so you wanna get into... luke stewart
"[Improvisation is] the only approach to music that provides an opportunity for people to experience something the world has never heard."
(photo by andre chung)
welcome to issue #25 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every other monday, and on off-weeks i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.
this week we’ve got a guide to the work of washington d.c.-based bassist and electronic musician luke stewart. stewart plays solo electric bass, solo upright bass, he plays with samplers, he plays with no-input mixing boards, he plays in experimental duos and trios and jazz groups. we’ll sort it all out here.
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alright so my problem this week was that i wanted to select my subject from the large and growing group of experimental black musicians on the east coast who collaborate with each other in myriad formations but i couldn’t pick the exact right person to serve as a through-line. there’s all sorts of folks in this scene, including moor mother and james brandon lewis and thomas sayers ellis and trae crudup III and aaron martin and thomas stanley.
and then i realized that luke stewart plays with all of these people—with moor mother in irreversible entanglements and lewis and ellis in heroes are gang leaders, and with trae crudup and thomas stanley in blacks’ myths and with aaron martin in trio OOO. and also in james brandon lewis’s quintet and with thomas stanley in mind over matter, music over mind. and in a trio with stanley and jamal moore. and in a duo with jamal moore. oh and also in another trio with crudup and brian settles. and on and on, and that’s in addition to his solo gigs and recordings on electric bass, upright bass, samplers and no-input mixing board.
the point is that the man gets around, and may arguably be the epicenter of the whole d.c. experimental jazz scene. when he’s not playing gigs himself he is organizing them for others, at one point planning about 10 concerts a month (obviously not so much anymore). he’s also an editor over at capitalbop.com, which i’d imagine is essential if you live in d.c. (i don’t) but even if you don’t (like me) they’ve got some great writing like this recent feature on brother ah.
to straighten all this out we will proceed thusly: first with a ranking of stewart’s solo albums, then with a list of albums by groups featuring stewart. those’ll be ranked first by group and then by album. this’ll be extensive but not exhaustive because frankly i can’t be sure that i followed all the rabbit holes all the way to the end this time around.
Works for Upright Bass and Amplifier (2018):
this is the place to start for stewart’s solo work. the always-great astral spirits released two compositions that he finessed in live settings throughout 2017. they consist of controlled feedback and upright bass, and they showcase stewart’s adeptness at creating entire compositions with minimal tools. the closest comparison i can conjure is colin stetson’s work with the bass saxophone, which uses similar cyclical repetition with, of course, a very different instrument. i recommend starting with “pt. II” if you just want to dip in—his skills here are on full display and it will at least give you an idea of his abilities if not his scope.
The Rhizome Residency Solos (2017): in december of 2017 stewart had a residency at rhizome d.c. which culminated in this series of performances for electronics, electric bass, and double bass. his piece for electronics is the most “experimental” in that he is experimenting with what he can do solo with samplers in the vein that he earlier explored with minds over matter, music over mind (see below). at moments it feels like he’s improvising a beat tape, at others a trance set. he predictably hits his stride when he switches over to bass. the alternating brilliance and gloom of the electric bass pieces anticipate his role in blacks’ myths. “double bass 1” sees stewart scratching and screeching on the bass strings, building up to a lovely bowed dirge. “double bass 2” then features the more traditional jazz style that he brings to groups like irreversible entanglements and trio OOO.
Gaps (2020): these two quick pieces are for no-input mixing board, the method of connecting the output of a mixing board back into the input in order to create a feedback loop that is manipulable via the board itself. toshimaru nakamura pioneered this approach (which i wrote about in the onkyo issue), and stewart gives him a deserved shout-out here. “1” is a bassy, growling drone that features occasional hi-frequency trills that provide a sense of forward movement, while “2” feels a bit more static, with a flapping rumble that gives the impression of floating about in a malfunctioning machine in the upper atmosphere.
it might be controversial to put blacks’ myths over irreversible entanglements because the latter are critical darlings, but the former remind a jaded rock guy like me that big fuzzy riffs can still sound good, and what’s more they can be deployed in a socially conscious project. stewart plays electric bass and electronics and no-input mixing board and trae crudup III plays drums. they can sound as goofy-evil as sunn o))) at times but they also have a seriousness of purpose which is reinforced on this second album with dr. thomas “bushmeat” stanley’s spoken word contributions. “stand your ground” is them at their most epically theatrical; such songs are counterposed against 2-minute-or-less vignettes in which stanley recites his pieces on race, politics, and the environment.
Self-Titled (2018): with just bass and drums (no electronics, no no-input mixing board, no spoken word), blacks’ myths’ self-titled debut rests more heavily on the pure musicianship of stewart and crudup. and that musicianship is certainly apparent: on massive tracks like “upper south” and “black flight” they create worlds just as full and complex as those on the later album. but it lacks the angry bite of that record, which may make it preferable depending on one’s mood but which feels simply less cathartic during this particular era (the capitalist apocalypse).
Who Sent You? (2020):
this one’s going to be on everybody’s year-end lists so you’ll have plenty of time later to read all about it i’m sure but if you don’t know then i’ll hip you to it now. irreversible entanglements is headed up by moor mother (camae ayewa) who has excellent solo albums and also an excellent punk band called moor jewelry. like all of moor mother’s work this is laser-focused on revolutionary politics. “at what point do we stand up?” she asks on “the code noir / amina,” which heightens the music’s tense propulsive mode. speaking of which, this tense propulsion is largely due to stewart’s impeccable bass playing here, which highlights his skill as a rhythm player as he shines even among a stacked lineup including keir neuringer on sax, aquiles navarro on trumpet, and tcheser holmes on drums.
Self-Titled (rec. 2015 / rel. 2017): this debut represents the first time that the quintet ever played together, which is remarkable to the point of disbelief. these four tracks are so tight that they sound like they’ve been practiced and toured and then recorded through four or five takes. testimony to the players’ deep backgrounds in free improvisation of course but also i think evidence of a shared fixity of purpose, as they formed in response to the police murder of akai gurley in new york city in 2015. listening today, the recording remains frighteningly relevant. take this passage from “fireworks”—over a bass solo intro by stewart, moor mother describes a scene that could have happened this past weekend: “like ten bullets traveling throughout the city, killing nothing but black people / a whole bunch of us at the same time, different locations / sometimes through the heart most times through the head / i was 14 she was 16 and he was 7 and she was 23 / last thing we saw was fireworks, symbolizing somethin’.”
Heroes Are Gang Leaders
Artificial Happiness Button (2020): heroes are gang leaders is a group formed in homage to the late great writer amiri baraka. it’s a collective featuring let’s see… untold numbers of people, but at least 20, including “writers, artists and musicians dedicated to the sound extensions of literary text and original composition.” this is i believe their 5th album and with it they aim to move beyond “tribute-mode into the wider realm of integrating and expanding, in meaning and mode, what it means to be a literary jazz band.” what initially seems a more celebratory atmosphere than irreversible entanglements’ quickly reveals a somber, elegiac mode by track two (with its terrifying introductory vocal sample). still, the group gets funky (track five), smooth (track six), and busy (track seven), giving them more range than the entanglements if less focus.
Mind Over Matter, Music Over Mind (or MOM^2)
Eagle Feathers (Good Fortune and Evil) (rec. 2017 / rel. 2019): mind over matter, music over mind or mom squared was a trio with stewart on bass, synth, and fx, the aforementioned thomas stanley on synth and fx, and bobby hill on record players. stanley describes this live show as their best. this project is for the noiseheads, easier to imagine taking place in a midwestern basement than any of stewart’s other projects. still, it has a groove that orders the chaos. the single 42-minute track begins and ends with some fairly harsh noise but in between there are some purely psychedelic jams.
Eat Black (2015): i personally prefer this recording over Eagle Feathers but stanley said that that one is the best so goddammit i’m going to defer to him. this one is much more serene, based on atmospheric samples rather than driving overblown beats like Eagle Feathers. i particularly appreciate the liner notes however, which describe exactly the modus operandi shared not only by mom^2 but by the whole constellation of artists that stewart works with:
We have chosen to manage our lives as creators in a manner that looks a lot like the way the Maroons held the highlands of the Jamaican interior against the master’s best efforts to recover his property. Right now, the stage, the concert hall, the gallery, even networked media, are all functioning as Maroon settlements for society’s creative exiles, a place where the runaways can come together and safely congregate in numbers.
Heart of the Ghost
Heart of the Ghost (2018) and Heart of the Ghost II (2019): this is an experimental newsletter and not a jazz newsletter but heart of the ghost will annoy your neighbors enough that i saw fit to grant them an honorary inclusion here. stewart plays with saxophonist jarrett gilgore and drummer ian mccolm in this group and the pertinent modifier is “frenzied.” II is the entry point for people who like more traditional melodies and such, with “endless scroll” being the standout track. others, like “american dirt,” if played low in the background, can pass as bookstore-style musing music. their self-titled is much more extreme and should be reserved for heads only.
Self-Titled (2020): the debut from stewart and guitarist anthony pirog is in two parts, titled “before” and “after.” i don’t know what type of event occurred after “before” but before “after” but my theory is that it involved some sort of noisening ray aimed directly at the duo. “before” is a beautiful, slow-mo post-rock piece, cinematic and soothing. “after” is a tumultuous explosion of sci-fi sounds, like all of the machinery at the bbc radiophonic workshop went on the fritz at once.
ok so there we are: 13 albums and if you’ll notice, 10 of those have come out since 2018! and of course there are more luke stewart groups that i didn’t write about, mostly with thomas “bushmeat” stanley which you can find here and he has other projects on his own page here and if you like more traditional free jazz then check out trio OOO here.
oh and since i saw a lot of folks on twitter picking their favorites of 2020 so far i’ll do that too—top ten in alphabetical order:
Bergsonist - Middle Ouest; C. Lavender - Myth of Equilibrium; Will Guthrie - Nist Nah; Irreversible Entanglements - Who Sent You?; Christian Mirande - My Friend Went to Heaven on the Frankford El; Aki Onda - Nam June’s Spirit Was Speaking to Me; Ras G - Raw Fruit Vol. 5 & 6; Dean Roberts - Not Fire; Vanessa Rossetto - perhaps at some time you have acted in a play, even if it was when you were a child; Tidiane Thiam - Siftorde
RIP to the maestro ennio morricone. i’m sure you’ll all hear about his film scores from others but i wanted to direct attention to his work with the great italian improv group gruppo di improvvisazione nuova consonanza, which i wrote about here.
(photo by jim dyson)
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