happens to listen extensively to significant jazz recordings and is always on the lookout for hidden gems. Which is why he sounds so exciting and why he is in such demand as a sideman these days. He captures the spirit of jazz legends but still manages to remain himself.
Young at Heart is out today, and the performances are just as impressive now as when I heard them in the engineer’s booth last fall. The song selection is sophisticated—ranging from Elmo Hope’s Roll On and Duke Ellington’s Serenade to Sweden to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Modinha and Peter Bernstein’s Jet Stream. And the playing by Grant, Tardo Hammer (piano), Joe Farnsworth (drums) and Peter Washington (bass) is superb.
I checked in with Grant last week:
JazzWax: You packed so many different moods and tempos into this CD. Is there a theme?
Grant Stewart: Not really. These are just tunes I like to play. The songs I record are songs I'm playing in clubs. I pick them based purely on the way they sound. In the case of Young at Heart, producer Marc Edelman heard it at the end of The Front, a film he was watching, and brought it to me. The group tried the song and it worked. If I really like a tune, I’ll figure out a way to give it my touch.
JW: Just when you think Young at Heart is going to be a ballad, it springs into a medium tempo bouncer.
GS: I always want take the listener by surprise.
JW: Actually, that’s true about all of the tracks—each one has a twist.
GS: We chose some pretty tricky tunes—Elmo Hope’s Roll On, Neal Hefti’s Repetition, the ballad You’re My Thrill, just to name three. They all are fairly challenging, bar-wise. My original, Shades of Jackie Mac, has a normal form but includes Giant Steps chord changes at the end.
JW: What do you mean "challenging, bar wise?”
GS: Many people just assume a jazz musician picks a tune and starts improvising. But behind the scenes, it’s more complicated than that. All musicians are used to playing in certain keys and favor certain movements on their horns. So some songs may not feel comfortable. Think in terms of exercise—if you play one sport, you’d be accustomed to one set of physical movements. If you had to play another sport, you’d have to learn different physical patterns. It’s the same with improvising. Most songs share a similar form. But in some of the odd-form tunes that I chose for Young at Heart, it was like having to learn a new movement for a different sport.
JW: Is this true of You’re My Thrill? I notice you slowed the ballad down a bit.
GS: That’s a good example. You’re My Thrill isn’t your average standard. Many musicians don’t even blow on it because the song doesn’t lend itself to improvisation. The song doesn’t fall into regular patterns.
JW: How did you come to the obscure Elmo Hope tune, Roll On?
GS: I recorded it first in Paris back in 2005 on bassist Nicholas Rageau’s album, Made in France. I love the song's complexity. I wanted to give it a different spin here.
JW: That’s a tough tune.
GS: Very. Elmo Hope's [pictured] Roll On isn’t an AABA standard. It has an odd number of bars—15 for the first half and 10 for the second half. It also goes through a bunch of key changes—starting in G, then to A-flat, to F, to D minor, and then to G major. At the end it goes up to A major. You’d never know the tune is that complex by listening to it. But ultimately the complexity is why it sounds so interesting.
JW: Repetition was an interesting choice.
GS: That’s a tough tune, as well. The reason it sounds so interesting is it’s “through composed.” It never repeats a phrase. You have to play it straight through without anything familiar to hang on to. We added a turnaround so we could take multiple choruses. I was influenced by Bird’s midnight recording at Carnegie Hall.
JW: What’s the story behind your original, Shades of Jackie Mac?
GS: I wrote the song last summer when I was down in Brazil. It’s based on the chord changes to Sweet Georgia Brown. When I was running it down, the sound of the melody line reminded me of something Jackie McLean [pictured] would play.
JW: You seem to have a different level of intensity on this album than previous outings.
GS: I don’t know. I’m different every time I record, every time I pick up the horn. In the year between Young and Heart and In the Still of the Night, my last CD, I’ve changed. If I had recorded Young at Heart two days later, it would have had a completely different sound. My playing is always at a consistent level, but my moods will be different from one day over the next.
JW: Do you listen to yourself play?
GS: From time to time I tape myself playing at Smalls on Tuesday nights in New York and listen back. I do this to make sure I'm not developing any bad playing habits and to make sure certain things are coming off. But I don't do it too often.
JW: Why not?
GS: My feelings about my playing aren’t necessarily factual. There’s a whole inner game going on with music or any performance. It’s not a good idea to listen to yourself play too much. You wind up hearing things you don’t like and then you try to avoid them the next time. Or you hear things you do like and try to recreate them. That mind game takes away from what’s really important—the creative side.
JW: So thinking critically about what you’re doing will spoil the unconscious effort?
GS: I think so. The way the brain works is funny—if you say don’t do something, the mind is like a little doggie and instantly will try to do it. Also, you wind up trying to re-create something that already happened, which can ruin the spontaneity. I try to listen to myself sparingly and non-critically.
JW: Your sound seems to pay tribute to Sonny Rollins, especially on up tunes.
GS: Definitely. Sonny is a huge inspiration. I have totally imitated Sonny in my learning process and try to get what I can out of him while remaining myself. Even if you try to copy a great player you’re always going to leave your mark on it. I tell my students, if you pick a great musician as your teacher and you imitate him, you don’t really have to worry about sounding too much like him. You’re going to bring your own personality to the playing. You just need to choose someone who has enough there that you can take a piece off. In Sonny’s case, his sound and delivery are perfect.
JW: What is it about Sonny’s playing, technically, that’s so appealing?
GS: He has the perfect eighth-note feel. And rhythmically he has a part of Bird that no one else has, which is what attracts me to him. Bird had complete control of the inner rhythms of the lines, allowing him to turn the rhythm around within the line. Sonny seems to have that as well. Sonny’s sound also taught me to be fearless in the lower register.
JW: You’re playing with a terrific group on this CD.
GS: Tardo’s an incredibly creative pianist and harmonically inventive. His comping and solos are great. He’s my favorite piano player around today. When you’re playing with drummer Joe Farnsworth, he pushes you to play up to the next level. He has a thing in his playing called “tipping,” where he creates a lot of forward motion. There’s no slacking. You have to rise to the occasion. Peter Washington is a fabulous bass player. A rock. He makes you sound so good. He always picks just the right notes.
JW: Who's the woman on the cover?
GS: Angelica, my girlfriend. She’s an opera singer—a mezzo-soprano. She’s a beautiful singer. She’ll be appearing in the chamber opera The Rise and Fall of the First World by Michael Kowalski in New York this fall.
JW: What’s next for you?
GS: In April I’ll be touring in Spain with trumpeter Jim Rotondi [pictured] and bassist John Webber. Then I’m going to Japan with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, pianist Harold Mabern, drummer Joe Farnsworth and bassist Nat Reeves.
Grant's picks: Among Grant’s favorite Sonny Rollins’ albums are Work Time, Freedom Suite, Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders and Three Little Words. Grant also listens extensively to two tracks off Sonny Side Up—The Eternal Triangle and I Know What You Know.
Two other influential albums are Sonny Stitt’s End Game and Charlie Parker’s Complete Pershing Club Sets.
For phrasing, Grant listens to Ella Fitzgerald (“She sings the melody of songs as they were written, and in perfect pitch”) and Tony Bennett from the early 1960s (“Tony has a lot of character in his voice—he’s sensitive but still belts it out”).
JazzWax tracks: Young at Heart is available as a CD and Amazon download here. Grant playing Roll On on bassist Nicholas Rageau’s album, Made in France, is available at iTunes.
JazzWax video clips: You can view five different clips of Grant playing excerpts from Young at Heart here (click on the link, "Sounds from Smalls: Videos").
Grant's gigs: Grant plays most Tuesday nights at Smalls in New York. He will be leading a quintet at New York's Smoke on May 9 and 10 with Ryan Kisor, David Hazeltine and Joe Farnsworth.