Jazz captures a moment in time—it exists in an eternal now. But it also reflects a span of time—a musician’s personal history—the sum total of an improviser’s life experience. Guitarist Jamie Stewardson’s album “Jhaptal” is no exception. It captures a band that came together under specific circumstances to play music in the moment. The music they play arises from Stewardson’s need to braid together the various strands of his life into a coherent pattern, to make beauty from experience, to search and grow as an artist. You can hear a life’s worth of experience in every note of the music.
When he took up the guitar at 15, like most kids that age, Stewardson dreamed of rock stardom. But listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever drew him inexorably into the world of jazz. He pursued his music education at the Berklee College of Music, the Banff Jazz Workshop (where he studied with John Abercrombie), and later earned his Masters in jazz composition from Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where Joe Maneri and Mick Goodrick further broadened his horizons. It says something about Stewardson’s innate open-mindedness that he started his performing career aboard a cruise ship backing pop and soul oldies acts such as The O’Jays, The Temptations, Patti Page, and The Drifters, yet he wound up playing with George Russell, Jimmy Guiffre, and Mat Maneri, as well as the musicians on this CD.
The players on “Jhaptal” include some of the best jazz musicians on the East Coast. Tony Malaby is one of New York’s most in-demand saxophonists. He’s worked in bands led by Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Fred Hersch, Tim Berne, Mark Helias, and many others, in addition to leading his own groups. Bassist John Hebert is likewise well traveled in New York jazz circles, having worked with Maria Schneider, Andrew Hill, Greg Osby, and Roy Campbell, among others. He is the co-leader along with pianist Russ Lossing and saxophonist Adam Kolker of Change of Time, a trio dedicated to exploring the music of Bela Bartok. Drummer George Schuller was a longtime fixture on the Boston jazz scene before moving to New York in 1994. Since then, he’s worked with musicians ranging from Britt Woodman and Mose Allison, to Lee Kontiz, Danilo Perez, and Michael Musillami. Alexei Tsiganov, an awarding winning jazz vibraphonist in Russia, moved to Boston to study with Gary Burton at the Berklee College of Music. As of this recording, he is working on his Masters at New England Conservatory, and performing with Bostonarea musicians such as Bob Moses, Bruce Gertz, and Dave Clark. Stewardson knew Tsiganov from his work on piano in the Dave Zoffer Differential, an eclectic jazz-funk outfit in which Stewardson plays electric bass. This band met when Stewardson booked Malaby, Hebert, and Schuller to conduct a clinic at a summer jazz camp where Stewardson teaches. Stewardson hit it off with the New Yorkers and when he showed them his compositions, they agreed to return to record them.
It’s easy to hear why they were attracted to Stewardson’s writing. He clearly relishes a creative challenge and developing a personal approach. His pieces draw on wide interests and experiences in subtle and surprising ways. Mahavishnu’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Arnold Schoenberg’s dodecaphonics, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, and music of the Indian subcontinent, all echo within the music. Stewardson’s interest in Indian music emerges on “Jhaptal,” which uses a 10 beat rhythmic cycle. He says that Schoenberg’s serial music ideas inspired his approach to many of these compositions. But Stewardson felt free to bend the strict rules governing tone rows if doing so resulted in a melody, a bass line, or a harmony he liked. Tunes like “Combinatoriality” and “TCAN Shuffle” are serial music with a human face, in which the needs of the heart count for as much as the inventions of the mind. The melody of “Dig-Muse” is drawn out to extreme length without ever losing its interest or sense of direction. In several of the tunes, such as “Bubbles” and “Rest Area,” he layers lines, creating fascinating internal tensions for the players to work with as they solo.
Stewardson sets the pace as a soloist with his bold sound and sure sense of spontaneous melody. You can hear his youthful infatuation with rock and his admiration of John McLaughlin in his big, bright, assertive tone. It’s tempered by his understanding of jazz interaction, and a keen sense of color and dynamics, so he’s an uplifting presence, a goad to more joyful playing. His solo on “Olive Oil” exhibits his ability to develop his ideas sequentially without precluding the possibility of surprise. Every sudden acceleration or twist in his line sounds inevitable, even when you’re not expecting it. His long, long opening line on “Combinatoriality” is also an impressive bit of sustained melodic development. He begins his solo on “Cruel Traps” with variations on short phrases, gradually lengthening and extending them, creating an arc of mounting complexity and vitality. He’s always paying attention to his sound, too. On “Dig-Move” he lingers over exultant high notes to let them shout and fade, then he’ll abruptly clip off other notes, giving them an extra urgency and pop.
Malaby’s solos on “TCAN Shuffle” and “Olive Oil” have an emotionally exposed, buoyant quality, a combination of vulnerability and strength that’s delightfully unpredictable. He’s a consummate group improviser, too. Through independent movement, quick reaction to ideas from the band, and judicious use of space, he weaves his solos into the fabric of the band. (In fact, everyone in the band is a careful listener, which makes the collective improvisations, such as the one at the end of “Dig-Muse,” intricate, but uncluttered.)
Bassist Hebert takes the compositions in new directions. He brings the written bass parts and vamps on “Dig-Muse,” “Bubbles,” and “Jhaptal” to life, making them sound spontaneous, then taking the initial ideas and running with them. He’s also a supremely responsive bassist—his intertwining lines with Stewardson on “Bubbles” and his interaction with Schuller on “Rest Area” provide some of the album’s highlights.
Schuller has one of the most unique approaches to drums in jazz, sensitivity to group dynamics that allows him to perfectly gauge and adjust the volume, color, and drive of his playing. Unlike many drummers, he rarely dominates an ensemble, but he also never fails to play exactly what’s needed. “Rest Area” is a good example of how he can feed a group whatever it needs, no matter what’s going on.
Tsiganov’s vibraphone adds another layer of melody and rhythm to the music without crowding the ensemble. His shimmering sound gives the music a warm glow, while his transparent chord voicings, and percussive comping enrich the music’s harmonic and rhythmic underpinnings. You can hear his strong sense of melody as a soloist especially well on “Dig-Muse” and “Combinatoriality,” where his deliberate note placement and pacing, careful use of the damper pedal and occasional chords give his lines an airy lyricism.
Each member of the quintet draws on his own personal history and individual sense of the moment to help Stewardson’s music find voice. It’s a voice unlike any other in jazz right now.