CD REVIEW: Bob Stewart - Connections - Mind The Gap

Bob Stewart - Connections - Mind The Gap
(Sunnyside Communications, SSC 1394. CD review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Tuba maestro Bob Stewart – now just a few months shy of his 70th birthday - has had a long career (frequently in big bands) alongside the likes of Charles Mingus, Lester Bowie, Gil Evans, Carla Bley and David Murray. His work as a leader (mainly with smaller groups) has produced just a handful of albums, although he has led various incarnations of the scintillating brass-heavy First Line Band for over a quarter of a century.

Connections – Mind The Gap is performed by The Double Quartet, which comprises two ensembles: the First Line Band, and the strings of the PUBLIQuartet. Stewart and his violinist son Curtis Stewart appear in both groups. The former also includes guitarist Jerome Harris, drummer Matt Wilson and, on a couple of tracks, trumpeter Randall Haywood and Nick Finzer on trombone. The latter is completed by Jannina Norpoth on violin, Nick Revel on viola and ‘cellist Amanda Gookin (mis-spelt “Goekin” on the CD).
The PUBLIQuartet plays In Color, a chamber piece in five short movements, commissioned by Stewart and composed by violinist Jessie Montgomery. Blunt, foghorn-like tuba blasts grab the attention at the start of Red, and give little indication of the variety and deftness that marks this suite. The strings swoop and swirl on Aqua, and provide a steady backdrop to the tuba for The Poet. Their combination with tuba assumes a slightly eerie quality on Purple, and the rhythmic tapping and scraping of Makina evolves to a beautiful conclusion.

Each movement of the In Color suite is punctuated by a song or two by the First Line Band. There’s Simone, a dancing blues by Frank Foster, and the sublime, passionate sway of Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango. Harris sings on a couple of tunes: Henry Thomas’ gently suggestive Fishin’ Blues, and his own Hand by Hand, which – along with Charles Mingus’ Jump Monk - is augmented by Finzer and Haywood. The deep seriousness of one of Monk’s greatest conceptions, Monk’s Mood, is retained in the leader’s relatively loose arrangement.

Highlights include two distinctive compositions by Arthur Blythe: Bush Baby has an off-kilter swing and assymetric lines, and Odessa, which has a Central European flavour. “Black Arthur” has been incapacitated by illness for several years, and these numbers are a potent reminder of his huge importance in the jazz world.

Stewart’s tuba is the primary voice, and he impresses with quiet authority rather than volume or overt virtuosity. He contributes just one composition, and it’s a good one. Nothing to Say sticks in the memory like an old standard.

Played with commitment and an admirable lightness of touch, Connections – Mind The Gap is a triumph for Stewart and both of his ensembles. It is deeply satisfying, frequently moving, and one of the finest albums I have heard for ages.

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