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Bill Stewart: Ain't No Funk In Iowa


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Rehearsing and playing with James [Brown] had me on the edge of my drum stool. He asked me, 'Drummer, where you from?' I said 'Iowa'. He replied 'Iowa!... Aint no funk there!'
This article was first published at All About Jazz in May 2002.

Upon joining The John Scofield group in the mid '80s it seemed like drummer Bill Stewart just appeared out of nowhere. Of course, Scofield and Stewart did a number of tours and studio dates together while word got around about Stewart's unique sound and approach to the kit and music. More recently an extensive, high profile tour with Pat Metheny's trio project brought his name to much of the rest of the jazz world, who hadn't already heard him. He and new-guard bassist Larry Grenadier supported 25 years of Metheny's reworked brilliance for 18 months on the road and recorded both a studio and a double live CD (Trio 99??00 and Trio??Live, both released in 2000 on Warner Bros.). In addition, Stewart's longest running gig has been working alongside Hammond tamer, Larry Goldings for a number of projects as he continues to do on their Palmetto release Sweet Science (2002). He also found time to join both Metheny and Goldings for a tour with Michael Brecker.

Stewart's worked very steadily since the mid '80s with the likes of leading edge guitarists Metheny, Scofield, Pat Martino and Jim Hall, the brilliant tenor saxophonist Brecker and soul icons Maceo Parker and James Brown.

For the interview conducted while he was on tour in Europe with bassist Scott Colley's quartet, Stewart offered some insight into how he does what he does.

All About Jazz: Can you talk about working with Scofield...touring, studio work, etc., anecdotes pertaining to those times?

Bill Stewart: Scofield's quartet with Joe Lovano and either Dennis Irwin or Marc Johnson was one of the first regularly touring bands that I worked with, and I felt the music I was playing with the band was well suited to what I had been working on as a musician up to that point. After that group, I ended up playing in about five other bands of John's and also a tour and recording with him and Pat Metheny together. Nowadays, if I work with John, it's often in a trio setting with Steve Swallow. I have always enjoyed playing with John and playing his music, which has a lot of different influences as well as a lot of John's own musical personality. One of the many things John is really good at is comping behind a horn player. He often uses crunchy, unusual voicings and clusters.

AAJ: Exactly, those great upper structure and triadic voicings. Can you talk a bit about being in Metheny's trio with Grenadier? What a great tour. I saw the Austin gig... and the first time hearing you and Larry live. Just amazing.

BS: The Metheny trio with Larry Grenadier was really fun. Larry and I had played together previously in several different situations, including my two CDs for Blue Note, so I felt comfortable with him. I had played with Pat on the recording and subsequent tour with him and Scofield. There was a nice chemistry with this trio that was noticeable from the first few gigs we did. Pat didn't have plans to record when we first started doing a summer tour but, midway through, he decided to go into the studio to record. Later, the live recording was released also. Pat's music and live concerts go in a lot of different directions—from very fast tempos to quiet, lush ballads to free playing, standards, blues and also some of the material from Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976) and the Pat Metheny group material, some of which we were able to do in the trio format. I enjoyed playing with Pat and admire his energy, creativity and dedication to music.

AAJ: You've also worked extensively with Larry Goldings' trio. How do these situations compare?

BS: Larry Goldings trio with Peter Bernstein is the longest running band I've played with. We've been playing gigs together, though not as often as I'd like, since about 1989. Larry and Peter are both great and I've always loved playing with this group. Now that I think of it, I am fortunate to have played in so many groups that have been significant bands and have had a unique sound as a band, especially Goldings' trio, a few of Scofield's bands, and Metheny's trio, all of whom I've played lots of gigs with. I think that playing with bands like these on tour, where you play a lot of the same material night after night on different stages, has helped me to develop as a musician more than if I just played in a different band every week.

AAJ: Right, or at least in different ways. There's also the Pat Martino disc Nightwings (Muse, 1996) that you're on. How was that working with him and with guitarists of that stature in general?

BS: That album is the only time I played with Pat Martino. He is a very accomplished player and I remember him as being easy to work with in the studio. It does seem that I've played with a lot of guitarists, and some very good ones. I've also toured with Jim Hall, who is great and a challenge for a drummer because he plays even softer than a pianist, given that pianists today usually use monitors and are usually in the PA system. With Sco and Metheny, I generally play louder, because the music calls for it.

AAJ: Another landmark project was Brecker's Time is of the Essence.

BS: That recording with Brecker was fun. I already had a good hook-up with Larry Goldings, and the material was varied and fun. I also enjoyed going to the studio the next day to see Elvin Jones play on his tracks. He is from another planet, musically.

AAJ: Absolutely. That must've been great. You've actually really got a serious funk/soul background.

BS: I did work with Maceo Parker's band for parts of 1990 and 1991 and also am on three of his records. I enjoyed that experience and learned a lot. Maceo is a great player and a great band leader as well. The gigs were mostly funk, with just a little swing-based jazz thrown in. The band also included funk legends Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis as well as Larry Goldings and Rodney Jones. As a result of being in this band, I was involved in an HBO special with James Brown, right after he got out of prison in 1991. Rehearsing and playing with James had me on the edge of my drum stool. He asked me," Drummer, where you from?" I said "Iowa. He replied "Iowa!... Ain't no funk there!"

AAJ: Ha! That's amazing. That must've really been a high point of your career (the gig not the comment).

BS: I played one gig with James Brown, an HBO special, taped in 1991. At the time, I was working with Maceo Parker, and his band was the core of the band used to back James for that taping. We rehearsed in the afternoon and taped the show that evening. MC Hammer was also involved in the show. With James, we played "Cold Sweat" "Please, Please, Please" "Get on the Good Foot" and "I Feel Good" Everyone, including the band and his wife, referred to him as Mister Brown. It was a surreal experience and, as a drummer, there are lots of little things to catch playing with him, including some little band breaks between tunes that are cued by his movements on stage. So, anyway, I played with James for four tunes. At the gig, he introduced me as "my man on drums." He had just met me and I'm sure he couldn't remember my name.

AAJ: (laughs). Let's talk about your solo album work a bit. You've got three discs out as a leader: Snide Remarks, Telepathy and Think Before you Think. Can you discuss the making of them as well as your method of writing music?

BS: Snide Remarks and Telepathy are different than Think Before You Think in that I wrote almost all the music on those records. Think Before You Think was done in 1989, when I was 22 and I hadn't done a lot of composing then, so I included one tune of my own and invited the other musicians to bring things and we played some standard jazz tunes as well. I don't lead bands very often, maybe not as often as I'd like, but in doing all these CDs I tried to come up with interesting combinations of musicians whose abilities would compliment each other and I wrote or chose material with them in mind. I don't really have a method of writing music, but I often get my ideas at the piano, occasionally at the drums or maybe even walking down the street.

AAJ: You studied with a number of non-drummers, Dave Samuels, Rufus Reid and Joe Lovano among them. What have been the most important things you've picked up from them?

BS: I studied composition with Dave Samuels at William Paterson College for a semester or two. I basically wrote some things and brought them in and we would talk about them and rework them. He had some harmonic ideas that were helpful and new to me. Rufus was the head of the jazz program at that time...so I had ensembles with him often. He is very observant and brought all of his experience to his teaching. He was very good with groups of musicians and with helping them play together as a unit. I didn't really study with Joe Lovano except that he subbed for my drum teacher Eliot Zigmund at WPC one day when he couldn't teach his drum lessons. So, all of Eliot's students got a lesson with Joe. In my case, it consisted of us playing duets for an hour. Joe made a comment or two and that was all the talking. I have a cassette of the lesson somewhere. It was the first time I played with Joe and then a few years later I ended up on a few gigs with him where we were both sidemen and then on some of his gigs, then we played together with Scofield. At William Paterson College, Horacee Arnold and Eliot Zigmund. John Riley also gave me about four lessons when he was subbing for Eliot. I also took one lesson from Ed Blackwell in about 1987.

AAJ: What did you find that leaders like Metheny, Sco and Brecker wanted from you?

BS: Those guys were all familiar with my playing before they hired me so I think they mostly wanted me to contribute what I felt was appropriate and then if they wanted something specific, they would say so, but that didn't occur all that often. All of those guys require some flexibility in that they play a variety of grooves and tempos within one set of music.

AAJ: Who are your original and current influences?

BS: My influences on drums are numerous and I probably couldn't list everyone without forgetting someone. My biggest influences are probably Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Philly Joe Jones, Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell. Some other influences include Joe Chambers, Bernard Purdie, Victor Lewis, Idris Muhammad, Billy Hart, Paul Motian, Max Roach, Jimmy Cobb, Vernel Fournier, Kenny Clarke, Jo Jones, Pete La Roca, Clyde Stubblefield, "Jabo" Starks, and many others, I'm sure. These guys have all made great contributions to music. I didn't try to copy any one player at any stage of my development but I was surely experimenting with different aspects of several players styles and combining some of that.

AAJ: Are you teaching? If so, what do you try to impress most on your students?

BS: I am not teaching at this time as I have been busy. When I have taught, I've tried to help each student with what they felt they were struggling with, listen to them play, help them get a good sound on the instrument, and talk about various musical concepts. I don't have a pre-set agenda if I teach, no system or exercises or any of that because each student has different needs.

AAJ: That's for sure. What are your current projects?

BS: I am currently on the road with bassist Scott Colley's quartet.

AAJ: Thanks for your time, Bill. All the best to you.



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