Billy Hart, known to some as Jabali, is 73 years young today. I’ve appended below the full proceedings of a Blindfold Test he did with me six years ago [and on Nov. 29, 2019, pasted a feature piece that Jazz Times gave me the opportunity to write about the maestro in 2012.] I 2011, I posted a review of his Steeplechase recording Sixty-Eight and included an excerpt from my liner notes for Jabali’s 1997 Arabesque date, Oceans of Time.
* * *
Billy Hart Blindfold Test:
1. Jimmy Cobb, “Green Dolphin Street” (from WEST OF FIFTH, Chesky, 2006) (Hank Jones, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)
It’s somebody like me. I might even say Billy Drummond, who’s younger than me. But somebody that’s like me. It doesn’t seem like it’s Al Foster, and it doesn’t seem like Kenny Washington or someone like that. It’s more like Billy Drummond or that kind of player. It’s just the sound of it. For me, it would be somebody who heard Tony Williams but also liked Vernell Fournier. Of course I like it, because I understand it. He’s playing in a way I would play. From the left hand, the piano player sounds like a younger guy. When I say “younger guy” – ha-ha – I’m talking about somebody my age, like Hicks (though I don’t think it was Hicks) or Stanley Cowell (and I don’t think it was him) or Kenny Barron (but I’m sure it wasn’t Kenny Barron). Somebody in that vibe. The bass player had some chops. I’d be curious about who the bass player is. For the moment, I don’t recognize it. It was well done. It didn’t sound like they put a lot of time in it. It was just something that they could do, but it was well done. Everybody could play. When I say “Play,” it means they have a good traditional base, a good foundation. I liked everybody for that. 5 stars. Jimmy Cobb!! I should know Jimmy Cobb. That sounded a little light for Jimmy Cobb for me. Perhaps it’s the way it was miked. But then again, for certain kinds of those things, Jimmy Cobb is an influence. He influenced Tony Williams. Let me hear that again. No, I would have never guessed it was Jimmy Cobb. That’s not what he sounds like to me. A couple of the things that I thought somebody might have heard Tony Williams, now I think it’s the influence Jimmy Cobb had on Tony. I could have guessed Christian. [DRUMS PLAY FOURS] See, that’s obviously a Philly Joe influence which Jimmy Cobb has. But for what I know Jimmy Cobb to do, what I would recognize, I didn’t hear anything that’s… Nor Hank Jones. I would not have recognized him. I thought I would know Hank Jones’ sound. I made 6 records with him. I’m influenced by Jimmy Cobb! As much as I thought I knew Jimmy, I’ve got some more to listen to. Hank is phenomenal. That he can sound that modern. What made me think he was a modern guy is his left hand, and I know from playing with him that he’s got at least four generations of jazz vocabulary in him. He can do that in a tune.
2. Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, “Water, Water, Water” (from Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, DUO PALINDROME 2002, Vol. 2, Intakt, 2002) (Cyrille, drums, composer; Braxton, alto saxophone)
Is that just one drummer? Yes? Ha! I don’t know who it is, but it’s interesting to talk about it. Somebody who can do what this guy is doing (by the way, of course I like this very much) would be Blackwell. But I’m thinking Blackwell, who is somebody who can do that, but then, a guy who liked Blackwell was a guy named Eddie Moore. After that, it’s a whole host of people, like Don Moye, who would do that. Maybe Andrew Cyrille. The saxophone sounds so familiar, like Roscoe Mitchell. 4 stars.Cyrille is an unsung hero for understanding and being enthusiastic for what I think is really a world music viewpoint, realizing the function of African- and Indian-related musics, before it got to be so academic. He’s one of the heros of that, as were, strangely enough, a lot of avant-garde players. I think of Milford Graves and Don Moye in that vibe also — world music intellects. That’s what I like about Blackwell, of course. I feel that same way about people like Bill Stewart and Jeff Ballard, too. They have a strong interest in and are very enthusiastic about world music, especially in terms of Indian and African traditional musics.
3. Ari Hoenig, “Anthropology” (from INVERSATIONS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Hoenig, drums, Jean-Michel Pilc, piano; Johannes Weidenmuller, bass)
[FOUR BARS] [LAUGHS] Is that Ari Hoenig? I think of Ari with Kenny Werner and Jean-Michel Pilc. But of course, I know him to be already a huge influence on emerging drummers. He’s not really doing it on this piece, but he’s a guy who I think is approaching this world music, just more academically. He’s figuring it out. Because of that, there are a lot of people who can be influenced by him. What made me laugh is that I know that he, as well as Lewis Nash, likes to play the melodies of bebop tunes on the drums, which is very enjoyable for me. I love hearing drummers do that. Especially them, because they’ve spent time working it out. As a teacher, one of the first things I ask my students to do is to play “Anthropology” on the drums. Any student of mine who heard this would think it was one of my students that I had assigned that project to. Is Pilc playing piano? Man, I should know more about Pilc. It’s one of the contemporary guys that I think is approaching this music in a more academic way. In other words, they weren’t there, but they’ve received what I consider traditional information…what’s a better phrase… Classical music.It’s people like them who make classical music. [How do you mean that?] They’re part of the evolution of the music. That’s all. It’s obvious that they’ve studied the music and have tried to bring it forward, or naturally bring it forward just from their natural understanding of it. Pilc is French, he’s European, so he brings that to it. It’s not going to be James P. Johnson or Horace Silver, but he brings a contemporary… I think of it as a contemporary sound that’s influential in today’s music. 4½ stars. I think the music is important. Is the bassist Moutin? Weidenmuller? That’s interesting. Pilc with KennyWerner’s bass and drummer. That means that Ari and Weidenmuller have become a team.
4. Herlin Riley, “Need Ja Help” (from CREAM OF THE CRESCENT, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Riley, drums, composer; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Lewis, piano; Reginald Veal, bass)
The first thing I notice is what I would consider an obvious Duke Ellington influence. Now, who besides Duke Ellington would have a Duke Ellington influence, besides everybody… Who that would be, I don’t know yet. Except I can’t think of Duke having a bass player like that. But then that brings up Mingus, too, but I don’t think that’s Mingus either. It’s not Duke, which makes me think it’s someone from the guys who play with Wynton like Herlin Riley and Wycliffe Gordon. Duke is a huge influence on these people. I love Duke Ellington, too. The drums make me think of Sonny Greer, especially that period of time when Sonny Greer was the drummer. It is Herlin and Wycliffe? Who’s the bass player? Reginald Veal? He’s not playing with them any more, right. It means Ali Jackson could have been the drummer, too, but… Herlin is very recognizable for certain things. First of all, he’s a New Orleans drummer, and for me, all the New Orleans drummers have a special badge. They’re born with another understanding of the original jazz drum language. So Herlin not only is a great example of that, but he’s a great creative drummer, and how he uses his knowledge of the tradition is very inspiring to me. 4½ stars. The pianist was Eric Lewis: If you’d said Eric Reed or Marcus Roberts, I’d have expected, but Eric Lewis could go in there!
5. Francisco Mela, “Parasuayo” (from MELAO, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mela, drums, voice; George Garzone, tenor saxophone; Nir Felder, electric guitar & effects; Leo Genovese, fender rhodes, keyboard; Peter Slavov, bass)
Hmm, there it is again; the New Orleans tradition of drumming, the funeral march and funeral dirge. Whoops! There’s some contemporary sounds around it. Whoops! So this is like Cuban tradition with contemporary… Oh! I mean, this is the age of academic… I wish I could think of a better word. Now my guess would be somebody like David Sanchez, someone who is interested in or has knowledge of the Cuban tradition or Afro-Caribbean tradition, but is a contemporary player at the same time. It’s the drummer’s record?! That opens it up. I’ve been hearing about this drummer who I haven’t heard play live yet, Francisco Mela. I’ve heard, first of all, he’s from Cuba, but also he’s been playing with Kenny Barron, and to me, to be able to play with Kenny Barron, you have to have a pretty good knowledge of the North American tradition, and if he’s from Cuba, it means he automatically has a knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean tradition. That makes me think he’s extraordinary. Not only that he’s extraordinary, but also if there’s an academic tradition coming out of North America, people like Ari Hoenig, then it’s also coming out of Cuba, because I’m also interested in Dafnis Prieto — who I would have guessed next — for the same reasons. The world is smaller now. You can almost not separate North America from South America any more, because the North Americans study the South American tradition, and obviously, the South Americans study the North American traditions. That’s the way I want to play! It is Mela? I was lucky again. I’d better to listen to him. Because he listens to me. He comes to my gigs. I never heard a Cuban drummer get that far away from the Cuban tradition. I can’t tell who the saxophone player is. George Garzone! Really. I thought I knew Garzone, too. It’s strange, because I picked Sanchez because I like that he plays so lyrically. That’s the reason why I wouldn’t have said Garzone, who I love. 5 stars. I went to one of my favorite Afro-Cuban drummers… When I teach, one of my first assignments, besides that “Anthropology” thing, is to study and learn the second line. Unless you’re from New Orleans, that’s one thing that most of us don’t get naturally. So their assignment is to study the second line. And the way I describe the second line, my rationalization for it is that the second line is the direct translation of African rhythm through the Afro-Caribbean to the invention of the drumset. So by you saying Idris, who is a New Orleans musician, it really sounds like… But that’s what I feel.
6. Brian Blade, “The Midst of Chaos” (from Edward Simon, UNICITY, CamJazz, 2006) (Simon, piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)
So many of these things remind me of the way I would like to play. This could be…it could be… It could be me! But it isn’t, obviously. But obviously, it’s somebody who was influenced a lot by Tony Williams. So it could be any of a number of people between Bill Stewart and Billy Drummond. Whoever the drummer is, I like his touch very much. Whoever this is likes Roy Haynes, too. But so do I. It sounds so familiar; I’m thinking something will give it away. Wow, I really like the drummer. The pianist sounds Chick-influenced to me. Sounds like a great modern piano trio. 5 stars. Brian Blade! Whoa! I thought about Patitucci. I thought about Blade. But Blade is tricky, man. He’s a Louisiana drummer, and for me that’s close enough—he’s like a New Orleans drummer to me. But I think of him as more influenced…more of a… If you could be influenced by Elvin and Tony, I think of him as more influenced by Elvin, but here I heard more of a Tony influence. Again, it reminds me of me, of the way I want to play. I have some students who loved him, early on. In fact, they had heard him with his band. I thought, man, this here’s one of the first cats besides Jeff Watts that obviously has put a band together that’s similar to a band that I would put together—if you think of my band with Kikoski and Mark Feldman and Dave Fiuczynski. I asked him, “Man, what is it about Brian that you like so much?” He said, “It’s the way he influences the music. He influences the music the way you do, Billy.” Here I’m hearing it. I didn’t hear it so much before because I thought of him more as an Elvin influence. But here he sounds like the way I would play—if I could. It’s incredible that he can go that far in different spectrums. I think of Lewis Nash as being able to go that far. But if you think of the way he plays on Norah Jones’ record or the way he plays Wayne’s music… I mean, I sort of thought I knew him. But this shows a side that I wasn’t that familiar with. I’m obviously extremely impressed with his musicality, as most people are.
7. Joe Farnsworth, “The Lineup” (from One For All, THE LINEUP, Sharp-9, 2006) (Joe Farnsworth, drums; David Hazeltine, piano, composer; Steve Davis, trombone; Jim Rotondi, trumpet; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; John Webber, bass)
My first thought is somebody’s listened to the Art Blakey band when Freddie and Wayne were on it, and of course, my next thought is One For All—Farnsworth and those guys. Farnsworth is another guy that I think of as academic, but he’s chosen more the Billy Higgins, Philly Joe, Kenny Washington, and — something that I know personally about him — Jimmy Lovelace school of drumming, which of course, for me, is classical music in every sense. I mean, the highest level. It’s pristine. It has a sort of perfection. I mean, how can you talk about Higgins and not talk about perfection? Same thing for me about Jimmy Lovelace, whom most people don’t talk about. It’s Higgins, it’s Philly Joe, which is sort of…well, pristine is the… Poetry in motion. A beautiful touch. I have to love the piece because it reminds me of the music that I’m most familiar with. I grew up on this music. I grew up on Art Blakey. I grew up on Max Roach. I grew up on Philly Joe. I think it’s well-done. But of course, it’s not Art Blakey, as great as it is. And I don’t think it can get any better than they’re doing it unless it was Art Blakey. 4½ stars. [Do you think it’s imitative?] You didn’t ask that question. [Well, I could.] When I say “academic,” that’s what I mean? Let’s not say imitative. Let’s call it interpretive. If you’ve still got a Count Basie Orchestra, if you’ve still got a Duke Ellington Orchestra, then you’ve got an Art Blakey Orchestra with Philly Joe and Billy Higgins sitting in. But it’s so well done, it’s so enjoyable to listen to, and it brings back fond memories. I know how they feel playing that. I know how I enjoy listening to it.
8. Jack DeJohnette, “Seven Eleven” (from Chris Potter, UNSPOKEN, Concord, 1997) (Potter, tenor saxophone; John Scofield, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; DeJohnette, drums)
Now, for me, as much as I may not understand this, this is exciting to me. It sounds like a certain area of new music to me. Offhand, I don’t know who it is, but the saxophone player sounds like Chris Potter. So it would be whatever drummers play with him, whether it’s Clarence Penn or Nate Smith or Billy Kilson. It’s hard to say who it sounds like, though. I want to say Bill Stewart, but then, on the other hand, one of the things about Bill Stewart is that he sounds something like Jack DeJohnette to me, so then I hear Jack. Some of it sounds a lot like Jack to me, too. I can’t really hear the bass. But the drummer reminds me of Jack. I think of Jack like I think of Roy Haynes. Even though because he’s my age group, I can hypothesize his influences, but Jack to me sounds like Jack. So if this isn’t Jack, it’s somebody who sounds like Jack. The bass player is Dave Holland? Whoa! I should have known that. But I couldn’t hear that. But the first thing it sounds like to me is when Elvin was playing with John for Atlantic. It has that Atlantic drum sound. Whose record date is it? Chris? Is that Scofield? See, I know those guys! It’s interesting how much Bill Stewart has copped from Jack. Jack used to tell me, “Stewart, he’s a good little drummer.” [Not so easy to cop from Jack.] It sure isn’t. But Jack is Jack. I think I know some of his influences because they’re my influences, too. It’s again Tony and Elvin and Roy Haynes. But for me, he’s one of the few cats who he is him. I’m sure Baby Dodds had influences. 5 stars. Man, I got a lot of records, a lot of CDs, and I don’t think you’ve played one record that I have. I read a lot of Blindfold Tests, and a lot of guys will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a record I have; oh, yeah, that’s so-and-so, I remember when I heard it.” You haven’t played anything I’ve heard before. Am I listening to the wrong things? You haven’t played one that I’ve heard.
9. Brad Mehldau, “Granada” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)
I like this. I’m just trying to think of who it is. Again, so much of this stuff sounds like me! Isn’t that out? I’m at the age where I think everything sounds like me. Except, of course, that I know it’s not me. It’s the way I would like to play it, the way I would like to do it. In a lot of today’s so-called contemporary jazz, where you see a world music approach, or the influence of more cultures than just the American, then obviously, a lot of this kind of music is prevalent now. As a drummer, or musician, I call it straight-eighth or eighth-note music, or Latin-influenced or whatever. Now, who plays like that? The first thing that came to my mind, strangely enough, was Jeff Ballard. As I said, I can tell that he and Bill Stewart are students of African and Afro-Caribbean music. I can tell that they’re enthusiasts of it. It’s Ballard? That was a lucky guess. I don’t know what made me say it. There must be something that I recognize. I know that a lot of the people he plays with… It’s not even that. It’s him. The way he’s playing really sounds Spanish to me; it sounds like a guy playing a castanet or something. It sounds like he hears it that deeply. I know that he, like Ari Hoenig, seems to be a huge influence on younger drummers today—in a certain area. I know lately he’s been playing with Brad, but it doesn’t sound like Mehldau to me. It’s Mehldau? [LAUGHS] I’m still hearing Jorge Rossy, who was from Spain, play with Mehldau, so I have to hear this group some more. But I didn’t think of Brad when I was listening to the drums. It is Jeff, and he is an influence—4½ stars.
10. Susie Ibarra, “Trane #1” (from SONGBIRD SUITE, Tzadik, 2002) (Ibarra, drums)
Tell me again that this is not… This can’t be ordinary listening. [No. But it’s somebody you might know.] Again, it’s something that I think I might have played or attempted to play like that. Especially that. It’s a way of choking the cymbal without really grabbing the cymbal; you put your hand on it but take it off real quick. You just place your hand on it for a fraction of a second. And I do that all the time. In fact, I have never heard anybody else do that but me. Unless, of course, that’s not what he’s doing. Now he actually is choking the cymbal, but before he wasn’t. But even all of that… I’d be interested to guess who I’m imitating! Let me listen to this again. You wouldn’t give me a drummer twice, right? [No.] Okay, so it’s not Cyrille. It’s bad, though. Now, this is the closest thing I’ve heard to something that I would try to do. I don’t use that cymbal. Blackwell used to use that cymbal—that you put it on the snare drum. I’ve heard Stewart do that do; he’ll put that gong-like cymbal on the snare drum and hit it, or on the tom-tom and hit it. I have no idea who it is, but I love it. I really like it. Joe Chambers? Who would think like that? Wow! The same guy playing the brushes, too? [Same drummer, yes.] That’s what sort of made me think of Joe Chambers. Whoever that is, is heavy. Not because I would do it, but I just like their mind, whoever it is, and just his ability as a drummer—the brushes, too. It’s funny, I can’t say if he’s young or old. He could be an older guy or he could be a younger guy. 5 stars. Susie Ibarra? Whoa!!! I’m in love with Susie Ibarra. I’ve just never heard her play the brushes like that. I know that she has a certain kind of technical facility that I did hear her do with the brushes, but I’d only her do it before with the sticks. When you talk about modern drummers, a lot of the groundbreaking, just for plain drumming, comes from the so-called avant-garde drummers… When people talk about “contemporary” this or “modern” that, that word for me means the stuff that comes from Milford, Rashied, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Altschul, Stu Martin, and then a new breed of that came along about 15-20 years ago with Jim Black and Tom Rainey and Gerald Cleaver, Hemingway. But of those drummers, Susie Ibarra is by far one of my favorite drummers to listen to, not only on the drums, but as a musician, too, some of her compositions. I was very impressed with that.
11. Victor Lewis, “Suspicion” (from Charles Tolliver, WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Charles Tolliver, trumpet, composer; Victor Lewis, drums)
This is the trumpet player’s record? [Yes.] I have two impressions. The first impression, of course, is that it was some kind of Latin band, and I’m trying to think of that drummer who teaches at the New School… [It’s not Bobby Sanabria.] How’d you know that’s who I meant? The next thing is the opposite of that, like say, Charles Tolliver. I know Victor Lewis played with him when I heard him at the IAJE. But I didn’t hear any music like this, and great as that music was, I didn’t hear THIS. It took me a minute to recognize him. It’s interesting to hear Victor. People ask me about Victor Lewis, and for years I would say, “If I ever had to recommend a sub for me…” In other words, if they said, “I want you to hire a sub, but I’m not going to tell you what the music is going to be like,” I would say Victor Lewis. Because his musical scope is similar to mine. Anything I would be interested in or try to do, I know Victor could do. Anything somebody would call me for, I think they could call Victor for. Victor is one of my all-time favorite drummers. I remember asking a recording engineer, just for recording clarity, who his favorite drummer was, and he had recorded everybody, and he said Victor Lewis. 5 stars, of course.
12. Lewis Nash, “Tickle Toe” (from STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, M&I, 2005) (Nash, drums; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Peter Washington, bass)
All the things you’ve played have been very enjoyable. You know how some people say, “I really didn’t like that at all.” You didn’t play one thing that I didn’t enjoy. I have ideas on this, but they’re so far-fetched… If the drum had no bottom head, I’d say Chico Hamilton or something. But it does have a bottom head. Even this sounds like me! Well, I mean, it’s something I would have played in this situation. So it just shows you, whoever I’m influenced by, a lot of other people are, too. He’s playing the form of the tune really well, or so it seems to me. It’s an older style of drumming by a modern guy. You sort of think of Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa, even Sid Catlett, but there’s obviously a more contemporary drummer. He’s playing a calypso beat, which is interesting. It sounds like so many people… His sense of humor reminds me of Frankie Dunlap. There’s something about him that reminds me of Chico Hamilton. It’s somebody with some chops, though. 4 stars. Lewis is a student of the music. I should have been able to catch him. What threw me off is Nelson. Because he sounded so much like a Bags-influenced guy. I kept thinking it was back there, like somebody like Terry Gibbs or someone, and that made me think it might have been Mel Lewis, or even Ben Riley. Brilliant, man. He’s got a wide scope, too.
Billy Hart: A Drummer for All Seasons
It’s embarrassing, really, at my age,” Billy Hart said over the phone in February, prefacing a long enumeration of the working bands for which he plays the drums. In a few hours, one of them, Contact-Hart plus Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, Marc Copland and Drew Gress-would start night three of a week at Birdland, and he didn’t have time to spare. Still, as has happened more than once during our 20-year acquaintance, a perfunctory chat-we were pinning down an interview-was ballooning from five minutes to 90. “I tell people I thought my career was over at 30, that I was too old and behind the game,” said Hart, 71. “But that’s when it started. I joined Herbie Hancock, which opened a whole ‘nother thing. I couldn’t be any busier. If I don’t stop it, it looks like it won’t stop.”
It was hard to dispute this assertion. For one thing, Hart was anticipating an early April Birdland residence with the quartet he has led since 2003-pianist Ethan Iverson, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street. The dates would celebrate Hart’s ECM leader debut, All Our Reasons, which the band recorded after a six-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in December.
But there was much to discuss about the here-and-now. The previous weekend, at Iridium, the drummer had propelled the Cookers-in which old friends Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, George Cables and Cecil McBee navigate David Weiss’ charts of their compositions-through sets that evoked the romanticism and balls-out energy that these elders had displayed as young lions. Four days hence, they’d fly to Europe for nine engagements supporting their 2011 album Cast the First Stone (Plus Loin). In March, Hart would briefly recommence his normal schedule: a Monday flight to Ohio to teach three days at Oberlin; a Thursday flight to Boston to fulfill obligations at New England Conservatory. “I get home late Friday night,” Hart said. “If people know I’m home over the weekend, I end up working at Smalls or something like that.”
Hart maintains this schedule despite diabetes and a “worsening” retinal injury that makes “driving at night almost impossible.” Furthermore, he added, “my daughter is 14 and I’ve hardly spent any time with her. I love this family but I’m never here. The worst thing is they don’t say anything; they just deal with it. I’d rather have some complaints.”
While abroad with the Cookers, and on a mid-March long weekend in Europe, Hart would perform with several other groups that retain his services at regular intervals. “My students don’t even want to hear me play with American musicians,” he said. “They think the interesting records are the ones where I feel less inhibited.”
After remarking that he’d recorded four times since December, Hart named several newish releases: The Same As It Never Was Before (Sunnyside) is an introspective open-loose performance by French trumpeter Stéphane Belmondo’s working quartet with pianist Kirk Lightsey; Cymbal Symbols: Live at Porgy and Bess (TCB) is Hart’s third equilateral trio date since 2002 with Austrian-based saxophonist Karlheinz Miklin; and Billy Rubin (Enja), his fourth session with the accomplished German tenor saxophonist Johannes Enders, is a swinging, harmonically daring affair. Enders connected Hart to an experimental German electro-acoustic collective called the Tied & Tickled Trio (La Place Demon, Morr).
It was observed that turning down such gigs-and Hart’s itinerary listed even more-is an option. “Well, no,” he responded. “They make you an offer you can’t refuse, but it’s not just that the money is cool. The people who call me, for the most part, have interesting music. How do you turn down interesting music? How do you remain yourself? And what are you going to do? Retire?”
He mentioned the Tied & Tickled Trio, which Hart headlines, spontaneously orchestrating from the drum kit. “We play big concerts, and they let me play whatever I feel like. Not only that, they respond to it the way it’s supposed to be. That’s encouraging, and it’s happening more and more.” And he effused over an unreleased recording by Saxophone Summit, on which he functions as a kind of cross between Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, generating multidirectional grooves for Liebman, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane. “Our last few tours we’ve played Coltrane’s ‘Meditations Suite’ only, and it’s a 90-minute set,” he said. “The new record is all of our compositions out of that perspective.”
As Lovano put it, “Billy’s vocabulary is vast, and he can execute all of his ideas, but the dynamics from which he does that are deep from his soul.” But what is striking is how seamlessly Hart’s notion of unfettered self-expression matches real-time collective imperatives. Whether sharing the bandstand with peer-groupers or post-boomers, he assesses their vocabulary and idiosyncrasies and creates a flow apropos to their particulars, sometimes leading, sometimes following, changing colors and feel behind each soloist. If quiet fire is required, Hart needs little coaxing; if requested, as Harper had done at Iridium, “to keep this shit up there,” he’s more than willing to oblige.
“It’s to get them to play what satisfies me,” Hart said with a chuckle, downplaying the idea that he is unusually accommodating.
Liebman, an associate since 1982, when Hart joined him, pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Ron McClure in the still-extant quartet Quest, begged to differ. “He dances around with his partners more than most guys from his generation,” he said. “He’s open and democratic, fair and equal to everyone. His ability to be chameleon-like, always high level, is based on his very insightful, thoughtful personality. It’s psychological and technical insight. If you want to get into detail about bar 22, he’ll go there with you; if not, he doesn’t.
“Uniquely in his generation, Billy is a storyteller. His playing has a dramatic quality. He knows where chapter one goes, and where it should go next. He knows how to make you connect to that, makes you feel like your choice was exactly the right one. That’s why you can have 18 guys in a row soloing and no solo will sound the same.”
Hart’s narrative instincts come forth most palpably on his seven leader recordings since Enchance (A&M), from 1977. Already one of the busiest sidemen in the business, he then held a steady gig with Stan Getz, with an impressive contemporaneous discography including Miles Davis’ On the Corner and unsung classics with Charles Sullivan, Eddie Jefferson, Joanne Brackeen, Tom Harrell and Sir Roland Hanna.
He was not so far away from his years of apprenticeship in cusp-of-the-’60s Washington, D.C., where native sons like Jimmy Cobb, Osie Johnson, Ben Dixon, Harry “Stump” Saunders and George “Dude” Brown set standards of excellence. Jazz was in his blood. His family lived five blocks from the Spotlite Club, where the underage drummer pressed his ear to the window to listen to the Coltrane-Adderley-Evans edition of the Miles Davis Sextet, and the Lee Morgan-Benny Golson edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. His father, a mathematician and “an intellectual cat who demanded respect and knew a lot about a lot,” was a staunch Ellington fan; his paternal grandmother had played piano for Marian Anderson and knew William Grant Still. His mother was devoted to Jimmie Lunceford; his maternal grandmother-who bought him his first “good drum set for a gig with a good bebop band”-was a friend of D.C. tenor hero Buck Hill, who turned Hart on to Charlie Parker, and hired him at 17 for nine months of weekend gigs at a spot called Abart’s, where fellow McKinley High School students Reuben Brown and Butch Warren joined him six nights a week as the house rhythm section.
He matriculated at Howard University as a mechanical engineering major, but left when Shirley Horn, who had hired Hart out of Abart’s, took him on the road. Hart credits her with teaching him to play bebop at a simmer, not a roar; he also learned Brazilian rhythms from the source on early ’60s sub jobs at Charlie Byrd’s Showboat Lounge with Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and Bola Sete. Through local connections, he had backstage access to the Howard Theatre, where he analyzed such master New Orleanians as Idris Muhammad (the Impressions), Clayton Filliard (James Brown), Ed Blackwell and Earl Palmer (Ray Charles). (For a few months in 1967, he even occupied the drum chair in the theater’s house band.)
Howard classmate Marion Brown introduced Hart to Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali. Hart increasingly self-identified as an experimental musician, drawing on their example in a trio with Joe Chambers on piano and Walter Booker on bass. Later, during mid- and late-’60s stopovers in Chicago with Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery and Eddie Harris (on one residence, he roomed with Anthony Braxton), he attended to the “textural, timbral approaches” of AACM drummers Thurman Barker, Steve McCall and Alvin Fielder. He applied those lessons during two years with Pharoah Sanders, a period when, via percussionist Mtume, he received the sobriquet “Jabali” (Swahili for “wisdom”). In the first half of the ’70s, Hart’s mature tonal personality-advanced grooves drawing on “some knowledge of African and Indian music, and all the American traditions”-emerged during three years with Hancock’s Mwandishi band and a subsequent two years with McCoy Tyner.
Hart drew on all these experiences in conceptualizing Enchance and, subsequently, Oshumare (1985), Rah (1987), Amethyst (1993) and Oceans of Time (1997). On each record, he assembled idiosyncratic virtuosos from different circles, each signifying a stream of cutting-edge jazz thought. Functioning more as a facilitator than a stylist, he meshed their distinctive personalities, generating fresh ideas through intense drum dialogue. Each date has a singular quality, as though Hart had conjured a unitary vision out of various strains of the zeitgeist.
In his basement-den practice space two days after our initial conversation, Hart described his thought process for Oshumare, for which he convened Branford Marsalis and Steve Coleman on saxophones, Kevin Eubanks and Bill Frisell on guitars, and Kenny Kirkland and Mark Gray on keyboards, along with violinist Didier Lockwood, bassist Dave Holland and percussionist Manolo Badrena. “I had a dream in Germany that two guitar players could improvise together and sound like one person playing the harp,” Hart said. “Marc Johnson recommended Frisell. When I asked what he played like, Marc said, ‘I can’t tell you.’ I said, ‘Then he’s in; that’s what I’m looking for.’ Eubanks had all the James Brown stuff, so it seemed interesting to put them together. No one could follow in Herbie’s footsteps more than Kenny Kirkland. Badrena is South American, so that’s anywhere from Dizzy Gillespie to Tony Williams. For me, Dave Holland was almost the perfect bass player-someone who played with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton but also Herbie, and who knew the workings of the electric bass, which is to play these ostinato patterns [not walking lines through chords] that originated in Afro-Caribbean music, which was transformed into pop music. I was trying to do what I did on Enchance-find a way to play like Ornette and Cecil and Coltrane and Miles-with a more contemporary viewpoint.”
Hart follows a similar conceptual m.o. on Sixty-Eight (SteepleChase), a 2011 homage to Roy Haynes, Tony Williams and Ed Blackwell. There, Hart’s first-class ensemble of young individualists-Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Jason Palmer, trumpet; Mike Pinto, vibraphone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Chris Tordini, bass-interprets inside-outside repertoire from ’60s dates by Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Mal Waldron and Jaki Byard: records on which Williams, Haynes and Blackwell-all key roots of Hart’s influence tree-performed. “It turns out that if I try to explain what I do academically, it always goes back to Tony,” said Hart, who cites Elvin Jones as another primary inspiration. “Tony is the architect and designer of contemporary drumming as I know it today. Someone asked him, ‘When did you first discover you had your own style?’ He said, ‘I never thought I had my own style. I was trying to sound like Art Blakey, Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones-if they were me.’ That meant a lot to me.
“Tony was a prodigious bebop scholar, but he also emerged at the time of ‘straight eighths,’ which started with Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Caribbean music and then was called rock and roll. That meant Tony could legitimately relate Cuban music to rock and roll, whereas the beboppers were always a little condescending about it. Then, right after he moved to New York, the Brazilian thing hit, and the beboppers condescended to that because they couldn’t hear the samba. Tony could relate to all three.”
Around 1964, just before Hart started his three-year run playing “advanced pop rhythms” with Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane heard the Chambers-Booker-Hart trio play a Saturday matinee. A year or so later, after Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner had moved on from his employ, Coltrane asked Hart to play in his new band alongside Rashied Ali. “John had been in Jimmy’s first band, which is one reason why I interested him,” Hart explained. “I turned him down. For one thing, I didn’t think I could do the music justice. I think he could have coaxed me into it, but he was taking his music somewhere very unpopular, and he needed somebody to be sure that’s what they wanted to do. If I’d had two or three days of the experience I got playing with Pharoah, I’d probably have been in that band. Maybe I would have done OK.”
Hart pointed to a shelf of orange-and-black-spined Coltrane LPs on Impulse! “As we speak, he’s still the reason for me,” he said. “Even on his very last record, Expression, he has this incredible lyricism that almost nobody else has. He had that ability to sing, to be like a vocalist on the instrument. Stan Getz had that-Coltrane complimented Stan. Miles played like a singer, too. Coltrane’s way is my way. I would follow him anywhere. As loud as I’ve learned to play, I would like to be a drummer that’s a singer.”
Coltrane and drumsong come through abundantly on All Our Reasons, particularly in Hart’s inspired interplay with Mark Turner on the opening tracks, his own “Song for Balkis” and Iverson’s “Giant Steps”-ish “Ohnedaruth.” “You’re only going to push Mark so much-you’ve got to build a solo with him,” Hart said. “That takes me back to Shirley and Stan. He reminds me of something Elvin told me about Philly Joe: ‘Man, I didn’t want to play like him, but I savored him like a fine wine.’”
Indeed, throughout the program, it’s evident that each member-all were born when Hart was already well established-ideally suits the aesthetic space the leader has reached over the last decade. (So does ECM founder and producer Manfred Eicher, a fan of Hart’s dynamics and cymbal sound from the ’70s [Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel in the Lotus] on through his three end-of-the-’90s ECM dates with Charles Lloyd. The Eicher touch suffuses the proceedings-the rendering of Hart’s pointillistic brushwork on Iverson’s “Nostalgia for the Impossible,” the crisp snare-toms-cymbal combinations and surging ride cymbal on Turner’s Sonny Rollins homage “Nigeria,” the signifying second-line bass drum on Hart’s “Imke’s March.”)
“They’re brilliant contemporary conceptualists,” Hart said of his younger partners. “Even though we’re playing a lot of my older tunes, I’m not playing any freer with anybody than I play with them. Mark profoundly understands Coltrane, but also has total command of Lennie Tristano’s vocabulary. With Ethan, it’s like playing with Thelonious Monk or Andrew Hill one minute and Herbie Hancock the next. Ben has a command of all the Afro-Caribbean and Indian flavors that are the biggest influence on so-called jazz today.”
With the quartet at Dizzy’s in December, Hart set up his accompaniment or solos by grabbing a sound from one or another component of the drum kit and then developing it through ever-expanding permutations and combinations. Drummer Billy Drummond referenced this quality when he called Hart a “shape-shifter.” So did Matt Wilson in describing Hart as “a Picasso of rhythm, who abstracts something we already know so that it sounds different coming at you.”
“With [this quartet], I can’t smash like I’ve done on so many bands,” Hart said. “I’ve had to go back to lyricism, the things I learned with Stan and Shirley. It’s almost irritating how I’m forced to play this way, but then I remember that playing with all this space-a lot of cymbals, that higher-pitched sound, tuning the drums high-is the way I really play. It’s [trying to take] the music out of techniques, so that suddenly you’re not hearing C-minor, but it’s raining. Or the sun is shining. Or grass is growing.”
Iverson and hart first connected on a 1999 rehearsal for a date led by trombonist Christophe Schweizer. “It was very advanced academic music,” Hart recalled. “Christophe told me he hired Ethan because he was the only guy in New York who could read it. Just that description made me very interested in him.”
The feeling of urgency was mutual. “When Billy started playing, I immediately felt I wanted to be next to this and I’d do whatever it takes,” Iverson remembered. Two weeks later, he asked Hart to join him and bassist Reid Anderson for two trio concerts. The proceedings became The Minor Passions (Fresh Sound). The relationship deepened on a brief Italian tour. “You can learn a helluva lot about swing just by watching Billy talk to a stranger,” Iverson said. “I can think whatever I think about music and play what I play, but this man is what jazz is.”
Even as the Bad Plus coalesced and blasted off, Iverson and Hart worked occasionally, and in 2003 Ben Street and Mark Turner joined them for a week at the Village Vanguard. Soon thereafter, Hart asked his young partners to join him at a New Jersey concert. “We added his tunes for the gig,” Iverson recalled. “Then he was on the microphone talking, and we agreed right then that this should be Billy’s if he wanted it.”
All Our Reasons displays the group’s evolution since their 2005 debut, Quartet (HighNote). “It sounds a little constricted now, because we hadn’t figured out all the ways we should try to play together,” Iverson said of the earlier document. “In some ways we’re still figuring each other out. Billy can be very intense, and you need to step up to the plate.
“Billy plays this constant selection of incredible patterns with the maximum vibe,” Iverson continued. “It’s this very secure, indomitable collection of stuff that makes everyone else play a certain way and raises the music to the highest level. I don’t hear enough of that in younger cats. He has this undulation, an older sense of space. We’ve all had to adjust to make this work when it’s so swinging, but the t’s aren’t crossed and the i’s aren’t dotted like we learned off records and playing with our peers. At Dizzy’s, it began to inhabit a different rhythmic sphere, like we were letting go of something.”
In Hart’s view, he’s growing along with his bandmates. “I’ve never thought about these cats being so much younger than me,” he said. “They say each generation transforms art into its own image. My take is that it’s not the art that changes, it’s the image. I like the art. In other words, I don’t think whoever was playing drums in 5000 B.C. felt what they were doing any less than I do. They might have felt it more. I want that.”