Louis the First

A portrait of Louis Stewart in the late 1970s by music photographer David Redfern (© David Redfern/Getty Images)

Louis the First

Trailblazer and standard setter – with Louis Stewart's passing in August, Irish jazz has lost its most iconic figure, writes Ronan Guilfoyle.

The first time I saw Louis Stewart play was when I was 14 years old. My father, a jazz devotee, who knew many of the Irish jazz musicians, took me to a jazz party in Sandycove at the home of the saxophonist John Curran. Before I even got there my father had told me that Louis would be there and that he was the greatest jazz musician Ireland had ever produced. So before I ever saw him play, Louis’ greatness was imprinted on my mind. And at the party, even to my adolescent (and at that time non-playing) self, I could see that they were right – he was something special. There was a fluidity about his playing that marked him out, and this was especially evident when he played with John Wadham – another great of the Irish jazz scene whom I saw for the first time that night – who clearly sparked Louis’ playing. My memory of that night is very vivid. There were other jazz-scene notables there such as Brian Dunning and Mike Nolan, a string quartet played Haydn, there was food and banter – all of which seemed incredibly glamorous to me. Not to mention staying up till 4am. The true jazz life…

Over the following years I saw him play several times, including a memorable night when my father whisked me off to see him playing in Mooney’s in Dún Laoghaire the night before my Inter Cert exams were to start, much to my mother’s horror. My father’s answer to my mother’s protests was, ‘What he doesn’t know now he won’t know in two hours time’. And he was right. What I do remember learning that night is that there was a tune called ‘Maiden Voyage’ that sounded very exotic. Again I wasn’t playing at this point, so had no idea of structure or harmonic content of the piece, but I remember Louis announcing it and being totally enthralled by it. 

At the Baggot
By 1977 or so I was now starting to try and play, and as I wrestled with the technicalities of jazz, Louis’ abilities became even more evident to me and I took every opportunity to see him play. At this time he was living in the UK, playing with Ronnie Scott’s band and coming home every six weeks or so to play to a packed house in a legendary series of gigs at the Baggot Inn. I was always among the first in the queue in order to be able to sit at the front, and I met other devotees of Louis and jazz there, including David O’Rourke, formerly of this parish, who went on to great things in New York. We got on very well from the beginning – the shared love of the music and admiration of Louis being the spark that turned into a lifelong friendship. The band at the Baggot usually consisted of Louis, Dick Buckley on tenor, Jimmy McKay on bass and John Wadham on drums. Louis and John had an electric connection and in truth John was one of the few Irish players who could keep pace with Louis and push him to even greater heights. This was a great period for Louis in terms of his playing – he was performing constantly with Scott in the UK, and gaining great experience and exposure. His technique, which was always powerful and fluid, rose to an even higher plane in this period and there were many really astonishing and inspiring nights at the Baggot that I can remember vividly even now.

A couple of years later I began playing in my first proper jazz group, which comprised of myself (who didn’t know anything), and three very fine and experienced musicians – Dick Buckley on sax, Tommy Halferty on guitar and Peter Ainscough on drums.  I’d seen Peter and Dick play with Louis many times and seen Tommy play the Baggot Inn with his own group, so this was heavy, and heady, company for me. Our first gig in the Parliament Inn was nerve-wracking (I fell off the stage as part of my performance – that’s another story…), but the second week was even worse – Louis Stewart came into the gig! To have to play in front of him was frankly terrifying. But after the gig he was very nice to me and complimented me on my playing – a compliment that I’m sure was thoroughly undeserved.

‘What are you doing on June 1st?’ 
A few weeks later – and I still remember the date, 1 May 1979 – I was at a Gary Burton concert at the RDS and just before the concert started I got a tap on the shoulder. It was Louis and he said ‘What are you doing on June 1st?’ ‘Nothing’, I replied – ‘Would you like to play a gig with me and Peter in Sligo?’ Stunned though I was, I still had enough of my wits about me to say yes to the offer of a lifetime, and so it was that on 1 June 1979 I played my first gig with Louis Stewart, with Peter Ainscough, at the Railway Hotel in Sligo.

I think that weekend was one of the best of my life. We travelled down by train and I had a proper chance to talk to Louis, to hear his opinions on music, and stories from his musical experiences. It’s hard for someone not from that generation of jazz musicians to realise just what a status Louis had at that time. For a young musician such as myself, just starting out, to have the opportunity to hang out and play with the giant of the scene was just an unbelievable experience. And he, and Peter, couldn’t have been nicer to me – very considerate and generous throughout. The gig went well, nervous though I was, and when I was putting my bass away I overheard Louis say to Peter, ‘That kid has great time’. It remains one of the proudest single moments of my musical life.

Over the next couple of years I was a regular in his band and got an extraordinary education just by being on the stage with him. He was at the height of his powers at this time and there were many nights where the level of playing that he was effortlessly delivering was literally scary. I played festivals with him, played in Ronnie Scott’s, did live TV shows, and many gigs in theatres and bars. He never spoke much about the music, just played, and you were supposed to figure it out without instruction. In those first few years my playing developed quickly, due to the nightly striving to keep up with this virtuoso, and also learning from other bands I was playing with at the time, particularly Tommy Halferty’s trio with John Wadham on drums.

Different paths
From about 1979 to 1982 I was a fixture in the bass chair, but as the 80s wore on Louis began to call other bassists too such as Lindsey Horner and Dave Fleming, and I played with Louis occasionally rather than regularly. But we still played together from time to time, and I managed to induce him to play with me on concerts devoted to the music of various jazz greats such as Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery and, most surprisingly to those who only know his repertoire from later years, John Coltrane. I began to do more projects of my own and forming bands of various kinds and this coincided with a change in our relationship.

When I played with him initially, while he was mostly nice and fun to be with, I’d see glimpses of a different persona from time to time, in which he could get quite dark with people whom he saw as having slighted him in some way. As the years went by and we played on a more occasional basis I began more and more to be the recipient of Louis’ disapproval, for reasons I could never really fathom. For me he was an icon and one of the greatest influences on my musical life and I had nothing but respect for him. But he somehow took against me and after a particularly unpleasant experience on a duo gig we did together I just decided I couldn’t be around this kind of vibe anymore; it made playing the music too difficult. And so, great as he was, and my musical hero though he was, we never played together again. Like the way I remember the date of our first performance together, I still remember the date of our last concert – 27 February 1988.

We took very different paths musically after that, and while I’ve never regretted the decision that I took at the time, I do regret the fact that we never played again. At the time that I was playing with Louis I was not particularly well equipped to deal with the music on the level that I would have been able to many years later. Although my own musical path branched out in many different directions I always practised playing standard repertoire, which after all was the foundation of my playing, and I was much better at it in later years and would have been much better able to hold my own in his company if we’d played together again. But it was not to be and I’m grateful for the experience I had with him while it lasted.

Negotiating all and any ideas
In terms of his playing, there were very good reasons why he was put on a pedestal by Irish jazz fans and players alike. His playing was at the very highest level both of guitar playing and of swinging jazz improvisation regardless of instrument. He had a complete technical command of the guitar and a horn-like fluidity in expressing his ideas that was breathtaking. He had beautiful hands, large yet slender, and the positioning of his left hand on the neck of the instrument was flawless – he never physically painted himself into a corner and could negotiate all and any ideas with apparent ease.

The harmonic language he used in playing over changes was faultless – you just never heard Louis play a ‘clam’ – and his phrasing was supremely idiomatic within the jazz tradition. To listen to any given solo is to hear a musician who is completely conversant with what might be called the common practice period of jazz guitar and the giants of that period – Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. He latterly became enamoured of Pat Martino and some of that vocabulary entered Louis’ playing also. He wasn’t an innovator on the instrument like Hall or Montgomery, but he fused his influences into a very personal style and language that made him instantly identifiable. He was effortlessly melodic and lyrical but his playing was also imbued with the blues. His playing embodied and encompassed the traditional jazz idiom and everything he played was carried by the most swinging feel. He was a supremely talented natural musician and there wasn’t one weakness in his technical, harmonic or rhythmic armoury.

To achieve this mastery, there’s no doubt that he must have worked incredibly hard to develop the huge technique and knowledge that he had. Brilliantly talented though he was, it is not possible to acquire such a flawless technique without putting in thousands of hours of practice and working incredibly hard on every aspect of musicianship. The fact that he did this alone without any tuition or outside help shows that he was both determined and gifted in equal measure.

Louis had very specific tastes in jazz, rarely straying beyond a modern mainstream approach, and his range of repertoire contracted as he got older. In the period I was playing with him his repertoire included quite a few modern jazz standards – tunes by people like Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Steve Swallow, Chick Corea and even Coltrane on occasion – as well as the Broadway standards he loved. But later the number of jazz standards shrank and his repertoire was comprised chiefly of music from the Great American Songbook. Despite recording a completely improvised duet with John Wadham, he couldn’t abide ‘free’ jazz (‘tennis without a net’, as he once described it to me), nor would he have any truck with anything to do with rock or contemporary popular music. He also had no interest in any of the newer generation of guitarists that appeared in the 70s, preferring the great players of an earlier era.

In the studio
I don’t think it would be unfair to describe Louis’ recorded legacy as a leader as patchy. Though I never recorded with him in the studio, I don’t think it was a comfortable environment for him. By far the most varied and satisfying recordings under his own name were recorded in the late 70s when he was working regularly with high-level musicians in London and building a successful career.

His first album – the wittily titled Louis the First – has some very nice things on it, and at the time it was so exciting for us to have an LP issued under Louis’ name. The standout track on it is the blistering ‘All The Things You Are’, in which John Wadham and Louis (with Martin Walsh on bass), show the chemistry that was such a feature of their live performances. Played at a very fast tempo, Louis and John play right on the edge for the whole track but never slip off. Even 40 years later you can feel the excitement and thrill of this track.

The next album is, for my money, his masterpiece – the solo album Out On His Own. Here, either solo or accompanying himself via overdubs, Louis plays a programme of beautiful music with a consistent atmosphere – it’s one of those albums that has a unifying feel to it that makes it a self-contained entity rather than a collection of tracks. For me this is the album that has the best music on it. On all Louis’ recordings he plays brilliantly, but the overall music is of varying quality depending on the level of the other musicians, the sound quality, the repertoire, and the circumstances of the recording. On Out On His Own everything is in place, the sound is great, there’s a lyricism that inhabits every individual track and connects it to every other track. It’s not just guitar playing of the highest level – which Louis always provided – it’s music of the highest level as well.

A reluctant composer
His next album,
Milesian Source, is very unique in Louis’ discography for several reasons. Firstly it features several of Louis’ own compositions. Louis was a reluctant composer and it seems that the inspiration of the works of James Joyce was necessary to spur him into action compositionally. Here, and later in his ‘Joyce Notes’ suite, he wrote several pieces based on the works of writer. If the presence of self-composed works marks this recording out in Louis’ canon, so too does the fact that he uses electric instruments and rock-influenced rhythms in the music.

This album was almost certainly made under the influence of Pat Martino’s Joyous Lake, which appeared around this time, and which also featured synthesisers and straight 8s grooves. Louis’ playing is sublime on this recording – again it was recorded in the period while he was in London and was at the top of his game technically, and the fluency he displays on each track was close to the levels he could get to in live performance. But there are issues with this album too. The synth sounds are very dated and the use of synth strings as backgrounds detracts from the music. In addition the bass and drums don’t sound comfortable in this idiom. The grooves on the straight 8s tunes are lifeless and non-idiomatic. It’s interesting to speculate how this music would have sounded with players who were more familiar with, and into the jazz-rock idiom (as it was then called), such as the drummer John Marshall for example. On the plus side, there’s a lovely ballad by Louis called ‘A Little Cloud’ and his playing throughout is of the highest level.

The next album as a leader from this period, Louis Stewart, is one of those ‘if only…’ recordings. On paper it sounds like the recording that should have been the landmark group recording for Louis, featuring him in the company of Sam Jones and Billy Higgins – one of the great jazz bass and drum teams – along with his colleague the great English pianist John Taylor, with whom he was playing in Ronnie Scott’s band. But the album is beset by all kinds of issues, the most serious of which was Louis’ decision to re-record many of his solos, and even parts of the melodies.

He was deeply unhappy with his own playing on the recording, but the decision to redo the solos was not a good one, especially since the guitar sound on the overdubbed tracks is very different to the original and when the overdub kicks in it couldn’t be more obvious. On some tracks you can even hear the original guitar solo in the background as well as the overdubbed one. Louis blamed John Taylor’s comping for putting him off on the day, and had a good rant about it to me at one point. But to my ears, and to many who have listened to this album, John plays fantastically well throughout and since Louis was playing with John on a nightly basis, and knew his playing well, it’s hard to understand why he would have asked him to record with him if he didn’t like his comping. My own feeling is that he had a bad day at the office and was upset by that, hence all the complaining and the overdubbing of the solos. The bass is also too high in the mix and the drums too low, so the whole recording is a real lost opportunity to hear Louis at the apex of his powers in the company of musicians of the highest calibre. I would love to hear a remix of this album with the original solos on it – there may well be a much better recording in there than the one that was released.

Shearing and Tunes
His discography from later years is peppered with run-of-the-mill recordings, often with players who were not in the same league as him and often playing repertoire that he had recorded several times before. There are also many recordings with other guitarists, which for the most part never made any sense to me. Almost to a man the players were not as good as Louis and I always felt that the last thing you needed on a Louis Stewart record was another guitarist. An exception would be the recording he did with Martin Taylor where he is joined by a virtuoso equally as fluent as himself and many fireworks ensue.

I think there are two other recordings which, though not under his leadership, are a fitting part of Louis’ recorded legacy. The first is probably Louis’ finest recording as a sideman – the three recordings (and one with strings) he did as part of George Shearing’s trio, with the great bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Here Louis sounds comfortable in this rarified atmosphere and adds swinging elegant solos that fit the music perfectly. The second is Tunes, the duo recording he made with his longtime friend and colleague Jim Doherty in which they play through some favourite standards in the kind of intimate and relaxed way that can only come from years of playing together. I think this may be Louis’ last recording and if so it is a fitting bookend to his recorded legacy, playing with someone with whom he shared the bandstand with for over fifty years. 

After Louis
With Louis’ passing, Irish jazz has lost its most iconic figure. For various reasons the latter part of his career was not as stellar as the first, and his profile was much lower than it should have been for someone who was so vastly important to the development of the Irish jazz scene. There are many young Irish jazz musicians playing today who would only have a passing acquaintance with his music yet even they owe Louis a huge debt, because without him the scene would have been very different. Apart from Louis’ great playing he was also tremendously influential in that he showed by example that an Irish jazz musician could aspire to playing at the level of their international heroes, and could perform at the highest level with the best players in the world.

For musicians of my generation he set the bar both for playing, and for showing what could be achieved. Before him we were local players playing in our local scene and gazing at the international jazz world as if its players and venues existed on a distant planet. He was the trailblazer, the standard bearer and the standard setter. After him we believed that we could do it too, and these days there are many Irish musicians living abroad, and many playing and/or recording with musicians of the highest calibre. He showed us what could be achieved. His status was also responsible for the very high level of guitar playing there is in Ireland and the ubiquity of guitarists that we have. The fact that we have a wealth of guitar players while being short of more traditional jazz players such as trumpeters or saxophonists could be ascribed to the influence he had on the instrument of choice for many young aspirant jazz players 

The title of his debut album is apposite in describing so many of his achievements – Louis really was ‘The First’ in so many areas and his massive influence on Irish jazz development cannot be overstated. Thank you Louis for being a great player, for being around, and for showing us how it could be done.

Published on 25 September 2016

Ronan Guilfoyle is a bass player, composer and Director of the Centre for Jazz Performance at DCU.

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