Jazz saved the bassist Luke Stewart. Now he's working to rescue others.
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Jazz saved the bassist Luke Stewart. Now he's working to rescue others.
Luke Stewart on a ferry in New York in March 2024. Stewart’s many projects — Silt Trio, Irreversible Entanglements, Blacks’ Myths and others — make strong statements and foster community. (Rosie Marks/The New York Times)

by Hank Shteamer

NEW YORK, NY.- On a Sunday afternoon in March, Luke Stewart — a bassist and composer who has gradually emerged as a galvanic force in the contemporary jazz vanguard — stood at the corner of Pine and Broadway, in Manhattan’s Financial District, running down some local history. He pointed across the street, where the American Stock Exchange sat next to Trinity Church, and noted our proximity to the former site of New York’s municipal slave market.

“You see this pattern really all over the world,” Stewart said, “where literally people are taken from the auction block, where we started, right down here to be saved in the church and sold, and then sent off to wherever they’re going.”

Stewart is wont to drop deep knowledge, whether he’s pointing out the sites of bygone jazz lofts in NoHo or spontaneously unpacking a Ravel score at The New School, where he is an adjunct professor. Sitting in the university’s performing-arts library, he traced the arcs of the notes with his fingers, posing rhetorical questions in his deep, faintly drawly voice: “What kind of emotion did the composer want?” “What was going on then?” “What is classical music, anyway?”

Stewart, 37, chuckled at the increasing loftiness of his inquiries, but his point was serious: always dig deeper — an ethos he seems eager to pass on to listeners. Introducing an interdisciplinary performance this month under his platform Union of Universal Unity, he urged the audience to “Leave here changed.”

Onstage, in each of his many projects, the tall, goateed bassist is a riveting presence. On Friday, he’ll release “Unknown Rivers,” the third album by his group Silt Trio — featuring Warren Crudup III (known as Trae) and Chad Taylor trading off on drums, as well as the tenor saxophonist Brian Settles — which makes a persuasive case for Stewart as both a composer of concise, memorable themes and a speaker-rattling powerhouse on his instrument.

“He holds so much history,” said Camae Ayewa, who performs as Moor Mother and serves as the voice of Irreversible Entanglements, the free-jazz-inspired collective Stewart anchors. “He’s a genius in that regard, of how he considers the generations before him.”

Crudup, who also plays drums in Stewart’s combustible improv duo Blacks’ Myths, said that the bassist possesses a wealth of information “when it comes to our Black music heroes and our Black heroes in general.” Stewart, he added, “personifies that every time he plays.”

Stewart said the title of the new album is purposefully open-ended, but might evoke Langston Hughes’ memorable proclamation “I’ve known rivers,” or more broadly the Great Migration. (The group’s name is an “invitation,” he said, “to be a part of a change-making flow, and allowing yourself to be gently set somewhere and become silt.”) On “The Slip,” he and Crudup dig into a huge, loping groove; on “Dudu,” he holds down a droning bowed line; and on “Baba Doo Way,” he drives ahead with fierce momentum, powering an abstract dust-up.

Stewart also shines on “Francesca,” a new album by eminent saxophonist David Murray, out later in May. “He plays my bass lines with such conviction,” Murray said in a phone interview. “I’ve had some great bass players in my life,” he added, naming late masters such as Art Davis, Fred Hopkins and Wilber Morris, “so he’s kind of in the line of their tradition.”

Growing up, Stewart said, a connection with any jazz tradition felt remote. Raised in Ocean Springs, a small city on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, he played saxophone early on and later picked up the bass after a high school friend invited him to join a hard-core punk band. A record-shopping trip with his mother, when he happened to pick up the disparate Miles Davis touchstones “Kind of Blue” and “Bitches Brew,” sent him down a sonic rabbit hole.

“I remember feeling, like, my brain unlocking,” he said. Jazz electrified him, dovetailing with his budding immersion in Black history, encouraged by his mother and grandfather, but he recalled feeling like “nobody for miles and miles and miles even knows this.”

He finally caught up with jazz in Washington, D.C., where he moved in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, transferring from the University of Mississippi to American University. “All of the dots connected,” he said, “seeing a living, breathing community of improvised music” intertwined with “a strong and proud Black community.”

He soaked up live music in the city’s historic U Street clubs but also plugged into a circle of record collectors and DJs — including Tom Porter, Bobby Hill and Jamaal Muhammad, all fixtures at the jazz-oriented community radio station WPFW, where Stewart began working. Spending time in their company suggested to Stewart that “just being good, or even great, at your instrument isn’t enough”; the kind of engagement he was looking for, he said, “also takes a stellar knowledge of the music, which is the tradition, which is the sound, the aesthetic.”

Stewart played in various bands, including the vigorous saxophone-bass-drums units Trio OOO and, later, Heart of the Ghost; the eclectic indie-rock outfit Laughing Man; and a longtime collaboration with Crudup that evolved into Blacks’ Myths. He also nurtured the local scene offstage, publishing interviews and reviews and presenting shows through CapitalBop, a nonprofit organization he co-founded with The New York Times contributor Giovanni Russonello.

Stewart began regularly visiting New York for performances, and now lives in the city part time. In 2015, he played a Musicians Against Police Brutality benefit at the Brooklyn DIY hub Silent Barn alongside Ayewa and saxophonist Keir Neuringer, right before a duo set by trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and drummer Tcheser Holmes. All five would soon unite as Irreversible Entanglements, whose approach, rooted in the exploratory sonics and urgent social critique of the ’60s jazz avant-garde, aligned perfectly with Stewart’s core values.

The group has since moved from the underground to the fringes of the mainstream, signing to Impulse! and appearing at festivals worldwide. (In June, it will take the stage at Bonnaroo.) Reflecting on the way Irreversible Entanglements has been bringing the spirit of forebears such as the New York Art Quartet to a new generation of listeners, Stewart said that they had “huge shoes to fill” but “we all feel confident within that because we all have a deep reverence and connection to the tradition.”

Ayewa called Stewart “the best bass player in the world” but put equal emphasis on his community-building efforts off the bandstand: “He organizes things that are directly” tied, she said, “to the sustainability of the music.”

As Stewart continues to travel and embrace new opportunities, he often thinks of Jaimie Branch, his friend, frequent collaborator and fellow avant-jazz luminary, who died in 2022 at the age of 39. “She’s with me all the time,” he said, sitting in the East Village’s Tompkins Square Park a few hours after our walk through Lower Manhattan. “The continuation of things in the music,” he added, citing a 2023 Irreversible Entanglements track that’s dedicated to Branch, “it’s definitely in her honor.”

Perhaps, Stewart mused, he stays so involved with so many different collaborators and projects because he feels a responsibility to act as a musical ambassador. “In a lot of ways,” he said, “I’m playing for me as a teenager, who felt isolated and alone, and who felt forgotten about and left behind.”

“Me finding the music really saved me,” he continued. And “more people deserve to be saved.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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