THE veteran drummer Billy Hart, born in Washington DC in 1940, has not only become one of jazz’s most powerful and creative drummers.
He unwittingly became a character in Rafi Zabor’s soulful and sparkling novel The Bear Comes Home, where his fiery drumming accompanies the saxophone-playing plantigrade quadruped who is the narrative’s protagonist, inspiring his primal dream of freedom.
Hart began playing drums in the capital with Shirley Horn and Buck Hill, moved on with Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith and Herbie Hancock, was with Miles Davis on the album On The Corner and became the regular drummer with McCoy Tyner for many years.
He led on albums for Gramavision and Arabesque, but now, in his seventies, he has been adopted by ECM with a very skilled and much younger threesome of confreres.
The only horn is the tenor saxophone of Mark Turner, born in 1965 and bred in Los Angeles and leader on several Criss Cross and Warner albums; there is also the Wisconsin-born pianist of The Bad Plus, Ethan Iverson, and on bass is the young New Yorker, Ben Cross, in a quartet which criss-crosses the United States.
They recorded their first ECM album, All Our Reasons, in a New York studio in June 2011, opening with a Hart tune, Song for Balkis, in which his toms signal a slow, mysterious soundscape with Turner blowing eerily over Iverson’s spectral piano and the leader’s splashing cymbals.
The pianist’s piece, Ohnedarth, is based on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, and is a deftly wrought essay for Iverson and latterly Turner, with Hart’s brushes dancing on the skins.
Turner plays with a beautiful sense of poise all through Hart’s Tolli’s Dance, as if his horn is on tip-toe while in Iverson’s haunting Nostalgia for the Impossible, the four musicians play with such a sonic thrust and kinship that a quartet equals one with each discovering each other’s world of sound with an astonishing empathy, with virtually no rhythmic propulsion.
There’s more of that in Hart’s tune Duchess, where Street’s sprightly bass comes to the fore and Turner’s horn sings out in the way Zabor described the Bear’s rhapsodies: “He rose through notes as if through worlds.”
His succession of ascents in his composition Nigeria prefaces a powerfully inventive solo by the drummer, who, in more of Zabor’s words which described his ever-questing furry saxophonist, gives out a “rush of his own ideas blasting him to regions unforeseen.” That’s definitely Billy Hart too.
Turner is unaccompanied in the prelude to his composition Wasteland, an elegy to a world being gradually lost, a warning shout of consciousness and caution grounded by Hart’s rumbling drums.
Iverson’s brief but lucid solo piece, Old Wood, only enhances this sense of loss.
The final track, introduced and concluded by a collective whistle, is Imke March, named after Hart’s daughter, a pure stomping melody set out by Iverson’s chiming keys.
In April 2013 the same four musicians were back in the same studio recording the album One is the Other. The opener, Turner’s Lennie Groove, memorialises the singular Chicago pianist Lennie Tristano (1919-78) with a compelling solo intro by Iverson and some soaring Turner.
Maraschino is partly an Iverson exploration alongside Turner’s sonic composure, with Hart’s fluttering brushes clearing their path.
It leads into the tune for one of Hart’s sons, Teule’s Redemption, where Street’s earthen beat pulls all sounds downwards.
Hart’s tune, Yard, remembering the Yardbird of Kansas City, Charlie Parker, is an urban blues, but a very precise and formulated blues with Turner’s step-taking solo and Iverson’s thoughtful chorus.
Sonnet for Stevie is for a very contrary musician — Steve Wonder.
Ponderous, in a spirit of quasiquietude, it is neither what you predict nor imagine.
After this, the ballad Some Enchanted Evening is yet another surprise, with Turner’s horn serene.
The album closes with a Hart drum feature composed by Iverson.
Big Trees it’s called and it’s all Hart, his artistry mighty and subtle simultaneously, taking you directly back to the Bear: “The rhythm at the heart of jazz had always seemed to instance the inexhaustibility of life itself, a ground for hope, a reason to go on living, an emblem on the prow of grace,” wrote Zabor.
That’s Billy Hart — with these records for now and for all time.