Bill Stewart’s loose-limbed, post-bop fusillades have been turning instrumentalists’ heads for close to 20 years. The Iowa-born drummer first emerged on the New York jazz scene in the late ’80s, and since then has made his presence known worldwide with such artists as John Scofield, Maceo Parker, Pat Metheny, Larry Goldings, and many others. Stewart’s strong rhythmic sense is melodically driven, using a multilayered, percolating approach that emphasizes both an outer dialog with other musicians as well as an inner dialog. His sideman and leader recordings are permeated by fearless, across-the-bar phrasing and loose funkiness with an open yet dry sound — Roots Revisited, Mo’ Roots, and Southern Exposure with Maceo Parker, What We Do and Hand Jivewith John Scofield, Trio 99 à 00 and Trio Live with Pat Metheny, and Traveling Mercies with Chris Potter are but a sampling of recordings as sideman. As a leader, he’s released Snide Remarks, Telepathy, and Think Before You Think in the 1990s. We caught up with Stewart on a rainy day in Oakland, California in October 2007 as he was touring with John Scofield’s group.

What’s it like playing with Steve Swallow?
Playing with Steve is fun. He has a unique sound on the electric bass, not like other electric bass players. He has a very singing, lyrical way of playing, not just when he solos, but in the ensemble too. Steve brings a lot of history from his own career when we play with John Scofield. They’ve had a relationship for many years, from before I’ve played with them. But Steve also used to play acoustic bass and has played with a lot of great musicians, so his concept has an acoustic bass concept in it as well. Steve is really solid. We have a lot of fun playing, so it’s always a pleasure.

What’s the secret to melodic playing on the drum set?
Well, there’s a limited amount of pitches usually. I don’t play that big of a set — four or five drums and some cymbals — so I come up with some shapes and that makes a melody. Sometimes it’s something very simple that seems most melodic. There’s no secret there. I mean, you just try to play things that are clear and tell a story and are developed. You play a melody one way and then you can play it upside down and sideways to develop it — and then once you start doing that, you can do quite a lot with a limited amount of actual pitches, but there’s no real secret.

What’s been your most “out there” musical experience?
I don’t usually play in contexts that are totally free. But I remember in college and later, getting together with people and just playing free a lot. I did some things that were pretty free with a pianist named Bill Carrothers; we did a record of duos and some of that material was free playing. It might not sound exactly like what people think of when they think of free playing, but I guess if I’m playing free I want it to be open enough not to be a particular kind of free playing. I like the concept of free playing — I think it’s very challenging. Obviously it’s more risky because you’re not planning certain structural points in the music, so if you’re playing free with people, you have to really trust their decision-making and they have to trust you. Collectively, you have to make decisions to go left or right — and that’s a challenging and different mindset. With some of the musicians I play with, we play some free things. Even with John Scofield, there are some parts in the music that are very free. We have a piece we’re playing this week where the improvisation is wide open. It’s not planned; it can go anyplace.

If you could go back to 1940 and play with any musicians, who would they be?
1940? That’s an interesting question [long silence]. It would be nice to play with Lester Young or Ben Webster. That would be pretty great. I’m named after the trombonist who played with the Woody Herman Orchestra, Bill Harris — a great player that not so many people are aware of. That would be fun too. Wow. There were so many people alive at that time, that’s an interesting question. Wow. I got my choice of a lot of people there [laughs, long silence]. Well, that’s a start.

What instrument would you play if not drums?
Probably piano, just because there are so many possibilities. I play piano at home and I probably play piano at home more than I play the drums at this point. Plus, you can think of the piano as 88 drums in a way — there’s the percussive component of it. Rhythmically, I can do a lot of the things I do on the drum set, but there are all these other possibilities — a lot of other things to think about, like harmony.

Talk about your aspirations as a leader.
I like being a leader. I like writing music for a group and I like the process of actually making the music. I don’t always like the other things that go into being a bandleader — you know, trying to hustle up gigs and recordings and various things. And if you don’t have someone that’s managing you and doing all these things for you, than you have to do them yourself. As busy as I’ve been as a sideman, I probably haven’t pursued it as aggressively as I might if I had more time on my hands. But when I’m a leader, that’s the time I feel like I can express my point of view musically. Otherwise, my playing has an effect on whomever the music involves, but I don’t pick the tunes; I don’t decide the order; I don’t decide the direction; I don’t decide the personnel of the band. So for me, the way to express how I feel about music is by doing something as a leader, and I do these things from time to time. I do a record or some gigs, and I’ve been doing them more recently. There’s an album I just recorded that a company is probably going to buy, we’re negotiating the final aspects of that. So I hope to have something new out next spring with a trio and with music that I wrote. I really enjoy being a bandleader, but it’s challenging, especially for drummers and bass players that aren’t usually thought of as being the lead voice. People expect the leader to be the horn player who’s out front, or the singer. I think even some of the great players like Tony Williams ran into frustrations with that, even though he was very successful later on. I went out on a tour with a trio, and I pay the guys and see what’s left over for me, if anything.

What are the qualities that make someone a great bandleader? Are they all different or is there a common thread?
I think a good bandleader should be good at putting a band together that has good chemistry with each other. And not all bandleaders are good at that. Some people put together bands where the components are mismatched; they might all be great players. It’s nice if you can get a band where they’re greater than the sum of their parts, you know? The great bands have had that. They might be great musicians, but together, they sound even better. Dealing with people is important, programming, picking the music, and having somewhat of a vision without controlling everything. At least with the music I play, it’s nice if the bandleader can let the musicians be themselves and contribute in the way that makes them comfortable, rather than dictating what everyone does. Different bandleaders have different approaches.

You’re known for your ability to play matched grip on just about anything. Any advantages? Disadvantages?
I started with matched grip and I never really got traditional grip together enough to really play it. So that’s what I can play, and that’s what I use. There’s definitely a difference in the sound of the two, and I’ve checked out traditional grip enough to know some of the differences in sound and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each. In some ways, with my matched grip, I try to approximate the sound of traditional grip by holding the stick up higher, at more of an angle to the drum. Also, I play off the center of the snare drum a lot, which gives a different sound. So I’ve gone back and forth from the two grips and just listened to the difference in tone. If I want to get a tone similar to traditional grip, I can approximate it to some extent. It would be nice to play traditional grip — maybe I’ll work on it someday. Occasionally, I’ll play it when I’m performing, I’ll play a little traditional grip just for the hell of it, to get that sound in my ear to see what the difference is. I think that traditional grip has an advantage for brushes, especially if you have a swirl pattern that goes clockwise. With matched grip, I can’t do a swirl pattern in the left hand that goes clockwise very comfortably, because it seems that with matched grip, I need more arm motion to get that happening. So I end up running into my body, basically. That’s why I play counter-clockwise — I think counter-clockwise works much better with matched grip. So with brushes, I had to work on getting that together.

What piece of gear that you own is most important to you?
Well, if I were to show up to a gig with one thing, it would be a cymbal that I could ride on. If it wasn’t that, it would be a snare drum. But in that case I would probably be playing brushes all night.

What would you have done differently in terms of your drumming education?
Nothing. I’m sure there are things I could have done differently, but that would have changed however things have progressed. Early on, my drumming education was pretty loose. I played mostly with records at my house. So I didn’t get the most traditional drumming education of lessons, lots of drum books, and rudiments and things. But I got into them a little later. I don’t know, things developed okay for me, so I don’t want to change any aspect of that.

Any rock drummers you admire? R&B?
R&B drummers, absolutely. One of my big idols originally was Bernard Purdie. I still love what he does. If I can think of some of the other people, well, Idris Muhammad crosses over into that area sometimes, and Roger Hawkins, who is on a lot of those Aretha Franklin records and such. I know I’m forgetting some people. I was just listening to the Steely Dan record the other night, Aja. All the drummers on that are just killing it.

What’s the difference playing for Pat Metheny versus John Scofield?
Regardless of who I’m playing with, I try to go to the gig with an open mindset and be in the moment. Because Pat writes different music than John, those things are going to naturally bring out something different in me. So I don’t have to go to John’s gig with a different agenda than Pat’s gig. It’s just when I’m there, I listen and play, interact, and in the moment I create what’s going to happen, from my part at least. But it does come out sounding different, of course. Both gigs are really fun; I feel like I can express myself. The music goes in a lot of different directions with both John and Pat, but not the same directions. I would say Pat plays more ballads, more even eighth-note things. John has more medium-tempo and funky things — New Orleans influenced. On both gigs I can hit the drums quite a bit, which is cool.