GRANT STEWART TRIO: Roll On – Cellar Live

GRANT STEWART TRIO: Roll On – Cellar Live 100616, 49:25 (6/23/17) ****½:


A trio session of standards to match the best of the late ‘50s classics, with exquisite drumming by Phil Stewart.

(Grant Stewart; tenor saxophone / Phil Stewart; drums / Paul Sikivie; bass)

The name of this excellent jazz label Cellar Live conjures up a pleasing image. It is a Saturday night, we descend the few stairs, slip a sawbuck into the can at the door or give it to the man with the tattoos, and seek a table facing the bassist. Anon the frothy refreshments appear and the three musicians take their places. One, two three… and the air is quickened by tone, feeling, idea. Hush, chattering youngsters, for these are musicians of outstanding merit. And so the glorious evening rolls on to its conclusion. And ascending the few stairs into the evening air we know the world to have been repaired by art and something like love. Preserve the image folks, for the jazz clubs are not well. Like the macaw and the whooping crane they have retreated to the verge of extinction. Even in Portland, Oregon, a town oversupplied with musicians, the last jazz club closed its doors in 2016.

Cellar Live productions is dedicated to preserving the art form and nourishing the creative impulse. It helps that they draw on the considerable talent of the still thriving New York Jazz scene. On the record under review, we have Grant Stewart, a transplanted Canadian (Scarborough, Ontario) leading a trio that includes his younger brother Phil Stewart on drums as well as Paul Sikivie on bass. We at Audiophile Audition were deeply impressed by a recent Cory Weeds recording on the same label, and it is a good sign that he is the producer of this session as well.

Of the many good things that can be said about this record, the first is that it assembles nine stellar tunes, none overly familiar. Three bebop charts by Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Elmo Hope find the trio in an early ‘50s groove. The tenor style, however, tends towards a relaxed playing off the beat rather than the impatient straining forward which is characteristic of the style and gives bebop its neurotic zaniness. The exemplar here, as cited in the notes, is the Sonny Rollins at his most relaxed on one of his Riverside trio outings. Although, Stewart’s tone is not as hoarse as his predecessor.

The drumming is outstanding throughout, but on Fats Flats the traded fours attain a magnificent hilarity of inspiration. Un Poco Loco balances a straight tenor statement of them with more melodic drumming, the brothers playing together with accord and humor, while the bass holds things together. It is an extravagant seven minutes of fun and inspires me to nominate this track for an award as Best Drumming Performance of 2017.

On the first of three ballads, Here I’ll Stay, the tenor shows great confidence in the melodic line, playing almost without embellishment. His improvisational choruses seem to plumb the meaning of the lyric, rather than to stir up harmonic agitation. On Just As Though You Were Here, he leaves ample space for the rhythm mates who share the leader’s fine sense for both timbre and melody. On Thinking of You, the tenor directs his thinking apparatus toward the construction of some fine thematic choruses with nary an excessive note. Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans channels more mid ‘50s Sonny. Slow but not lethargic, the ballad drifts on currents of longing but the sound of the tenor is so assuring that we don’t feel forsaken by time or loved ones. The title track, Roll On, is just one more display of group rapport on a fine chart. After You’ve Gone is taken at a bright clip; the bass exerts both thews and sinews on a brisk trot, while the saxophone flies ahead on a torrent of crisply articulated 16th notes, reminiscent of the great Sonny Stitt.

This trio has made a deeply satisfying recording, relying on the elements of form and a communication which are products of a specific ‘50s musical aesthetic yet are flexible enough to allow for a spontaneous and fresh treatment like this. You would be stupendously lucky to see a trio like this at your local cellar jazz club.  Kudos to the musicians and the producers for a stand-out release.

Thinking of You
Here I’ll Stay
After You’ve Gone
Just as Though You Were Here
Un Poco Loco
End of a Love Affair
Fats Flats
Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans
Roll On

–Fritz Balwit

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