Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Walt Dickerson R.I.P. and Jamie Stewardson...

The recent passing of creative vibraphonist Walt Dickerson came as sad news. It was only after the event that I realised how episodic his career had been, consisting essentially of two short periods of activity. Lengthy spells 'off the scene' were the norm for this under-sung jazz great, who played with many great modernists including Andrew Hill, Richard Davis, Andrew Cyrille and Sun Ra.

It's just has hard these days to make it as a professional playing jazz. Time to post another review, and this recent forward looking session led by guitarist Jamie Stewardson is just the kind of session a young Walt Dickerson may have appeared on at the start of his career. It even includes a vibraphonist, and the estimable Tony Malaby adds weight on tenor saxophone.

I enjoyed Stewardson's CD because I enjoy anything that tries to find its own way of adding to and interpreting the tradition. A snippet from my review appears on Stewardson's website, and it's nice to know that people sometimes take notice. In another neat little turn, the review also namechecks Joe Lovano, who I go to see on Thursday night fronting McCoy Tyner's trio.

I can't say I'll miss a player like Dickerson who I only know from a handful of recordings made at least 30 years ago, but I know that music as profound and beautiful as his is rare. I won't ever get to hear any new Dickerson recordings, but even without his death that was probably true of a talent largely lost to the music. I won't stop listening to the records we've got though, and sadly this small recorded legacy is all that we'll now ever get to know about this enigmatic man.

Fresh Sounds New Talent (FSNT 233)

T Can Shuffle; Bubbles; Jhaptal; Combinatoriality; Rest Area; Olive Oil; Cruel Traps; Dig Muse; For Dale And Roberta.

Tony Malaby (ts); Jamie Stewardson (g); Alexei Tsiganov (vib); John Hebert (b); George Schuller (d).
Recorded June 2003.

Guitarist Jamie Stewardson is one of an increasing number of new artists that seem to arrive on the scene fully formed. With a background covering everything from cruise ships to a day job as a music faculty academian, Stewardson may be little known but can already call such established talents as Tony Malaby, John Hebert and George Schuller into his quintet. A dynamic post-McLauglin soloist, there’s no mistaking the hours he must have spent listening to Mahavishnu. Stewardson can also clearly write. Echoes of serialism and Indian Classical music occasionally surface, but are never allowed to choke what is first and foremost an improviser’s free-bop outfit.

I’m always pleased to hear the vibraphone in a pianoless setting such as this, and Russian √©migr√© Tsiganov’s free-floating feel is a neat foil to the steely improvising of both Malaby and Stewardson. Hebert and Schuller are equal partners, free to roam at will within the guitarist’s democratic structures, stretching and containing the music as structures fade in and out. The title track, “Jhaptal”, is the most overtly Indian based piece, melody coming from the bassline as much as from the lead instruments, and the rhythmic cycle seems to be strangely elongated and at first unsettling. “Rest Area” is strikingly modern, a nod to M-Base with its churning rhythms, fiendishly tight front-line interplay and generally loose groove.

The Lovano-Scofield quartet of the late ‘80s at their most ‘out’ spring to mind on the catchy “Olive Oil”, which is no bad thing. “Dig Muse” typifies the guitarist’s thoroughly contemporary style, relying on complex crosscutting and deeply layered melodic lines played over another impressively elastic groove. The closing “For Dale and Roberta” is a beautiful but short free ballad, tenderly read by Malaby, and a touching but unexpected end to a richly rewarding hour of new jazz. Certainly there are echoes of other East Coast groups operating at the sharp end of contemporary jazz, but Stewardson’s unique frame of reference and well chosen instrumentation give this group a refreshing identity. Fresh Sounds’ New Talent imprint seems to score far more hits than misses, and can certainly be proud of this one. Recommended without reservation.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, September 2006)

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