Today I am focusing on the great drumming of Bill Stewart. If you haven't had the opportunity to read my article in the November 2012 issue of Downbeat Magazine, now's your chance. Bill Stewart has been a longtime inspiration of mine and I hope you enjoy the transcription and analysis below. Thanks for visiting!
Bill Stewart arrived in New York City from Iowa in the late 80's, where he was quickly recruited by legendary players such as John Scofield, Maceo Parker and Joe Lovano. A polyrhythmic drummer with extreme dynamic control, Stewart has made his mark as one of the top post-modern jazz drummers of our time. In addition to his extensive work as a sideman, Stewart has developed his own compositional style that reflects his interest in unique song forms and avant-garde melodies. A noteworthy example of Stewart's playing and writing style can be found on the track, "7.5", from his major-label debut, "Snide Remarks" (Blue Note).
The song "7.5" derives its name from the number of bars present in the form. In this case, Stewart has written a quick riff based melody over a total of 7 bars of 4/4, and one bar of 2/4, creating 7.5 total measures. Stewart uses mainly a combination of extended dominants to harmonize the melody of the song, giving the head a modern "bluesy" flavor. The melodic motif used in the first two bars of the melody is repeated in bars 3 and 4 and answered by measures 5 - 8 using a similar melodic arch shape. Stewart incorporates all of the band members as featured soloists in this cut, each taking a full chorus of solo, including Stewart, for a total of 5 choruses per player.
In chorus 1, Stewart continues his ride cymbal pattern while quoting the melody in measure 1 between the snare and bass drum and answering that phrase in measure 2. By measure 3 of the solo Stewart moves to quarter note triplets while using his ride cymbal to offset the rhythm and later resolve each of the three phrases with a crash. Throughout chorus 1, Stewart uses a pulsing high hate on beats 2 and 4, however, he abandons this rhythmic anchor in subsequent choruses.
Chorus 2 begins with a 3 over 4 triplet polyrhythmic motif. This pattern is an arch melodic form moving from the high tom down to the floor tom and back in on sweeping motion. If Stewart had continued this polyrhythm through measure 3 it would have resolved itself by measure 4, but instead he introduces the resolution early in measure 3 by inserting eighth notes on the first beat. At the end of measure 4, Stewart unleashes his signature unison "press" strokes. This technique, a favorite of Stewart's, is that of a buzz roll, only played with unison hands. On other recordings, Stewart can be heard performing these challenging strokes as flams in unison with the bass drum or as one handed presses against a steady ride cymbal ostinato. A technique with obvious links to Roy Haynes, Stewart has made this "lick" his own and mastered the art of making the press strokes sound seamless at a variety of dynamic levels. In this chorus, Bill starts these "press" strokes as quarter note triplets on measure 4, placing them in groups of 3, and playing directly over the bar line until measure 7.
In the 4th measure of pianist Bill Carrothers' third chorus, Stewart introduces the polyrhythmic idea of 2 over 3 in 4/4 in the ride cymbal to build tension. Instead of abandoning this polyrhythm as he enters his own solo, Stewart uses this phrase to build a complex Afro-Cuban influenced groove consisting of a dotted quarter note rhythm in bass drum/high hat unison, a solo conversation between the toms, and a series of steady eighth notes on the snare rim. Stewart continues this pattern until the end of bar 7 when he releases the tension with a simple lead in fill.
Entering chorus 4, Stewart takes the motif from measure 1 of the melody and uses it as the basis for his solo throughout the chorus. However, instead of quoting the rhythm verbatim, Stewart re-arranges the eighth notes on the 2nd beat of the measure into triplets, using the technique of diminution, while expanding the rhythm into the following bar. In doing this, Stewart stretches the phrase out over 6 beats, which he repeats four times until the 7th measure, when he brings back the quarter note triplets to end the elastic solo.
Stewart's final chorus concentrates specifically on dynamic and simplicity. In measure 1 and 2, Stewart quotes the melody quietly on the floor tom and cymbals with minimal variation and proceeds to repeat this same quote across the kit until bar 7 and 8 when he raises the dynamic level with a variation of flam accents smoothly leading the band back into the melody.
This composition, along with Stewart's amazing display of polyrhythmic independence, is a great example of his depth as an artist willing to step out on the edge of his music.