The Lighting of the Lamps
Aside from the alluring title, which in terms of words alone, not music, recalls Jim Hendrix’s “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” we have a straight-ahead, inspired session led by Toronto-born, NYC-based tenorist Grant Stewart and his usual contingent plus rising NYC-based trumpeter Bruce Harris, making this a classic quintet configuration. The Lighting Of The Lamps features bassist David Wong, pianist Tardo Hammer and drummer Phil Stewart. The leader, the Toronto-born, former DownBeat Rising Star and collaborator with the likes of Jimmy Cobb, Harold Mabern, Louis Hayes and Clark Terry, follows up his successful 2020 release of Rise and Shine on Cory Weeds’ Cellar Music. Ah, but back to that alluring title. It takes its name from the opening stanza of T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘Preludes,’ envisioning images of a city at that time just as dusk is ending and the commuters and office workers have vacated the environs, setting the stage for the next phase of activity. As Stewart says, “For me the poem really captures the feeling of life in the city, and of the sense of something beginning. For us musicians, quite often our day begins when the lamps are lit.”
The album, like so many classic quintet sessions of lore was recorded at the legendary Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey and carries that same vibe as the Blue Note albums of the early sixties. Yes, some artists still make albums like those. The trumpeter, Bruce Harris impressed on his 2021 leader date Soundview, which we covered on these pages. He arrived at these sessions with some compositions in mind including the opening track “Little Spain,” written by Clifford Jordan and recorded in 1962 by Lee Morgan on Take Twelve. That alone attests to the in-the-tradition totally acoustic nature of the date. Stewart sets the tone with a searching, sweeping series of escalating choruses in his solo as the band locks in, with Harris and Hammer following suit. The lone original, “A Piece of Art,” nods to piano great Art Tatum, as the chords are lifted from the 1937 standard “All God’s Chilean Got Rhythm”, a favorite of Tatum’s. the tempo ratchets up to locomotive levels as Stewart and Harris engage in a lively blowing session. Of course, Hammer put his stamp on the tune and like the opener, we get the customary drum and bass on the eights as the piece closes. This is classic hard bop, after all.
The quintet eases off the throttle for the standard, “Ghost of a Chance,” a favorite of many jazz giants over the years, especially Lester Young, the original dean of tenors, as well as trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker. Stewart and company deliver it in classy, reverent style here. The Latin infused “Out of the Past” evokes the Benny Golson sextet as the front liners and Hammer swing hard again. Another rapid-fire track is “Mo Is On” by pianist Elmo Hope, featuring frenzied spots from Harris and Hammer. It’s not the first time Stewart has recorded the twisting tunes of Hope – some are also featured on his live trio record from 2017, as well as Young at Heart from 2008.
There’s not a weak track here but somehow the warmth of the Dexter Gordon famously recorded “I’m a Fool To Want You” in 1965 at the Van Gelder Studio for his album Clubhouse, hits a sweet spot that would like make Gordon proud of Stewart’s confidently delivered wide, robust tone. In keeping with these older tunes, Stewart also reaches back for “Bearcat”; paying respect to Clifford Jordon, whom he first heard while a teenager growing up in Toronto before he later met up with him when moving to New York at the age of 19. This one gives the cats room to stretch out with robust solos in the order of Stewart, Harris, Hammer, and Wong.
Harris’ also brought in another choice that closes, a lesser-known Thad Jones piece, “Bitty Ditty.” Given that Jones was a trumpeter, it’s not surprising that Harris takes the melodically rich first solo, setting the table for Stewart, who, of course, is well within his element, heavily swinging through several choruses before surrendering to Hammer’s glistening take. One gets the sense that Stewart cares little about contemporaneity. He’d rather dig into this older material, and share it with his band members, looking to improvise and perhaps fins some new avenues along the way. For many of us, this is the kind of hard bop that drew us to jazz in the first place. In that sense, Stewart is not only lighting the lamp, but also carrying a burning torch too.
- Jim Hynes