Jazz, once derided as the devil’s own music, found a place in the sanctuary of the First Lutheran Church in Glendale on a hot night last August when young tenor saxophonist Robert Stewart came down from Oakland for an unusual concert appearance.
Dressed conservatively in a gray suit and blue tie, Stewart filled the chapel with his remarkably rich and reverent tenor tones. The program, a mix of music from John Coltrane’s devotional period, deeply felt standards and Stewart’s own haunting compositions, had an effect akin to a religious experience.
“It was a different setting for me,” Stewart later said. “But I knew I would like it because I play with a lot of spiritual feeling.”
That same spirit can be heard whenever Stewart plays. Two nights before Christmas, he could be found seated on a couch inside the front window of a casual French cafe in San Francisco, sporting a baseball cap and Giants jacket, casually spinning out standards with a trio to an appreciative crowd of Beat-era survivors and twentysomething hipsters. His play, sprinkled with both warm, mellow phrases redolent of Ben Webster and the muscular lyricism of Coleman Hawkins, seemed projected from another era.
Yet Stewart is firmly anchored in the young lion category. The 25-year-old saxophonist played with Joshua Redman while both were attending high school in the East Bay, and he claims Branford Marsalis and Wynton Marsalis as pals.
But Stewart says he “mostly” hangs out with older musicians. While others of his generation emulate John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter, Stewart models himself on a more distant generation of saxophonists--that of Webster, Hawkins and R & B-fired honker Gene Ammons.
Stewart’s fat, facile sound has attracted a lot of attention during his short career. There’s an upcoming release due from Italian-based Red Records, a label that boasts recordings from such established saxophonists as Joe Henderson and Dave Liebman. Wynton Marsalis includes Stewart in his 15-piece big band and Stewart was recently in New York to play on Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields” project, a three-hour piece centered on slave life in America. In addition, a trio of major American labels including Quincy Jones’ QWEST records, is now courting the young saxophonist.
Stewart’s initial release, “Judgement” on drummer Billy Higgins’ World Stage Records label, was one of 1994’s most promising debuts.
“He stands up there and gets such a big, big sound,” marvels Higgins, who backs Stewart on the recording. “He’s got the sound of a much older cat.”
What’s even more surprising about the remarkably mature saxophonist is that he came to his calling relatively late.
“I played flute in high school because it was easy to hide from my friends who were all into sports,” he admits. “But one day I heard Coltrane on the radio followed by a tune from Ben Webster, and that contrast of sounds really attracted me.”
Encouraged by his band director and supplied with a battered saxophone his father dug up in a pawn shop, Stewart began attending jam sessions led by Oakland pianist and instructor Ed Kelly. It was there he met another role model, sax guru and onetime Coltrane associate Pharoah Sanders.
"(Sanders) would come by and jam with Ed every once in awhile. To me, he was just the guy with this long beard. I didn’t even know who he was.”
But Sanders was impressed with what he heard from Stewart and encouraged him to get serious. “He heard how sad I was,” Stewart says modestly, “and he said, ‘Why don’t you come by my house and I’ll show you some scales to play and we’ll talk about the music.’ ”
His association with Marsalis, who singled Stewart out of an Oakland jam session in 1990, has supplied him with a number of contacts. “It was Wynton that put a bug in (drummer Max) Roach’s ear that I was in town when Max was playing a seminar at UC Berkeley. I thought it was a joke when Max called me. My heart hit the floor. Suddenly there I was, just me and him on the stage, drums and sax. We played ‘Cherokee’ very fast and he really kicked my tail.”
Stewart has also performed infrequently with saxophonist Benny Golson. “I’ve really gotten a lot of help from all the cats,” says Stewart, who claims he’s learned his craft through the “osmosis” of hanging out in clubs and listening to his predecessors. “I can call (Golson) on the phone and ask him, ‘How do you phrase this?’ or ‘How should I approach this?’ and he’ll lead me the right way.”
Stewart also cites the guidance of saxophonist Yusef Lateef. “He’s my biggest influence other than Gene Ammons. He influenced ‘Trane by introducing that Eastern sound to the music.”
The Eastern influence is apparent in Stewart’s play as well, particularly on the title tune from “Judgement,” with its drone-like bass line and the almost meditative tones of the tenor.
“I’m exploring all directions,” says the enthusiastic Stewart, “avant-garde as well as mainstream. But my focus is on the earlier music and musicians. And I’ve still got a long way to go.”
* Robert Stewart appears at Club Brasserie in the Bel Age Hotel, 1020 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood; Wednesday-Thursday. No cover. (310) 854-1111.