More often than not, it’s the visionaries of jazz that are likely to incorporate the non-traditional instruments into their sonic lexicon. Bob Stewart plays the tuba. And while it’s not uncommon to see the tuba as part of the lower register section of a jazz orchestra, there’s going to be a certain number of forward-thinkers and avant-garde statesmen who will view instruments like the tuba in a different frame of reference. It’s why, in addition to more straight-ahead projects by artists like Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton, Stewart and his tuba have been enlisted to work with a number of artists whose work situates itself out on the fringes… musicians like Muhal Richard Abrams, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Lester Bowie, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Bill Frisell and Charles Mingus. It’s those last three names that have a particular relevance to Bob Stewart’s new release, Connections: Mind the Gap.
Back in 1992, music producer Hal Willner spearheaded a tribute album to the late great Charles Mingus, bringing together a wide cross-section of different musicians from different genres (of which guitarist Bill Frisell was a key component) to reinterpret Mingus’s music. Bob Stewart, who had performed with and recorded for Mingus, was a part of that recording, entitled Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus. Its mix of jazz, avant-garde, folk, rock, classical, pop and spoken word created an intoxicating blend of music that sounded a bit like each of those genres, but in its totality sounded like something completely different, entirely new.
Over twenty years later, and Stewart’s Connections: Mind the Gap has created an album that utilizes a similar recipe while devising a meal that, in and of itself, is no less mesmerizing and inimitably singular. The music is a thick fog of influences, creating a wall of impenetrability out of something that shifts focus from one passage to the next. Tracks like “Simone,” “Bush Baby” and “Odessa” express themselves with an odd tunefulness, behaving like a sonic Rube Goldberg contraption where disparate moving parts incomprehensibly function in concert to guide the song from first note to last.
The latter two of those three tracks are Arthur Blythe compositions. The history between Stewart and Blythe goes back over thirty years to the NYC loft scene, and has included some excellent sax-tuba-percussion trio sessions, as well as larger unit works, both serving to expand the horizon line of jazz and the role of tuba in it. The fact that Stewart is able to breathe life into these pieces in a modern setting and with a new vision says a lot about the staying power of the original music as well as Stewart’s ability to show new facets of that vision with the changing of time.
Also front and center on Connections is the five-part suite “In Color,” dispersed throughout the recording, and featuring Stewart’s tuba interacting with the swirling harmonies of the string quartet, PUBLIQuartet, of which his son Curtis is a founding member (as well as a member of Stewart’s working unit, First Line Band).
The rendition of Mingus’s “Jump Monk” comes out swinging and allows the traditional elements to rise to the surface. This is also the case with three other renditions. One is of Henry Thomas’s “Fishin’ Blues,” which has guitarist Jerome Harris taking a turn at vocals on a blues track with a lazy afternoon charm. Another is an inspired rendition of “Monk’s Mood,” with its boozy disposition and a melody viewed through a haze and rhythms staggering with an impossible fluidity. And then there’s Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango,” with its bursts of propulsion and unqualified grace, adding a nice dose of differentiation to the album while remaining part of its confluence.
Just a brilliant album, serving up something quite different without turning its back on all that has come before. It’s a testament to the diversity of projects that Stewart has been a part of and his ability to transcend conventions imposed upon his instrument.
Your album personnel: Bob Stewart (tuba), Matt Wilson (drums), Jerome Harris (guitar, vocals), Randall Haywood (trumpet), Nick Finzer (trombone), and the PUBLIQuartet: Curtis Stewart (violin), Jannina Norpoth (violin). Nick Revel (viola), and Amanda Goekin (cello).
Released on Sunnyside Records.
Jazz from NYC.