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St. Paul’s Chapel Columbia University, NYC November 27, 2001
St. Paul’s Chapel – what a venue! The geometric precision and soaring, massive architecture made St. Paul’s a great place to showcase the deep talents of two jazz mainstays. The show was billed as “An Exalted Conversation with Arthur Blythe & Bob Stewart.” The music and surroundings did not disappoint. Blythe and Stewart have played together for more than twenty years, and their profound knowledge of each other’s personality and playing results in seamless, intuitive interplay. Stewart’s harmonic, multi-phonic effects and Blythe’s mellifluous lines echoed and vibrated into every nook and cranny of the building’s domes and vaulted ceilings. Simple, Lenox Avenue Breakdown-era vamps served as springboards for seemingly effortless and spontaneous forays that were jam-packed with emotional and experiential content. The instrumentation of the duo naturally leads to Blythe leading and Stewart supporting. But Stewart’s support of Blythe is so much more than mere basslines. It is a simultaneous discussion with – and commentary on – what comes out of Blythe’s horn. When Stewart solos he picks up right where Blythe leaves off – they share a similar improvisational vocabulary. It’s as if they’re coming from the same place. To a certain degree, they do come from the same place. Although Blythe was born in Los Angeles and Stewart in South Dakota, they started playing together in New York. They paid their NYC dues in the 1970s “Loft Scene” in what is now SoHo – an area that has changed so much, according to Stewart, “Now we can’t even afford to walk around down there.”
Then, the low-rent loft atmosphere encouraged musical experimentation and risk-taking. Blythe had an alto-tuba-congas trio, which was unconventional instrumentation at the time. Stewart used those formative years to develop his chops – and, greatly influenced and encouraged by Blythe, develop a unique musical voice. Twenty-plus years later, the odd format of alto and tuba – in the hands of these masters – is a fully realized whole.
The two players held a rap session after the show. They answered questions about their musical approaches, influences and shared personal histories. It was an invaluable glimpse into the warm, humble personalities of two dignified and articulate artists.