Any Billy Hart sighting in the clubs of NYC is an event worth remarking upon, and this week’s run at the Village Vanguard with his working quartet of Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner, and Ben Street is no exception. On his current release, Sixty-Eight [Steeplechase], Hart convenes a first-class ensemble of individualistic young improvisers (Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Jason Palmer, trumpet; Mike Pinto, vibraphone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Chris Tordini, bass) to interpret inside-outside repertoire from the first half of the ’60s by Eric Dolphy (“Number Eight,” “Serene,” “Out There”), Sam Rivers (“Cyclic Episode,” “Beatrice”), Mal Waldron (“Fire Waltz”) and Jaki Byard (“Mrs. Parker In K.C.”) as well as Ornette Coleman’s “What Reason (could I Give)” from Science Fiction, and originals by Tepfer and Palmer. As is Hart’s custom, his playing is consistently compositional in intent; he leads by facilitation and suggestion, creating felicitous environments for the solos, which are consistently interesting and spring organically from the ensemble. Which makes it all the more fun when the old master does let loose, as on “Mrs. Parker” and Tepfer’s “Punctuations.”
Over the years, I had the honor of conducting several conversations with Billy on WKCR, and in 1998 I had the opportunity to write the liner notes for an exceptional date entitled Oceans Of Time [Arabesque], with Chris Potter and John Stubblefield on saxophones; Mark Feldman, violin; David Kikoski, piano; Dave Fiuczynski, guitar; and Santi Debriano, bass. Of the title track, I wrote: “Hart orchestrates and arranges the family whistles of his mother and father, who were from Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, respectively. ‘When my mother wanted me to come downstairs to eat, or if she clapped her hands and I was at the playground, she had a whistle she’d use, and so did my father. My mother was a Jimmie Lunceford-Count Basie fan, while my father was more of a Duke Ellington-John Kirby fan. My mother always thought that the music he liked was a little too far-out for her — she liked music that really grooved. They took me to the Howard Theater when I was little, and I remember shows by Earl Bostic, Bullmoose Jackson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and the singers who came through with those guys. In the last year or so I’ve thought how interesting it is that both my parents had family whistles, and I included this as a song to remember not only my mother, father, and brother, who are all gone, but members of my drum family who have left us in the last few years, like Steve McCall, Eddie Moore, Daoud Freddie Waits, Mel Lewis, Ed Blackwell and recently Tony Williams.'”
That was 1997. Circa 2011 Hart has produced yet another date that evokes what I described then as his “uncanny ability to look steadfastly to the future while forgetting nothing of what he’s learned during four decades [now five decades] in the Jazz business.”
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As an eminent pianist put it to me the other day, “Who doesn’t like Billy Hart?” He’s just one of the hundreds of musicians who value the 56-year-old drummer’s penchant for finding an idiomatic tone to suit any function without cliche, his ability to play the trap drums across the entire spectrum of contemporary improvisation with authority, sensitivity and invention, earning him first-call status for a wide array of live gigs and recordings. To wit: Between 1962 and 1980 Hart served lengthy tours of duty with Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Eddie Harris, Pharaoh Sanders, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, McCoy Tyner, Stan Getz; a partial list of credits during the past twenty years includes the large and small ensembles of Frank Foster, Gerry Mulligan and Clark Terry, with Mingus Dynasty, the collective group Quest (Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach, Ron McClure), and the working bands of diverse progressive improvisers like James Newton, Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell and Charles Lloyd. As I write, he’s working with Toots Thielemans for a week at New York’s Blue Note, and he’ll join the Ray Drummond Quintet at the Village Vanguard in a few weeks.
Hart’s visibility and importance as a sideman could overshadow the sophisticated aesthetic he displays when he has time to lead a band, how strong a compositional drummer he is. These qualities are fully apparent on Oceans of Time, his fifth recording which, like the previous four, sounds unlike anything recorded contemporaneous to it. As on the previous sessions, Hart employs an all-star group of individualistic, virtuosic musicians who probably would not play together otherwise, meshing their distinctive personalities through the intense dialogue he creates. The compositions reflect Hart’s predisposition to play beautiful melodies within elaborate, contemporary structures; on each performance he functions as an idea-generator, a rhythmic fulcrum, developing thematically an intricate web of patterns and timbral relationships.
Hart hasn’t had a liner note since the 1976 Enchance (*****, Downbeat), so here’s a mini-biography for those who’d like to know how he got from there to here.
William W. (“Jabali”) Hart, born November 29, 1940, grew up with the ethos of versatility in a Washington, D.C. abrim with music. He studied some piano as a child, and took up drums in a local drum-and-bugle corps at around 11. “Being from a Black community,” he recalls, “when you played in a drum corps, right away it had to swing. Instead of having a book of Sousa marches, these cadences, as they were called, were passed down to me from the elders who had been in the corps before me — and they all had this kind of swing. When rehearsals started, the kids came out and began to dance behind this marching band stuff; I immediately began to relate to the drums like that.” Soon he had a drum set, and at 15 years old, “when all I knew how to play was these marching rhythms,” he met Buck Hill, who lived next door to his grandmother. “Just by fate I happened to meet him. He saw me with my drumsticks in my pocket, and he handed me two 78 rpm Charlie Parker records. They consumed me immediately.”
Not long after the chance meeting, Hart began playing for real at rehearsal sessions led by Eddie Warren, father of bassist Butch Warren, elder brother of guitarist Quentin Warren. The latter, best known for his Blue Note recordings with Jimmy Smith, “used to come and listen to me practice outside of the basement without letting me know. He suggested me for a rehearsal gig at Eddie’s house with the violinist Stuff Smith. Once I took the drums out of the basement, it seemed like I could hardly ever get them back in.” During high school, Hart served a comprehensive apprenticeship with rhythm-and-blues bands in local dancehalls and cabarets; later on, in the Howard Theater house band under Charles Hampton’s leadership, he backed the likes of Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Smokey Robinson and numerous others. He and fellow McKinley High School graduates Reuben Brown and Butch Warren were the house trio at a local room called Abe-Art’s for nine months, backing Buck Hill on weekends; later he worked with singer-pianist Shirley Horn’s trio, and played Brazilian rhythms at Charlie Byrd’s club with people like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto and Bola Sete.
Always the serious listener, Hart heard and emulated the numerous drummers who passed through town with Pop acts, particularly New Orleans Second Line extenders like Idris Muhammad with the Impressions, Clayton Filliard with James Brown, and Ed Blackwell and Earl Palmer with the Ray Charles band. He’d see Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey and Louis Hayes when they were resident, and checked out accomplished Washington drummers like Charlie Buck (who preceded Art Blakey in Billy Eckstine’s first big band), Harry “Stump” Saunders, (“many guys would come to town without a rhythm section; Stump was the guy who would play with them”), Ben Dixon (“the epitome of one of those D.C. guys who could play with anybody; he was a composer who took solos in odd time signatures”), Jimmy Cobb (“I used to try to play just like him”), Buddy Mack Simpkins and Grady Tate, as well as contemporaries like Jimmy Hopps, Joe Chambers, Eric Gravatt, Bernard Sweetney, Hugh Walker, and Mike Smith.
Is there a Washington, D.C. style of drumming? Hart thinks so. “There was a definite dramatic way of swinging, where the music must swing and groove, be funky and soulful at all costs, or whatever word or emotion you want to use,” he asserts. “Washington drummers tend to almost overemphasize that; they have a certain shuffle rhythm in their playing.”
Whatever the case, Hart’s impeccable backbeat drumming led to consecutive steady jobs with Jimmy Smith’s and Wes Montgomery’s crossover-oriented groups of the mid-’60s. Throughout that time, he was looking for ways to extend improvisation. “My grandmother was a concert pianist, Marion Anderson’s first accompanist; she had turned me on enough to the standard European repertoire for me to be attracted to the next contemporary step, like Stravinsky, Bartok and Messaien, and even Stockhausen and John Cage. I’d be walking around listening to the stuff, while everybody is sort of thinking, ‘Boy, he’s pretty strange’ — particularly for a drummer. Also, by the time I’m hitting the scene, remember that Ornette has already hit, and Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor. I had gone to Howard University with Marion Brown, who went to New York, and comes back dressing differently, talking about, ‘Look, man, there’s different stuff going on’ — which he knows I’ll be interested in. He said, ‘I know you like Elvin and Tony, but there’s a cat there named Sonny Murray that you really want to know about.’ Later, going through Chicago with Jimmy and Wes, I encountered Gerald Donovan, known as Ajaramu, a drummer associated with the AACM, who turned me on to Thurman Barker, Steve McCall, and Alvin Fielder, who were working with textural, timbral approaches — what Rashied Ali told me Coltrane called ‘multidimensional’ playing.”
After Montgomery’s death, Hart played a couple of years with the late Chicago reedman-sound scientist Eddie Harris, who encouraged stretching out within the groove. “Eddie liked an advanced Pop-rhythm concept, and helped me be more authentic with it. His Bebop concept was clear and powerful, and his swing was so smooth, funky and soulful. He sort of reminded you somewhere between Lester Young and Miles Davis on the saxophone. He really helped me.” Next was Pharaoh Sanders, where “for the first time I was able to really use the things I had learned from my relations with the AACM, and get into so-called ‘free playing,’ the new vocabulary that came from drummers like Rashied, Sonny Murray, Milford Graves and Andrew Cyrille. I brought a lot of my experimental intentions into the Mwandishi band. I think Herbie Hancock was one of the beginners of playing something I think will end up being called ‘World Music,’ expanding Jazz to be a World Classical Music, a concept starting with Jazz. That band demanded some knowledge of African music, some knowledge of Indian music, and of course, all the American traditions, as much as I could have known at that time. With McCoy I had to learn how to articulate in a clear, definite way the textural stuff I had put together with Pharaoh combined with the advanced grooves I developed with Herbie. With Stan Getz I had to project that kind of intensity just as clearly at a much softer volume and get my traditional swing (or Bebop) vocabulary fully together.”