Perhaps it’s no surprise that Superior Court Judge Jay Stewart is finally stepping out, breaking all sorts of molds and taking center stage with his array of electric and acoustic guitars. Growing up in rural Southern Georgia, the Savannah area native was always the hippest kid in town, “the only white kid in Claxton copping licks from the Ohio Players.”After years of dreaming about it, he’s inviting fans of the pop, rock, blues and jazz he grew up with to enter the courtroom after hours, sit back and Enjoy The Ride—the name of his highly anticipated full length debut. Like the 10 infectious, soul-simmering tunes on the collection, the ride is a little bumpy, a lot of funky and loads of fun—and who’s going to argue with the endorsement of Stewart’s longtime friend (and now fan), legendary Southern rocker Gregg Allman?
Stewart started playing guitar at age six, listened to his dad’s George Jones and Merle Haggard records, played in church and along the way amassed a wide array of rock, blues and jazz influences, including B.B. King, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, George Benson and Larry Carlton. Yet he credits a lesser known guitarist, local fingerstyle legend Buddy Owens, for opening up a world of even deeper possibilities. Stewart’s subsequent study of fingerstyle greats Pete Huttlinger, Doyle Dykes and Chet Atkins led to this becoming as much a part of his stylistic repertoire as electric rock/blues; the final track on Enjoy The Ride, the graceful acoustic dedication to Stewart’s wife Teresa “Just For You,” captures this side of his artistry.
For most of the ride, though, Stewart jams with a batch of the coolest session cats around, led by Grammy winning producer and Emmy nominated composer Jason Miles—whose deep history includes recordings with Luther Vandross, Miles Davis, Sting and his own world jazz fusion band Global Noize. The basic tracks of Enjoy The Ride were recorded live in a single day—with one or two takes for each tune--at Bennett Studios in Englewood, New Jersey with Stewart being joined by Miles, bassist Neil Jason (Cyndi Lauper, Paul McCartney, John Lennon) and drummer Brian Dunne (Hall & Oates, Chuck Loeb). Lead and acoustic guitar tracks were recorded at Frank Farr Productions in Statesboro, Georgia.
Also in the mix are famed saxophonist and recording artist David Mann; popular contemporary jazz trumpeter Cindy Bradley, who adds harmony lines behind Stewart’s lead electric melody on the old school funk rocker “Living The Life” and infuses a soaring solo on the revved up jazz blues jam “Blowing Smoke”; conguero Jimmy Bralower; and Barry Danielan, who played trumpet and did horn arrangements on “Blues For The Road,” a high energy spin on Mother Earth’s 1971 hit featuring Josh Dion’s soulful lead vocals and one of Stewart’s trademark blistering solos. Mike Mattison, frontman for the Grammy winning Derek Trucks Band, sings lead on the easy grooving blues rocker “Can’t Fight Love”—which features Miles on the Hammond B-3.
Stewart’s strengths as a multi-faceted composer are showcased on the five tracks that he wrote or co-wrote. In addition to “Just For You,” he co-penned “Living The Life” with Miles and wrote the easy rolling, R&B and rock influenced title track with his longtime friend Shane Baldwin. The diversity of his artistry comes across on two songs he wrote himself--the hypnotic and whimsical acoustic ballad “Soothe My Soul” (which may remind listeners of jazz duo Acoustic Alchemy) and the explosive “Blowing Smoke.” Other highlights include the Miles compositions “The Light At The End of the Tunnel” (an easy swaying, horn spiced track that recalls the cool of Steely Dan) and “4 Tee and Dupree,” a jazz/funk tribute to the chemistry of the late masterful musicians Richard Tee and Cornell Dupree, with Stewart weaving his crisp lines between Miles’ piano and B-3 magic. Enjoy The Ride also includes an intense rock/soul free for all cover of “I’m A Man,” an early track by the band Chicago which was co-written by Steve Winwood.
“Other lawyers and judges I know play golf and hunt when they’re off the clock, but for me, the guitar was my escape, and I have played over the years any chance I got,” says Stewart. “People who know both sides of me ask why I didn’t pursue a career as a musician. Actually, I did! My dream in high school was to jump on a tour bus. I even thought about attending the Guitar Institute in Los Angeles before accepting a baseball scholarship. After my freshman year at South Georgia College, I joined a band that was based in Raleigh, North Carolina. I returned to college after a few months on the road, but later when I was at Mercer University attending law school, I made more playing guitar on weekends than I would have clerking at a law firm.
“Being in the studio making Enjoy The Ride brought back a lot of those fond memories,” he adds. “I appreciate how personable all these great musicians were to me and the way they treated me like one of the guys. The songs are geared towards bringing all of my influences together and letting my bluesy, jazzy voice be heard through my guitar. I’m also told I play with a little bit of a drawl, just the way I talk. So the Southern rock influence definitely shines through.”
A few years after buying a Pro Tools rig, setting up a home studio and working with other local musicians on homespun projects, Stewart set the stage for his emergence with Enjoy The Ride by putting together a cover band of other pros called Blue Eyed Soul. When he first reached out to Jason Miles to query the producer about working on his project, Stewart had been doing R&B, country and gospel session work at Dadd’s Productions (in Savannah) and Frank Farr Productions in Statesboro.
“I felt it was time to sink my teeth into recording, so I did a little research and realized that Jason’s versatile background would probably be a perfect fit,” Stewart says. “I sent him an email explaining my background as a judge and musician and what I was hoping to accomplish. I sent him Mp3’s of an original song I wrote and a cover of ‘Sara Smile.’ He liked what he heard and was immediately interested in producing me as an artist. Turns out he was snowed in and at his computer, so we exchanged a total of 20 emails that day and ultimately worked out the logistics.
“Because all of our contact was online,” he adds, “I felt like I needed someone to verify that this was indeed the real Jason. I called my friend Michael Lehman, who is Gregg Allman’s manager and lives up in New Jersey. He looked into it and said I should go for it. There turned out to be a unique connection between the two, as Jason worked extensively with Luther Vandross and Michael once managed him. From the start, Jason liked the fact that I didn’t sound like everyone else, and he told me the key to making the project work was having great songs. The first song we wrote together was ‘Livin’ The Life.’ He sent me a chord progression and I wrote the main guitar melody. Between these collaborations, his tunes, my songs, the others we chose and the covers we did, I think we came up with a powerful mix that allows me to show me at my best.”
Stewart, who was elected Judge of Superior Court of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit in 2006, has no trouble drawing parallels between his two worlds: “In both arenas, I go about my work in a professional manner and avoid bad notes—and bad decisions!” Upon receiving his Juris Doctor from the Walter F. George School of Law at Mercer University, he launched a private general practice in Claxton; his areas of concentration included criminal defense, personal injury and divorce/family law. From January 2000 through May of 2001, Judge Stewart was an assistant district attorney in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit where he prosecuted felony crimes. For the next five years, he was a partner in the law firm of Brown, Rountree & Stewart, P.C. in Statesboro.
A graduate of the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, Stewart has served on the Pattern Jury Instruction Committee of the Council of Superior Court Judges. He implemented the first Drug Court Division of the Superior Courts of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit which began operating on January 1, 2009. Since that time numerous individuals charged with felonies have completed this two year program that consists of intensive drug treatment for non-violent offenders. He has completed Nationally Certified training as a Drug Court Judge. He has also been asked to speak at numerous continuing legal education seminars in the area of Divorce/Family Law. He is a member of the State Bar of Georgia, Atlantic Judicial Circuit Bar Association (Past President), Council of Superior Court Judges and has previously served on the Board of Governors, State Bar of Georgia.
“I can’t say that my music and being in the realm of law are completely separate worlds,” Stewart says. “I am a musician and I cannot turn it on and off. If there was a 12 step program for musicians I would have to stand in front of a group and say ‘My name is Jay, I play guitar.’ Having said that there are obviously times that I have to concentrate on the task at hand but music is a constant in my life. Most people who know me know that I play, from lawyers to court personnel to litigants. Now that I’ve completed my first project, I want to continue to work with great players and make music that moves people. Because of my career, I have a front row seat to see how hard it is in the world right now on a lot of levels. I want to make music that offers some relief to people. I want to play venues where people can get excited about these songs and I can invite them to chill out, let loose and Enjoy The Ride.”
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