For over four decades, tuba player Bob Stewart has been providing the low end for groups led by jazz legends across the stylistic spectrum, from Gil Evans to Charles Mingus to Lester Bowie. He’s helped move the instrument out of the shadows and into the front line as a bona fide solo instrument, expanding its expressive range through the use of multiphonics and amplification.
This past September marked the release of Stewart’s newest solo record, Connections — Mind the Gap (Sunnyside). The album acts as both a summation of Stewart’s musical associations through his career thus far and a look into the future. Over the course of the record, Stewart juxtaposes compositions by some of the illustrious bandleaders he has worked with and a new piece, In Color, for solo tuba and string quartet, composed by Jessie Montgomery. In a four and a half star review in DownBeat magazine, Jon Garelick writes, “…the grooves, as you can imagine, are just about perfect,” and “Stewart’s virtuoso brass work … is still a wonder.”
We are proud to present Bob Stewart’s Double Quartet and their new music this Saturday, December 13th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. To get a sense of what Stewart has in store for the Gallery audience, we caught up with him by phone.
The Jazz Gallery: Can you tell us about the origin of this Double Quartet project?
Bob Stewart: It was initiated because I commissioned a piece to be written for me by Jessie Montgomery. Jessie is a great composer and violinist who plays in the Catalyst Quartet and works through the organization Sphinx House. We worked together and figured out how to present it. I didn’t really want a typical tuba solo piece like an étude or something, but a piece that explored the sound qualities of the instrument, using multiphonics, using overtones from the extremes of the instrument—a lot of different things.
The result was the piece In Color, which is in five movements. Each movement explores a different texture that the tuba can present. My son is a violinist and he has a group called PUBLIQuartet, and when I first came to Jessie with the commission, she was in the group as well. Working with that group was a natural fit. At the same time, I was doing some recordings with my other quintet that includes trumpet, trombone, drums, and violin. I then decided to present these two different projects together on a single record.
The way this music appears on the record is different than it appears live. On the record, you’ll hear a piece featuring the string quartet, then a piece featuring the jazz quintet (or sometimes quartet), and it will kind of go back and forth. It makes the CD feel like it has five big movements, each one having a color, a texture, a timbre of its own. The jazz pieces fit into the emotion of each movement of Jessie’s composed piece.
This is where the project came from, but now—like in the performance that’s going to happen at The Jazz Gallery—it’s a real amalgamation where both groups meld and become one. What we’ve been working on now is making some of the jazz pieces on the record into full ensemble pieces. Sometimes the strings are freely-improvised, sometimes the horns are freely-improvised, sometimes everything is written out. So you have a lot of different phases of this color in the Double Quartet.
TJG: What drew you to working with Jessie on a through-composed solo piece? What do you like about her work?
BS: Jessie has a different approach to writing than a typical jazz musician. It’s not so much from a chordal perspective, but comes from a more melodic place. A lot of her writing is very linear, and she can suggest different harmonies at once, something I’ve experienced in the music of Sam Rivers. I was looking for that kind of color.
In the larger picture, I’m looking to expand the repertoire of the tuba, too. I’m performing this piece, but it’s not really about me. I see tuba players doing recitals, and most of them are doing the same kinds of music. They’re doing transcriptions of cello pieces, transcriptions of violin pieces, almost trying to prove that the tuba can play high and fast and do that clearly. The tuba can do that already; it’s beyond that now.
I’m more interested in developing all the colors and varieties of positions and postures that the tuba can take. I want to expand the world of the instrument so tuba players have some other options. There are more and more fantastic tuba players out there, and they need better options than what they have in terms of repertoire. Since I liked Jessie’s music, I wanted to hear her perspective on this repertoire issue.
TJG: What kinds of things did you and Jessie discuss when you worked on the piece together?
BS: Jessie had heard me play and knew what I can do technically, so I wanted to show her what would happen if I would do something like play a root note on the instrument and sing the interval of a fifth above it. When I do that, there’s a harmonic “ghost note” that also occurs above the note that I sing; or, if I sing that same root note and sing the interval of a 10th or a 12th above it, you get a completely different “ghost note” above it.
She kind of had an idea of what overtones would be created, so the materials that she wrote for the strings worked around those harmonies. It wasn’t so much discussing technical stuff as it was discussing more specifically the harmonies that are naturally created by the multiphonics and how to write in harmony with those.
TJG: In terms of presenting this music on your record, what made you want to intersperse the movements of In Color with the more obviously jazz pieces, rather than separating the pieces onto separate sides of the album?
BS: That idea was suggested to me because someone said, “That’s not a way to present a classical piece!”
Well, first of all, who says In Color is a classical piece? I mean, you can certainly call it a classical piece, but to me, the other pieces we do are classical also. They’re just not European classical pieces. What tells you that something is a classical piece, or what tells you that something is a jazz piece? If I listen to an Anthony Braxton or Anthony Davis composition, how do I tell that they are jazz pieces or not jazz pieces?
The arc of music has gotten to the point where those boundaries are getting much less clear. That’s why they came up with the term “Third Stream.” Music had evolved so much that people were questioning whether some music was really jazz or really classical, and Gunther Schuller was smart enough to coin a phrase to describe that music.
That’s the way I see the music now. I mean, if you’re playing a blues form, then of course you’re playing something that’s easily identified as jazz. But when you’re getting into the territory that I do on this CD, there’s not a classical side and a jazz side. It’s all like what Lester Bowie used to say, “Great improvised music, ancient to modern,” and that’s what’s going on here. You can call it “jazz” if that makes you more comfortable, but it’s really an amalgam of improvised music. On some pieces I’m improvising, on others I’m reading a part, so where’s the line drawn?
I think the juxtaposition of hearing a classical string quartet and then all of a sudden going into an Arthur Blythe piece really shows how much the pieces actually have in common. You hear a very similar musical phrase in each, so which one is classical? It’s like one is an introduction to the other.
TJG: So by juxtaposing these materials, you’re helping the listener hear beyond what they think jazz or classical music should sound like, helping point out deeper concordances between varied musical traditions.
BS: Absolutely. It’s the mood, naturally, that connects the pieces more than some abstract concept like style—like the mood of the movement “Purple” is reflective of “Bush Baby,” or the other compositions that come after that movement. All of the pieces are very responsive to each other on an emotional level rather than a categorical level. When I first listened to the album all the way through with these juxtapositions, I was like “Whoa!” I myself was able to get past the categories and just listen to the colors. It was just magnificent, I thought.
Bob Stewart’s Double Quartet, First Line Band & PUBLIQuartet, perform this Saturday, December 13th, 2014, at The Jazz Gallery. The First Line Band features Stewart on tuba, Randall Haywood on trumpet, Nick Finzer on trombone, and Craig Haynes on drums; the PUBLIQuartet features Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth on violin, Lev Zhurbin on viola, and Amanda Gookin on cello. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m., $22 general admission ($12 for Members). Purchase tickets here.