Louis Stewart

Irish Jazz Giant
Louis Stewart
Louis Stewart: Vernon Hyde/Wikimedia Commons.

Next to Jameson whiskey, Louis Stewart remains Ireland’s leading export – and his playing can be just as intoxicating. The consummate creative jazz artist, his soft-toned archtop sound reflected the traditions of Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, and Kenny Burrell, yet he could generate as much heat and power as any post-modern bopper. Moreover, he explored many sectors of the genre ignored by his contemporaries.

Stewart was born in Waterford, Ireland, on January 5, 1944, and raised in Dublin. He played piano as a child but by 15 switched to guitar after hearing Les Paul. Inspired by Barney Kessel, he concentrated on jazz and developed his self-taught approach, formidable technique, and a reputation in local jazz circles. A working pro by his late teens, his recording debut was with experimental pop music sung in modernized Gaelic for Gael Linn Pops on RTE Radio in 1960, toured America with a show band in ’61 (where he met future collaborator pianist Jim Doherty) and by ’64 joined pianist Noel Kelehan’s trio, which backed visiting American jazz musicians Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz. In ’68, he dazzled audiences at the Montreux Jazz Festival with Doherty’s quartet, received an outstanding soloist citation by the music press, and placed second in Melody Maker’s guitar category.

How did he sound at this early stage? The answer is heard on The Syndicate Live at the Hopbine 1968 with the Tubby Hayes Quartet. Working with the legendary London-based saxophonist in a piano-less combo for 18 months, he was written into the horn section as an equal and strengthened his technique through the blistering tempos pursued by Hayes. The stint also established his reputation and brought him to the attention of Clark Terry and Benny Goodman. Terry recruited him for a 1970 Montreux Festival live record and Goodman hired him for three European tours.

Bebop at its unbridled best. Stewart was a leading voice in next-generation jazz guitar, embodying the innovations of hard boppers and representing a new crop of impressive pickers. “All the Things You Are” is a case in point. A favorite among jazz musicians, it finds him handling the fast tempo and trio setting with ease. His improvisations at 0:42 purvey the vital elements of his style in fast articulate execution, strong chord-outlining melodies imbued with bebop chromaticism, characteristic ornamentation, raked arpeggio figures, rhythmic chord punches (measure 2) and numerous allusions to the phrasing of horn players like Charlie Parker.

Stewart returned to Dublin in ’71 and for several years was a session player on records and TV during which he wrote music for “A Week in the Life of Martin Cruxton,” appeared on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, played in the London Jazz Chamber Group’s Adam’s Rib Suite, on pop singer Yvonne Elliman’s debut album, and with the British band Café Society, produced by Ray Davies. In ’75, he moved to London and joined Ronnie Scott’s group, with which he toured Europe and recorded on Serious Gold while gaining status as a rising star in the city’s jazz scene.

On his debut album, Louis the First (’75), Stewart led a guitar/bass/drums trio that introduced him to the world. He then produced a string of excellent recordings in varied settings, highlighted by Beyond Baubles, Bangles and Beads (duets with bassist Peter Ind), Out On His Own (solo performances with only his overdubbed guitar accompaniment), Milesian Source (post-bop/fusion electric band), I Thought About You (a bebop quartet with luminaries Sam Jones and Billy Higgins), Drums and Friends (modern/free-jazz with Irish drummer John Wadham and flautist Brian Dunning), Alone Together (guitar-flute duets with Dunning) and a straight-ahead date with France’s Red Lion Trio. From ’77 through ’80, he also recorded four important albums compiled as The MPS Trio Sessions, with pianist George Shearing and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson. He also guested, supplementing rhythm-guitar/vocals, upright bass and violin trio on the Jazz Phantoms’ Yesterdays. After a brief hiatus, he returned with a vengeance in ’85 on Acoustic Guitar Duets (Super Sessions) with Martin Taylor, receiving rave reviews from Downbeat. Over the next decade plus, he continued to impress and astonish on String-Time, Joycenotes, Overdrive, Core Business, Angel Eyes, Tunes (duets with Jim Doherty), and recordings with Heiner Franz and Doug Raney (separately and in the European Jazz Guitar Orchestra), Metropole Orchestra, Joe Williams, Knut Mikalsen, J.J. Johnson, Spike Robinson, Michael Moore, Frank Harrison and many others. He performed extensively in Germany, Norway, and other European countries, and appeared in concert with Jim Hall, Tal Farlow, Mundell Lowe, and Stephane Grappelli.

In ’98, Stewart received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, and in ’09 was inducted to Aosdana, the Irish arts organization. His last recording was Live in London (’16), which emphasized his bop heritage with Wes Montgomery’s “Far Wes” and “Jingles,” Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woodyn’ You,” and bore the praise of Peter Bernstein on its cover.

Stewart was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, the passed away August 20, 2016, in Harold’s Cross, Dublin. He was 72.


“Manha de Carnaval” (from Red Lion) epitomized Stewart’s blend of blues, melodic playing, and blistering bop in a Brazilian Latin context. This example from the solo (1:13) begins with a soulful blues-based lick in measure 1. His answer in 2-4 is melodic and harmonically astute, hitting all the right chord tones over Bm7b5-E7. On Em7b5-A7 he turns up the heat with quick double-timed line. Note the use of Gm melody on Em7b5 (minor conversion) and diminished sounds on A7b9. These are familiar hard-bop strategies employed by Montgomery and Martino. His resolution to Dm is, by contrast, relaxed and lyrical.

Stewart’s style was rooted in traditional bebop and swing, but encompassed a broad musical vision that welcomed modernism, avant garde, and world music. He gravitated to standards from the Great American Songbook; case in point is “All the Things You Are” which he recorded several times and frequently played in concert. He also reinterpreted jazz pieces like “Donna Lee,” “Nica’s Dream,” “Woodyn’ You,” “Oleo,” “The Dolphin,” “Walkin’” and “Equinox,” and added his touch to projects like Joycenotes, a jazz amalgam of Irish music based on the writings of James Joyce, the electric fusion of Milesian Source (a reference to his Celtic origins) or the free-jazz inclinations in Drums and Friends. Addressing tangents, he remained dedicated to the bebop-based archtop tone that marked his sound. From the outset, it embodied tenets of the evolving jazz-guitar language – strong, harmonic-grounded melodies, expert navigation of ii-V-I phrases, altered-scale sounds, chord superimpositions and substitutions, polychord arpeggios, modal references, fourths and other modern intervallic patterns, sideslipping lines, and bop-inclined blues licks.

Stewart’s earliest notable employer, Tubby Hayes, described him as a “creative soloist with sound harmonic knowledge and good time.” Live performances like “Inner Splurge” and “Gingerbread Boy” provide ample evidence of his mastery. His phrasing in solos was multifarious and situational; he could produce ferocious, sophisticated bop lines with metronomic precision and articulation a la Martino or Garland, veer off into rhythmically precarious fly-by-the-seat territory like Farlow and Kessel, swing hard with a bluesy edge like Burrell or Pass, or convey the gentle reflective lyricism of Hall and Raney. His intricate improvisations underscore allegiance to the bop horn legacy of Charlie Parker transferred to guitar and subsequent refinements of Wes, Pass, Burrell, and Martino as well as modern post-bop angularity and dissonance. “Stomping at the Savoy” (live trio performance with Steve LaSpina and Peter Ainscough, also covered on Overdrive) reveals his fluency with fast-picked bop lines, hybrid-picked and strummed chords, and Wes-inspired octaves while “Certaldo Alto” and “Introversion” (Angel Eyes) evoke impressionistic modal qualities associated with ECM in which his solo conception and darker tone split the difference between traditional bop and a modern Martino/Metheny hybrid. He was fond of mixing textures in dialog fashion during improvised solos, particularly in his favored guitar/bass/drums trio context; combining virtuosic single-note lines offset by punctuating chord hits or longer call-and-response chord phrases, rhythmically animated octave passages, double-stops and swinging blues licks. His picking posture resembled Burrell’s but yielded a personal sound, and like Kenny, Wes, Tal, and Barney, he freely applied thumb fretting to sound bass notes while chording. He often incorporated octave lines reminiscent of Wes, though attacked with the pick, and similar block-chord soloing, as in “Nica’s Dream.” Unlike Wes’ three-tiered formula, he alternated between textures freely merging octaves with chord-melody, intervallic lines, and single-note phrases.

Stewart showcased his chord-melody skills on his debut album, with solo renditions of “Send in the Clowns” and “Here’s That Rainy Day.” His palette boasted pianistic sonorities, clusters, and contrapuntal passages as well as characteristic chordal phrases a la Kessel, Pass, and Burrell. He overdubbed supportive comping on Louis the First (“All the Things You Are” and “Autumn Leaves”) and stretched into a new dimension with Out On His Own, where he accompanied himself with overdubs (perhaps an allusion to Les Paul) for an entire album, like Bill Evans on Conversations with Myself. He continued to ply his wares in various settings – chord-melody solos (“Angel Eyes”), preludes to band arrangements (“Polka Dots and Moonbeams”), and as part of improvisations on many other albums and in concert.

Overdrive, Live in London, and Louis the First are essential. Also worthy of a search are Tunes, Louis Stewart & The Red Lion Trio, Angel Eyes, and Live at The Hopbine 1968 (with Hayes).

Stewart is renounced for his colorful chord-melody style. This opening segment from “Here’s That Rainy Day” is definitive – a beautiful mix of varied chord textures and single-note runs embellishing the main theme. The modern side of his approach is exemplified by reharmonizations, substitutions, and alternate progressions that expand the chord pattern beyond standard changes. Check out his use of tritone substitutes – E9#11 for Bb9 in measure 3 and Eb9#11-Ab7 for Am7-D7 in 7, a brief modulation to Gm11 via D7 in place of Eb major in 3, and inserted passing chords in 7-8 to decorate the simple progression in the manner of a jazz pianist. The fast florid passage over Abmaj7 in 5-6 combines scalar stepwise motion with bebop melody and arpeggio activity and is a textbook Stewart line. His final G7#5b9 receives a sweep-picked strum to produce artificial harmonics on the altered sonority. This was a typical gesture of players like Kessel, Roberts, and Farlow.

Stewart’s performances of “All the Things You Are,” “Darn That Dream,” “Body and Soul,” “Alone Together” (with Tal Farlow), “Billie’s Bounce” (duet with Mundell Lowe on “The Session” show), “Rose Room” and “Honeysuckle Rose” with Benny Goodman’s band, “Manha de Carnaval” and “Donna Lee” with Jim Doherty, and original jazz-oriented Irish music from Joycenotes (’82 Cork Jazz Festival with Brian Dunning and W.B. Murphy) provide telling glimpses into his approach. Moreover, many unavailable recordings are posted online and offer a deeper dive.

It has been wryly noted that Stewart never played the same guitar twice in a career of 50-plus years. He alternated between many models and makes, but all were archtop electrics. Early on, he used a ’70s blond Ibanez L-5 copy, followed by various Gibson archtops including a sunburst ’70s Super 400CES (his most consistent axe), blond L-5 non-cutaway with floating DeArmond pickup, blond L-5C with Johnny Smith pickup, sunburst ES-350P with Charlie Christian bar pickup, ES-175 with single P-90, ES-350P with McCarty fingerrest pickup, modified ES-150 with Florentine cutaway (reputedly gifted by Bucky Pizzarelli), Johnny Smith (with replaced ebony tailpiece), and L-7C with retrofitted humbucker.

He occasionally turned to a blond Guild Artist Award with DeArmond, Cort LCS-2 with Epiphone Frequensator tailpiece, and several customs by Irish luthier/jazz guitarist John Moriarty, who also set up, modified, and repaired his instruments. On rare occasions, he played acoustic steel-strings, notably on duets with M artin Taylor and Jim Doherty (“You Go To My Head,” “I Remember You,” “I Wished On the Moon”). Stewart favored small combo amps including a Peavey Classic tweed, Polytone Mini-Brute, AER, and Fender silverface Twin Reverb. He used no effects.

Wolf Marshall is the founder and original Editor-In-Chief of GuitarOne magazine. A respected author and columnist, he has been influential in contemporary music education since the early 1980s. His books include 101 Must-Know Rock Licks, B.B. King: the Definitive Collection, and Best of Jazz Guitar, and a list credits can be found at wolfmarshall.com.

This article originally appeared in VG’s July 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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