In Conversation With Bill Stewart

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Bill Stewart’s loose-limbed, post-bop fusillades have been turning instrumentalists’ heads for close to 20 years. The Iowa-born drummer first emerged on the New York jazz scene in the late ’80s, and since then has made his presence known worldwide with such artists as John Scofield, Maceo Parker, Pat Metheny, Larry Goldings, and many others. Stewart’s strong rhythmic sense is melodically driven, using a multilayered, percolating approach that emphasizes both an outer dialog with other musicians as well as an inner dialog. His sideman and leader recordings are permeated by fearless, across-the-bar phrasing and loose funkiness with an open yet dry sound — Roots Revisited, Mo’ Roots, and Southern Exposure with Maceo Parker, What We Do and Hand Jive with John Scofield, Trio 99 à 00 and Trio Live with Pat Metheny, and Traveling Mercies with Chris Potter are but a sampling of recordings as sideman. As a leader, he’s released Snide Remarks, Telepathy, and Think Before You Think in the 1990s. We caught up with Stewart on a rainy day in Oakland, California in October 2007 as he was touring with John Scofield’s group.

What’s it like playing with Steve Swallow?
Playing with Steve is fun. He has a unique sound on the electric bass, not like other electric bass players. He has a very singing, lyrical way of playing, not just when he solos, but in the ensemble too. Steve brings a lot of history from his own career when we play with John Scofield. They’ve had a relationship for many years, from before I’ve played with them. But Steve also used to play acoustic bass and has played with a lot of great musicians, so his concept has an acoustic bass concept in it as well. Steve is really solid. We have a lot of fun playing, so it’s always a pleasure.

What’s the secret to melodic playing on the drum set?
Well, there’s a limited amount of pitches usually. I don’t play that big of a set — four or five drums and some cymbals — so I come up with some shapes and that makes a melody. Sometimes it’s something very simple that seems most melodic. There’s no secret there. I mean, you just try to play things that are clear and tell a story and are developed. You play a melody one way and then you can play it upside down and sideways to develop it — and then once you start doing that, you can do quite a lot with a limited amount of actual pitches, but there’s no real secret.

What’s been your most “out there” musical experience?
I don’t usually play in contexts that are totally free. But I remember in college and later, getting together with people and just playing free a lot. I did some things that were pretty free with a pianist named Bill Carrothers; we did a record of duos and some of that material was free playing. It might not sound exactly like what people think of when they think of free playing, but I guess if I’m playing free I want it to be open enough not to be a particular kind of free playing. I like the concept of free playing — I think it’s very challenging. Obviously it’s more risky because you’re not planning certain structural points in the music, so if you’re playing free with people, you have to really trust their decision-making and they have to trust you. Collectively, you have to make decisions to go left or right — and that’s a challenging and different mindset. With some of the musicians I play with, we play some free things. Even with John Scofield, there are some parts in the music that are very free. We have a piece we’re playing this week where the improvisation is wide open. It’s not planned; it can go anyplace.

If you could go back to 1940 and play with any musicians, who would they be?
1940? That’s an interesting question [long silence]. It would be nice to play with Lester Young or Ben Webster. That would be pretty great. I’m named after the trombonist who played with the Woody Herman Orchestra, Bill Harris — a great player that not so many people are aware of. That would be fun too. Wow. There were so many people alive at that time, that’s an interesting question. Wow. I got my choice of a lot of people there [laughs, long silence]. Well, that’s a start.

What instrument would you play if not drums?
Probably piano, just because there are so many possibilities. I play piano at home and I probably play piano at home more than I play the drums at this point. Plus, you can think of the piano as 88 drums in a way — there’s the percussive component of it. Rhythmically, I can do a lot of the things I do on the drum set, but there are all these other possibilities — a lot of other things to think about, like harmony.

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