Essential New Music: Luke Stewart’s “Luke Stewart Exposure Quintet”

The Exposure Series is an annual Chicago event (years with global pandemics excepted) that draws together improvising musicians from the city and beyond in order to make new connections and create occasions for fresh work. In 2018, each of the Exposure Series’ out-of-town guests was a musician/organizer who had previously collaborated with Series programmer, Chicago-based saxophonist Dave Rempis. Among them was double-bassist Luke Stewart, who lives in Washington, D.C., where he plays in a host of distinct projects (solo concerts, Blacks’ Myths, Irreversible Entanglements, Heart Of The Ghost), stages concerts and has also worked as an editor and DJ. 

The Series’ theme that year was to reach across geographical, social and other boundaries, and the band of Chicagoans that Rempis assembled for Stewart put that into action by gathering people onstage who don’t generally work together. So, while Ken Vandermark (clarinet, saxophone) might have performed with Jim Baker (piano, synthesizer), he hadn’t appeared with Avreeayl Ra (drums) or Edward Wilkerson, Jr. (clarinet, saxophone, digeridoo). Baker, however, plays with everybody. Not only did Stewart face a whole band of storied musicians who were decades older than him, but a potential collision of aesthetics and egos. Yet it didn’t go down that way. He struck up an immediate chemistry with Ra, and everything else fell into place. The results worked well enough that Stewart transcribed some themes from their totally improvised set and developed them into new compositions, which he brought back for a return engagement five months later.

Luke Stewart Exposure Quintet opener “Awakening The Masters” begins with a solemn statement from Stewart, which turns into a foundational groove. Paired tenor saxophones move in and out of the mix, while Ra, trusting the bass to keep everything on course, lets loose one explosive burst after another. “Brown And Gray” is by turns even more intense and quite lyrical, capitalizing on the way both Baker’s piano and Ra’s drums feed off Stewart’s mercurial runs.  The “Harp And Concrete Silhouette” is a two-part epic that winds its way from electronically charged, Sun Ra-like reveries to bold tenor-saxophone exchanges that showcase both the substantial differences and the bluesy commonalities between Wilkerson and Vandermark. Stewart holds the foreground for much of “The Scene,” moving between lucid solo passages and intricate dances with the other musicians.

Luke Stewart Exposure Quintet is a sprawling work, but you wouldn’t want it to be any shorter. Each piece takes the listener through richly orchestrated settings and fiery interactions that balance known strengths with exciting new discoveries.

—Bill Meyer