A Matter of Taste

Musical talent is over-rated, and taste is under-rated. At least, that’s how Canadian-born sax

player Grant Stewart sees things.

“I know many, many, many players who can play anything they hear, and that’s kind of what you’re told is the ideal to shoot for,” he says.

“But if you don’t develop the things that you’re hearing, and you don’t develop your taste, then it doesn’t matter, because you’ll be hearing horrible and distasteful things and playing them.”

The question of taste comes up in relation to Paul Sikivie, a native of Gainesville, Florida who has been the bassist in the Grant Stewart Trio since its formation about six years ago.

“A lot of guys just have talent, or they just have taste, but he’s got a combination of the two that’s hard to find,” Stewart says.

“There were lots of trumpet players who were better trumpet players than Miles Davis. He’s the most obvious example to go to. He had great taste, and of course great talent.”

So how does the band leader define something as elusive as taste?

“It’s just as much what you don’t play as what you do play. It’s that thing of developing an esthetic. If you look at a great painter, what they don’t have on the canvas is as important as what is on the canvas. It’s the same way with music, or writing, or anything.”

Stewart’s own playing has earned him a huge international reputation, often drawing comparisons to 86-year-old sax legend and Grammy Hall of Fame member Sonny Rollins.

“That’s a real compliment, and there’s no denying that I’m heavily influenced by Sonny Rollins. Originally, I had been into Bird (Charlie Parker) and some of the older players, and then kind of moved, got into (John) Coltrane,” he says.

“I’d heard Sonny, but I wasn’t really that into him, and then when I got into my late teens, I started listening to Sonny, and he kind of had the rawness of Coltrane, but also the rhythm and harmony and melody that I like of the older guys, too. So that drew me more into him.”

Stewart himself has been a major fixture on the New York City jazz scene since he arrived there at the age of 19, fresh out high school in Scarborough, Ontario.

“Without ever having been in New York, I knew that was a place I needed to go. When I look back on it, I’m kind of amazed that I did it,” he admits.

“New York in 1990 was much, much different than it is today. It was still kind of a concrete jungle down there, a lot more drugs and crime and everything back then.”

But the Big Apple was also an irresistible magnet for jazz musicians, which it still is.

“You go there, and it’s everybody from all over the world that wants to be the best at what they do. It’s very intense.”

In 1990, New York was home to many of the great names of jazz Stewart had admired for years – people such as sax players Clifford Jordan and Junior Cook, “hard bop” trumpeter Tommy Turrentine and drummer Art Taylor – who have all since passed on.

“Oh God, everybody was around. It was an amazing place. There are still a lot of those guys around. On a regular basis, (89-year-old pianist) Barry Harris comes down to my Monday night gig and sits in. It’s still a great, great place to be.”

When Stewart moved to the Big Apple, his goal was to study and play, just as he was already doing in Toronto. He didn’t go to music school, but hooked up with musical mentors such as Harris, Donald Byrd, Joe Lavano and George Coleman.

Within two years, at the age of 21, he had recorded his first of many albums as a band leader, Downtown Sounds, on the Criss Cross label.

In 1998, his younger brother, Phil, followed him to New York and became the drummer in the Grant Stewart Trio.

Ironically, Grant’s instrument of choice when he was younger had been the drums. When his father “obliged” him to take up the sax instead, he started taking lessons with Toronto big-band leader Pete Schofield.

“I’m still grateful that my father made me play saxophone. Being a drummer is a lot more work, packing up after gigs and setting up,” he laughs.

The Grant Stewart Trio is currently on a Western Canadian tour organized by Chicago musician and impresario Cory Weeds. That tour will bring them to Whitehorse to open the 2016-17 Jazz on the Wing series at the Yukon Arts Centre.

The bill will include material they plan to include on an upcoming album, although Stewart isn’t sure exactly what will be on the program.

“We’ve got a pretty vast repertoire to pull from, so I never know. I never make set lists, I just call tunes on the bandstand. With other musicians, I might use a set list, but with these guys I don’t have to.”

The Whitehorse concert is on Sunday, September 25 at 7:30 p.m. More information and samples of the trio’s music are available at www.jazzyukon.ca.

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