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BILLY HART QUARTET

All Our Reasons
ECM 2248. 59:34

Live Performance
The Falcon, Marlboro, NY
4/10/2012
ecmrecords.com

Review by Craig Nixon
Photographs by Nathea Lee

Evolution. The concept is nothing new to the 71 year old drummer/bandleader Billy Hart. Forty years ago in pianist Herbie Hancock's sextet, he bore witness to the evolving of Hancock's music from quintet hard bop to something altogether more exploratory, incorporating the electronics of Miles Davis and keeping with the more involved and orchestral writing of the pianist's Speak Like A Child, a recording that still sounds as fresh today as it did in 1968. Later, as a member of tenorist Stan Getz' quartet he, alongside other more modern thinkers like Albert Dailey and Joanne Brackeen, helped free up Getz' conception considerably, putting a fresh and more forceful framework around the tenorist's signature sound.

Now The Artists Formerly Known As the Ethan Iverson-Mark Turner Quartet have swung the leadership over to their elder Hart, otherwise keeping the group intact. What was five years ago an on and off entity is now a steadily working touring unit. And, as always, evolution is at the forefront. The band's previous recording, Billy Hart Quartet, appeared six years ago on the hard bop HighNote label. Over the years the music has evolved into a freer, more abstract thing that creates its own breathing space. Not that the 2006 disc didn't take its own chances. A listen back to the self-titled album finds the group really pushing the outside envelope of the more standard hard bop in High Note's catalog. But now the music is more methodically developed, the overall tone conveys nothing if not attention to detail, making the switch in labels to ECM for All Our Reasons seem like just another part of the natural development of the music.

Beginning with his debut as a leader, 1977's Enchance (on A&M's Horizon label) Hart has consistently shown himself to be a forward thinker. None of his own discs have been loosely constructed blowing dates, beginning with the first, in which the leader put himself in some fast company with Oliver Lake, Dewey Redman, Hannibal Marvin Peterson, Don Pullen and Dave Holland. A later group that waxed several interesting discs on Arabesque featured a unique front line that combined the tough tenor of John Stubblefield, the (very) electric guitar of David Fiuczynski, and Mark Feldman's modernist violin. Hart's release just prior to All Our Reasons, the sextet recording Sixty Eight, came out on Steeplechase, a label that has released countless blowing sessions by others with little or no preparation. Still the drummer's attention to detail prevailed and the album's diverse choice of material from the pens of Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard set it apart.


All Our Reasons is Hart's debut as a leader for ECM, but he's certainly no stranger to the label, appearing on ECM dates beginning with Bennie Maupin's 1974 Jewel In The Lotus and several releases as a member of Charles Lloyd's quartet. With this release Hart has conjured a darkly glowing jewel of his own. Downplaying himself as a soloist, the focus is on the overall sound of the group, and what a beautiful sound it is.

Each member of this quartet is integral to the finished sound; to replace any one of them would change the lay of the land considerably. Tenorist Mark Turner has a sound so darkly burnished it has become unmistakable. Turner emerged as a leader of his own groups at a young age. A disc for CrissCross was followed by a Warner Bros. contract that yielded several discs. It has been a number of years since his last effort as a leader, but Turner has been anything but idle. His sideman work seems to appear everywhere and his talents have him in all types of situations, from standards dates to navigating the thorny music of altoist David Binney, where Turner frequently completes the front line. Despite once having a major label contract the tenorist somehow managed to escape the whole "Young Lion" hoopla often heaped on jazz twenty-somethings. His quiet, almost reticent, demeanor perfectly matches his unassumingly lovely tone.

Pianist Ethan Iverson is himself no stranger to the major labels, his trio The Bad Plus having issued a string of releases on Columbia, and lately, EmArcy. Away from TBP, Iverson proves to be a thoughtful, incisive soloist and sensitive comper. His work on All Our Reasons proves to be surprisingly quiet, and a little less in evidence than on the previous Hart quartet date.

Bassist Ben Street has become a first call player in all sorts of situations on the New York jazz scene. He possesses a big, natural-sounding, woody tone, has unerring intonation, and can hold down the soloist spot with deft and intelligent improvising.

The disc's longest piece, Hart's "Song For Balkis" is up front, beginning quietly with the leader's mallets and a stately recitation of the theme by the quartet. Turner is the first soloist, initially going with just bass and drums. It doesn't take long for things to come to a beautiful simmer, and when Iverson finds a point of entry to begin comping and set up for his own solo around the seven minute mark it spurs Turner on even further, to end his own turn with several wry references to the head. The pianist's own solo, while a bit shorter, is no less intelligent and quickly turns climactic.

The rest of the material is handled no less thoughtfully. A handful of tributes, Iverson's "Ohnedaruth" for its namesake John Coltrane, Turner's "Nigeria", which turns Sonny Rollins' "Airegin" inside out again with a smart piano quote from the original at its close, and the leader's "Imke's March" for the drummer's daughter demonstrate a solid framework of reverence.

The switch in labels has served this group well as its overall sound has evolved. There's much more open space in the music now, and the improvised sections are edging toward more free terrain. Manfred Eicher and ECM's usual attention to detail is evident, as always. Ethan Iverson, for example, was allowed his choice between several pianos, a luxury one doesn't often run into on a jazz recording date. Barely three months into 2012 All Our Reasons is already being talked about roundly as a choice for one of the year's best. And with good reason. Beautiful without being precious, always swinging and always intelligent, All Our Reasons is a highlight for all the members of this quartet.

Within several days of hearing the CD I was lucky enough to catch the group live at The Falcon, the venue in upstate Marlboro, New York, that has been programming top quality music, both jazz and otherwise, for several years. Owner Tony Falco has been managing to put together show schedules that rival some of the best NYC clubs, drawing good crowds and frequent notice. About 90 minutes north of Manhattan, this sleepy rural burg in the middle of Hudson Valley wine country probably isn't the first place one thinks of to catch top flight jazz talent. And in the case of Billy Hart's gig, on a Tuesday evening, no less. Be that as it may, Hart played to a packed house of surprisingly enthusiastic fans, which included many local writers, photographers and what looked to be every single drummer within a fifty-mile radius.

Hart had played the venue in the past as a sideman, most notably on a well-received gig with Don Byron's trio, but this was his first swing through as a leader. Happily, the overall sheen of beautiful sound this band achieves as a whole translates perfectly to the live setting. Not just a conjuration of ECM's pristine studio sound, the band as an entity sounds much the same live as it does on All Our Reasons.

With but two exceptions all the material on the gig came from the new release. The biggest difference is in Billy Hart's own playing. Opening, as is his habit, with a startlingly loud cymbal crash, his drumming is more forceful and somewhat busier than on the recording. Behind the kit one would never guess the drummer is a few months shy of 72 years old. Hart was all over the kit, suspending time like only he can and spurring his bandmates on as well.

Mark Turner was his usual eloquent self, but even more inspired with the added drum heat. Ethan Iverson too seemed inspired and spun out long witty improvisations, basking in the freedom of a live gig to stretch out even further. Another revelation, Ben Street, his bass higher in the live mix than on the recording, proved to be an irreplaceable part of the equation. Not content with just a walking line, Street was constantly improvising alongside the soloists, always thinking and always aware. When introducing the group Hart said simply "And thank God for Ben Street." Amen to that.

The venue itself began as a labor of love, with Tony Falco originally hosting gigs in his home before landing the larger space they now occupy. Now The Falcon is large enough to serve as a gallery for visual arts of all types, has great sonics, a good piano and a kitchen that serves elegant fare making use of local and organic products. They also turn out a burger that would have a vegan falling off the wagon.

The Billy Hart Quartet continues to tour this year, refining even further the material from All Our Reasons. They had just finished a successful run at Birdland before swinging upstate. It's a good thing that this once on-again off-again entity is now on. And boy, are they ever on.

*   *   *   *   *

Philadelphia based photographer Nathea Lee has been blessed to work in the arts in one form or another for over 25 years. More of her work, documenting performances of artists such as Ravi Coltrane, Hamiet Bluiett and Randy Weston can be seen at her online gallery at http://nleephotobravura.com/livejazz

For the remainder of 2012 Nathea will be visiting a different city and venue weekly to document live jazz performances. The results of her quest are chronicled at her Live Jazz Journey blog, at http://livejazzblog.wordpress.com/

 



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