Grant Stewart continues to be one of my favorite modern tenor saxophonists. He has a huge sound, he's nimble and knows when to turn on the speed, and he loves showing off on standards. I'm old schooljazz to me is about showing your stuff, competing hard, and having respect for the music's grand tradition. Grant hits all of these hot buttons.
Grant is up on his Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Don Byas and Jimmy Forrest. Way back when, leaders understood the need for suspense and wowing the listener. An artist like Ammons might start a run, pause ever so briefly to let the line sink in, and then pick up where he left off. As though hitting pause on a DVD remote and hitting play a few seconds later. It was a crafty way to build drama and let the cool set in momentarily before resuming the heat.
On Live at Smalls, recorded back in April, Grant was joined by a superb rhythm section: Tardo Hammer [pictured above] on piano, David Wong on bass and brother Phil Stewart on drums. Tardo is a swinging, technical monster who also knows his history, David hits the upright's strings with huge authority, and Phil is a master of delicate intimidation.
The tracks here are all standards. Make Someone Happy, Mr. Lucky, Bobby Troup's Meaning of the Blues, Billy May's Somewhere in the Night, Thelonious Monk's Reflections, Tea for Two, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Get Out of Town.
In each case, Grant adds a twist. Tea for Two is taken about twice as fast as most versions, as is Mr. Lucky and Somewhere in the Night, which gives them a more urgent coloration. Get Out of Town and Make Someone Happy also are up-tempo, requiring Grant to make improvising choices on the superfly, demonstrating yet again why he's a standout. And his ballad work on Meaning of the Blues will knock you out. Best of all, Grant never slides into cliches but instead makes all of these battles personalas it should be.