- Phil Freeman
The latest episode of the Burning Ambulance podcast features an interview with tuba player Bob Stewart.
I have said all season long that we’re going to be exploring a single subject for ten episodes, and that subject is fusion. But as I hope has become clear over the course of the five previous episodes, during which I interviewed techno pioneer Jeff Mills, drummer Lenny White, trumpeter Randy Brecker, pianist Cameron Graves, and guitarist Brandon Ross, most of whom come from different musical generations and are not peers, when I say the word fusion, I’m talking about a state of mind, not a style or a genre. It’s not what you play, it’s how you approach music-making.
I understand that when most people hear the word fusion, they think of the big name bands from the 1970s: the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Weather Report. Those groups, and the Miles Davis bands from 1969 to 1975, and many other less immediately recognizable groups, all did a particular thing, playing extremely complex music that blurred the lines between progressive rock and jazz. We talked about those acts in the second and third episodes this season, with Lenny White and Randy Brecker, both of whom were around then and were actively participating in making some of that music.
If you think of fusion as a mindset, though, rather than a style, the discussion gets a lot more interesting. And that’s really how I prefer to think about it. Because the people who fall into the latter category are the ones who I find to be the most interesting, and the ones who are more likely to have careers where almost every record they play on is at least worth hearing, worth giving a chance. You may not like all of it. But they’re creative enough that they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.
A perfect example of this is Bill Laswell, the bassist and producer. He doesn’t use the term fusion. He calls what he does “collision music,” bringing together players from wildly disparate areas — stylistic areas, and literal geographical ones, putting African players together with guys from Southeast Asia and New York rock artists and whoever else he thinks has something to say — and seeing what comes out when they all work together toward a common goal. And sometimes you get something glorious, that you never could have predicted or imagined beforehand. Like pairing Pharoah Sanders with a troupe of Gnawa musicians from North Africa. Or putting improvising guitarist Derek Bailey together with drummer Jack DeJohnette, DJ Disk from the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and Laswell himself on bass. I heard a recording of that group just a few days ago, and you might not expect it to work, but it really, really did.
Bob Stewart is a fusion artist in that he takes an instrument that has had a relatively low profile in jazz for decades — the tuba — and created a variety of fascinating contexts for it. Not only on his own albums, but particularly in partnership with the late alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe. They began working together in the early 1970s, and Stewart’s playing on some of Blythe’s albums, most notably Bush Baby, where it’s just the two of them and a percussionist, and on Lenox Avenue Breakdown and Illusions, where they had some incredible bands that included at different times James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar, Cecil McBee on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, James Newton on flute, and Abdul Wadud on cello. On the album Blythe Spirit, Blythe and Stewart record a version of the spiritual “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” with Amina Claudine Myers on organ, that’s absolutely amazing. We talk about that piece a little bit in this interview.
He’s worked with a lot of other artists over the course of his career, too, including Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Carla Bley, Gil Evans, the Jazz Composers Orchestra, Bill Frisell, the David Murray Big Band, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, and on and on. The reason he’s able to do so many different things is that his approach to the tuba is really expansive, conceptually speaking. He treats it as much more than a substitute bass. He understands its full range, and the subtleties it’s capable of expressing, and he uses it in ways lots of other people would never even think of. On his own albums First Line, Then & Now, and Connections — Mind the Gap, he puts together really unorthodox collections of personnel. For example on Then & Now, which was originally released in 1996 but just recently popped up on Bandcamp, some of the tracks feature two trumpets, trombone, French horn, and drums, while another is a duo with pianist Dave Burrell, and others have trumpet, alto sax, guitar, and drums. And Connections — Mind the Gap, which is from 2014, features tuba, guitar and drums, with trumpet and trombone on two tracks, but then on five others it’s the core trio plus a string quartet. Now that’s very much a kind of fusion — jazz which is already in an avant-garde zone, combined with chamber music.
Bob Stewart is a fascinating guy, an endlessly creative spirit who has done a tremendous amount to change the image of his instrument in order to pave the way for guys like Theon Cross, who plays tuba with Sons of Kemet, or with Jose Davila, who plays with Henry Threadgill’s Zooid. I really enjoyed this conversation, and I hope you enjoy listening to it.
Music in this episode:
Bob Stewart, “Bush Baby” (Connections – Mind The Gap)
Arthur Blythe, “Lenox Avenue Breakdown” (Lenox Avenue Breakdown)
Bob Stewart, “The Rambler” (from Then & Now)