Saturday, September 3, 2016

Jazz Flash News: R.I.P. Irish Jazz Guitarist Louis Stewart (1944-2016)

My friend Guy Jones, of Stockholm, Sweden, recently alerted me to the passing of Irish jazz guitar legend Louis Stewart, who died on August 20. He was 72, and though not as well known in the U.S. as in Europe, he was well respected on both sides of the Atlantic by people in the know. Throughout his long career, he recorded with jazz greats such as Tubby Hayes, George Shearing, Joe Williams, Peter Ind, and J.J. Johnson, to name but a few. Stewart spent a big chunk of his life and career in his homeland, which perhaps may help explain why he wasn't better known stateside. From the few recordings I've heard by Stewart, it becomes immediately clear that he displayed a very exciting style, characterized by his dazzling speed and his flawless technique. He recorded quite extensively as a leader, starting in the mid-1970s, and in 1998, more than two decades after releasing his first album, he was recognized by Dublin's Trinity College with an honorary doctorate in music, a well-deserved accolade for a man who devoted his whole life to jazz.

Stewart was born in Waterford, in the Irish province of Munster, in January 1944, but John Chilton, in his book Who's Who of British Jazz, tells us that he was actually raised in Dublin. Stewart started on piano and concentrated on guitar in his teens, playing with several outfits and even touring the U.S. with reedman Jim Doherty in 1961. He relocated to London in 1968, which is when he started to work extensively with saxophonist Tubby Hayes. His versatility soon made him a much sought-after sideman, and in the 1970s he spent time playing with renowned jazzmen like Benny Goodman, Peter Ind, and George Shearing, as well as becoming a member of Harry South's big band and accompanying Blossom Dearie on a tour of Australia. In the '80s Stewart worked with Stephane Grappelli and also led his own groups off and on until very recently, appearing all over Europe, often unaccompanied. His debut album, 1975's Louis the First, is a good example of Stewart in his prime and features him in trio, duo, and solo settings, tackling standards such as "All the Things You Are," "Body and Soul," "Autumn Leaves," and "Here's That Rainy Day." Though not many of his records are easy to find in the U.S., his trio sides for MPS with Shearing and Norwegian bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen are available in the box set The MPS Trio Sessions, and his guitar duets with Martin Taylor are also highly regarded by critics. Any of these three options constitute good introductions to the very attractive sound of a guitarist who deserves wider recognition this side of the pond.

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