Billy Hart Quartet
One of the leading drummers of his generation, Billy Hart continues to make jazz history with his quartet. Working with the phenomenally creative and talented pianist Ethan Iverson (Bad Plus), saxophonist Mark Turner (Fly), and bassist Ben Street (Orange Then Blue), Hart constantly seeks new territory, pushing the boundaries of post-bop and straight-ahead, of free jazz and composition, all the while embracing beauty and soulful communication. Turner’s rich, gorgeous tenor and Iverson’s exquisite technique combine to create a nearly infinite variety of textures and colors. Street and Hart have an uncanny connection that enables them to move effortlessly between swinging, tight grooves and sonic landscapes. Hart made an indelible mark on the jazz world in the ’60s and ’70s with his work with such jazz legends as Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Eddie Harris, Marian McPartland, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis. Less known is his earlier work with soul artists Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. With the Billy Hart Quartet celebrating 12 years as a working band, you can expect to hear Hart at the height of his creative powers.
Billy Hart, drums
Ethan Iverson, piano
Mark Turner, saxophone
Ben Street, bass
Pianist Ethan Iverson is one of the great aficionados of jazz drumming. In addition to his nearly two-decade collaboration with Dave King, the protean power source driving The Bad Plus, he’s sought out veteran trap masters like Mickey Roker and Tootie Heath, a relationship that’s produced two celebrated CDs and helped catapult the brilliant drummer onto the cover of JazzTimes on the cusp of his 80th birthday. And when he talks about Billy Hart, Iverson minces no words.
“He’s the living embodiment of a near vanished tradition, part of a community that played straight-ahead jazz at the highest level when it was folk music,” Iverson says. “Some people think ‘folk’ means less advanced than classical music, but I mean more advanced. A really talented folk musician is anointed by the community as a voice. You have something that can reach anyone. When we listen to great jazz from 1940s-60s, the best has this warmth and precision because it was learned so deeply and so young.”
A prolific accompanist who has played and recorded with a glittering constellation of jazz luminaries, including Wes Montgomery, Stan Getz, McCoy Tyner, and Herbie Hancock’s epochal band Mwandishi, Hart has never avoided sideman work with gifted young musicians. He first met Iverson when they were both playing in a band led by Swiss trombonist Christophe Schweizer. “Christophe kept taking about Ethan as this musician with the ability to interpret music on this extraordinarily high level,” recalls Hart, 75. “One day he brought him in and I found it to be true.”
The Billy Hart Quartet with Iverson, bassist Ben Street and saxophonist Mark Turner gradually emerged out of that first encounter. Looking to build on the initial connection, Iverson arranged a 2003 run at the Village Vanguard focusing on his and Turner’s music. Afterwards, Hart asked them to play a gig near his home in Montclair, New Jersey, focusing on his original compositions. The experience was so bracing that they voted the drummer in as the group’s permanent leader. An eponymous, well-received debut album in 2005 raised the band’s profile outside of New York City, and the followups — 2012’s All Our Reasons and last year’s One Is the Other (all on ECM) — capture a confident band that has found its own winning sound, loose-limbed, undulating and slyly funky.
“Those guys are quite a bit younger than I am and they had a common style that was more youthful,” Hart says. “I guess they thought they were going to try to come up with something more related to my style. But of course, I was more interested in theirs. I don’t know a group of young musicians who know more about the history of jazz than these three guys. Ethan Iverson just gave a seminar on James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. You can talk to Ben Street about James Jamerson of Motown, and also Walter Page and the Blue Devils, to say nothing of Oscar Pettiford or Jimmy Blanton. And Mark Turner is amazing to the point of magnificence. He’s got a certain lyricism, along with this contemporary facility. There’s all this depth to whatever we do.”
Born and raised in Washington D.C., Hart came up in the late 1950s steeped in hard bop and fascinated by the emerging avant-garde spearheaded by Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. As a teenager he worked with rising soul stars Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, but his most profound musical experience as a young player took place on the bandstand with Shirley Horn.
“She was not only a great vocalist, but a great interpreter from the piano accompanist standpoint,” says Hart, who played on the Steeplechase albums that marked Horn’s reemergence in the late 1970s after more than a decade off the scene. “The lessons she provided me were nonpareil. It was like playing with three different people, somewhere between Langston Hughes and William Shakespeare and Duke Ellington. It was like a big band.”
While Hart has never gained the jazz star status of contemporaries like Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams, he’s widely revered by his peers for his ability to elevate just about any jazz setting. His voluminous resume encompasses some 500 albums, including sessions by Miles Davis, Paul Bley, Sonny Fortune, and most of Charles Lloyd’s stellar work for ECM in the 1990s. One reason Hart’s name doesn’t resonate further is that he’s recorded relatively few albums as a leader (he ranks the classic 1977 A&M album Enchance with Dewey Redman, Don Pullen, Buster Williams, Eddie Henderson, and Dave Holland as a particular favorite). Employed at several universities, including New England Conservatory and Oberlin, he is equally generous in informal settings.
It may not rank high on Hart’s list of contributions, but music fans can thank the drummer for Iverson’s endlessly engaging blog Do The Math. Along with tour diaries, topical commentaries, appreciations and expositions on crime fiction, he’s posted a series of fascinating interviews with fellow musicians. The first he ever conducted was with Hart, and the experience was so rewarding that he’s kept at it. A product of their close friendship, the interview captures Hart incisively assessing fellow drummers (while displaying abiding modesty about his own accomplishments). In one revelatory thread, Hart identifies the pervasive influence of Afro-Caribbean rhythms in bebop outside of self-identified Latin jazz.
“He’s not known as a player in that style, but he’s always talking about that,” Iverson says.
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