Over the river and through the words…for Jazz? Lydia Maria Child’s directions to grandfather’s house may come to mind on your drive to the Cultural Center at Eagle Hill in Hardwick, MA tomorrow for the concert by saxophonist Grant Stewart. Hardwick is a pristine hamlet on the east side of the Quabbin Reservoir that’s best known for horse farms, picture postcard colonials, and the Eagle Hill School. Tomorrow night it’ll ring with the sounds of bebop, ballads and blues when Stewart’s Quintet takes the stage.
Stewart, a Toronto native who’s been on the New York scene for over 20 years, is a highly dedicated keeper of the flame, and so too are his illustrious sidemen, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, pianist David Hazeltine, bassist Paul Sikivie, and his brother Phil Stewart on drums. Grant heard a great deal of classic jazz, jump blues, and Ellingtonia in his boyhood home where his father Norman, a high school English teacher and jazz guitarist, fostered his son’s career with patient, insistent tutelage.
When I wrote the liner notes for Stewart’s Sharp Nine release, Grant Stewart Plays the Music of Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn, in 2009, he told me, “My father made me keep up with my practicing. He’d slow down reel-to-reel tape recordings he’d made of classic solos by Prez, Bird, and Wardell Gray and transcribe them for me. Then we’d play duets on these tunes. Today he’s overjoyed that I have a career playing jazz.”
Stewart’s rapid development— by age 14, he'd earned a local reputation playing in a big band led by his first saxophone teacher, Pete Scofield— first came to light on records with his 1992 session Downtown Sounds, a date featuring Magnarelli and pianist Brad Mehldau playing tunes by Billy Strayhorn and Charlie Parker’s “KoKo.” Bird’s magnum opus on the changes of “Cherokee” is a major challenge for players at any age; these three nailed it brilliantly while still in their early 20’s.
One of the most impressive things about Stewart is the fullness of his sound and how well he maintains it even at the fastest tempos. In an era when virtually everyone playing jazz is coming out of conservatory or university music departments, he's done it with a handful of private teachers and a steadfast commitment to the exacting standards of the music. While he draws flattering comparisons with the classic Sonny Rollins, he's very much his own man today, and after 20 years of managing to keep a career afloat in a world of ever-diminishing opportunities for jazz, he remains devoted to the art. “I have a strong sense that great jazz is timeless and that there’s no need to worry about trends and fashions. In my generation there’s so much pressure to be hip and current. But I find it’s wise to stick to what feels true to oneself.”