Striving for Clarity

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 ’96 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.

Bill Stewart Bu John Rogers

MD: 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.

Bill: 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.

MD: 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.

Bill: 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.

MD: 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.

Bill: 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.

MD: 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?

Bill: 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.

“I’ve tried to get a clear sound, but also with some resonance. I’ve honed my sound over the years, and I continue to work at it.”

MD: Collaborating with Zildjian, were you trying to nail down a specific sound you were seeking?

Bill: 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.

MD: 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.

Bill: 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.

MD: You’ve sometimes been averse to speaking in great detail about technique. You see it more as a means to an end.

Bill: 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.

MD: 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.

Bill: 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.

MD: 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?

Bill: 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.

MD: You do write with very sophisticated harmonies.

Bill: 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.

MD: Were there particular classical composers that inspired or influenced you?

Bill: 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.

Bill Stewart By John Rogers

Stewart’s Setup

Drums: Gretsch USA Custom
• 6.5×14 Gretsch Hammered Brass
or Ludwig Hammered Brass snare
• 8×12 tom
• 14 x14 floor tom
• 16 x16 floor tom
• 14 x18 bass drum

Cymbals: Zildjian
• 22″ K Custom Dry Complex ride
• 20″ K Light Flat ride
• 20″ K Custom Dry Complex ride
• 14″ hi-hats: medium-heavy K Zildjian
prototype on top and K Custom Special Dry top cymbal on the bottom
• 8″ and 10″ custom prototypes (medium weight) made by Paul Francis at Zildjian

Sticks: Zildjian Bill Stewart Artist series signature model

Heads: Remo Ambassador Coated batters and Clear resonants

Accessories: Canopus Vintage Snare Wire

MD: 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.

Bill: 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….

MD: But there’s a huge leap from playing with records to driving a date behind a soul legend.

Bill: 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.

MD: 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.

Bill: Yeah, I did that one! I only wish I could have played better. [laughs]

MD: 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.]

Bill: 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.

MD: You learned more about playing free?

Bill: 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]

MD: 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.

Bill: 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.

MD: Dynamics are a strong factor in the Goldings/Bernstein trio.

Bill: 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.

MD: On that trio’s last release, Toy Tunes, that’s evident. And the band often achieves something powerful through an understated, hushed groove.

Bill: Yes, the subtle things in music are what make it even stronger.

by Jeff Potter