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Robert Stewart's Three-Year Plan

Christine Alicino

Getting Out By Getting Back: Young tenor saxophonist Robert Stewart has expertly moved from mainstream jazz to ballads to bluesy R&B over the course of three superlative albums.

A young jazzman pays respect to the past while keeping his sound thoroughly contemporary

By Nicky Baxter

ALTHOUGH HE is still a young man, improvisational musician Robert Stewart hews to a career plan worthy of a wizened master. While many artists are content just to get their muse recorded one disc at a time, the 26-year-old saxophonist has the trajectory of his art all mapped out. Call it the Three-year Plan.

First, Stewart wanted to let the world know that he had his mainstream chops in order--sort of a "Hello, pleased to meet you" tactic. Released on South Central's World Stage Records, 1994's Judgement demonstrated that Stewart was indeed intimately familiar with the workings of old-school jazz. The tenor player's grasp of bebop and R&B­driven jazz was impressive, if not exactly original--but that wasn't the point. Second on Stewart's to-do list was an album of all ballads. Beautiful Love, recorded for the Italian label Red, has yet to cross the Atlantic, but its arrival is imminent. In the Gutta (Qwest Records), the third project, proves that Stewart knows his blues as well.

"The whole thing was planned about four years ago," Stewart explains from his home in Oakland. "I just needed to get people behind me." Although he has nothing bad to say about his first two records, it is clear that Stewart is most excited about his new project. In the Gutta, he says, "is a grassroots, everyday-folks kind of album--basically hardcore blues. My father is a musician--he plays trumpet--and my mother dug Motown, so I guess the seed was planted early on."

From the introductory number--"Get Out!"--on, Stewart lets us know that the new album was named with a serious level of intent. A "smoove" (think groove and smooth) blend of standards and originals, In the Gutta toys with being a concept album; regardless of their divergent origins, these tunes are all colored by blue notes.

Here and elsewhere, Stewart breathes new life into the sounds of some jazz greats. Indeed, there is something to all the buzz about Stewart being the second coming of Ben Webster, but Stewart's not stuck on big Ben alone; his influences are myriad.

Also detectable are chips off venerated "old" blocks like Coleman Hawkins and lesser-knowns like Gene Ammons. It was Ammons' aggressive R&B­charged tenor-saxophone attack that bent Stewart's ear the most profoundly, and he has expressed his admiration frequently. "Speak Through Your Horn," an incendiary jam from Judgement, demonstrates just how significant Ammons has been to Stewart's musical evolution.

THAT EVOLUTION continues on In the Gutta. Accompanied by a simpatico trio--Larry Bradford on Hammond organ; Ralph Byrd on guitar; and drummer Ranzel Merritt--Stewart knows he can get as low-down as he wants and his partners will be right down there with him. The "Get Out!" track also marks the debut of Stewart the singer.

(Stewart's funny: when I tell him that his growling and shouting makes him sound like he is 56, not 26, he is actually flattered.)

Concerning his "new" instrument, Stewart maintains it was all an "accident. There was a misunderstanding between the guy I had scheduled to sing 'Get Out,' " he explains tactfully. "So he left. It was either do it now, myself, or do it later, with someone else." Lucky for us, Stewart opted for the former.

As a practical matter, however, Stewart was unable to sing the tune at a recent performance at San Jose's Club Ibex. It was physically impossible to sing and blow simultaneously. Having been smitten by the recorded version, it was hard not to be a little chagrined by this cruel law of nature.

Still, the instrumental "Get Out!" delivered a surfeit of genuine funk. The jazz addicts who came out for the premiere of the club's new Sunday-afternoon jazz series expressed their appreciation with considerable volume--acting like they was in church, or somethin.' And anyway, rangy, rail-thin Stewart took the role of sideman for the day, yet another indication of how much he appreciates his jazz forebears. This gig really belonged to Stewart's mentor, musician and music professor Ed Kelly.

Watching stocky, salt-and-pepper-haired improvisational-music patriarch Kelly at Ibex's house organ (a Hammond B-3) essaying deep-blue solos and big-eared vamps behind his baby-faced former pupil was quite a sight. Kelly and Stewart's respect and empathy for one another was manifest. (To those who think that jazz's intergenerational tutorial system is kaput: Don't believe the hype.)

Kelly's bass-less quartet (organ/sax/guitar/drums) mixed it up with aplomb, juxtaposing standards like Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Autumn Leaves" with selections from In the Gutta. When the show was over, everyone present knew they'd witnessed something very, very special.

AS HIS live performances--with his own outfit or playing for someone else, as at Ibex--indicate, Stewart isn't afraid to take on chestnuts begotten by the giants. On In the Gutta, Stewart dares Erroll Garner's transcendent ballad "Misty" and grooves away like he'd come up with the song himself. His reinterpretation is lovingly revved- and funked-up to fit the '90s. And don't be fooled by the song's stately, rococo organ introduction; when Stewart cuts loose on his tenor, you've no doubt that Bradford's quick jaunt to Europe was but a passing fancy. When Bradford next solos, he "recovers" his roots and doesn't dawdle once he's arrived back home.

There is no doubt that Stewart respects the jazzmen who came before him. He is not, however, a genre snob. In the Gutta mostly rocks the post­WWII blues, but Stewart includes some soul numbers too--Booker T. and the MG's "Green Onions" and "Inner City Blues"--imparting a contemporary spin to both. Which is precisely Stewart's objective, that and reminding us that the music was once a just-plain-folks' idiom. In the Gutta is proof that no matter how high and mighty the music gets--black "classical" indeed!--it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that blues thing.

Robert Stewart plays Sunday (June 30) at Club Ibex in San Jose. (408/971-4239)

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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