Tag Archives: Jeff Ballard

For Brad Mehldau’s 44th Birthday, A 2006 WKCR Conversation, a 2011 DownBeat Cover Story, and a Link to 2000 DownBeat Blindfold Test

No pianist of his generation has had a greater impact on the sound of jazz circa 2014 than Brad Mehldau, who turns 44 today. For the occasion, I’m appending first  the transcript of a conversation we had on WKCR in 2006, which was originally web-published a few years ago on http://www.jazz.com, and then a DownBeat cover story I was given the opportunity  to put together in 2010-11. Some may also be interested in this uncut DownBeat Blindfold Test, which I posted on this blog in 2011.

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IN CONVERSATION WITH BRAD MEHLDAU

You met Jorge Rossy, the drummer in your working trio between 1995 to 2003, in the early ’90s, perhaps when he arrived in New York from Boston.

Yes. Jorge already had a lot of musical relationships with people that I met after him—for instance, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier as well, Joshua Redman, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry. A lot of people who you hear about now as fully developed, with their own voices, at that time were also growing up together. As a lot of people still do, they went to Boston first, and then came to New York. I met them all when they came here.

You, on the other hand, decided to jump into the sharkpit right away.

I came straight here.

I recall someone saying that they asked you what it was like at the New School, and you responded that it was a good reason to be in New York!

Yes. [laughs]

Reflecting back, how would you evaluate that early experience, newly-arrived at 18? You’re from Connecticut, so presumably you knew something about New York at the time.

A little bit. I knew that I wanted to come here because it was everything that the suburbs wasn’t. I was a white, upper-middle-class kid who lived in a pretty homogenized environment. Yet, I was with a couple of other people, like Joel Frahm, the tenor saxophonist, who went to the same high school as me. A group of us were trying to expose ourselves to jazz. So New York for us was something that was sort of the Other, yet it wasn’t too far away—a 2-hour-and-15-minute car or bus ride. What really cemented me wanting to go to New York was when I came here with my folks during my senior year of high school, and we went one night to Bradley’s, and heard the Hank Jones-Red Mitchell duo. That blew me away, seeing someone play jazz piano like that, about six feet from you.

A couple of blocks away from where you’d be going to school.

That’s right. The next night I heard Cedar Walton’s…well, the collective Timeless All-Stars formation, which was with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Ron Carter, and Harold Land, small ensemble jazz. The immediacy of hearing Billy Higgins’ ride cymbal and seeing Cedar Walton comping, after hearing it for three years on all those great Blue Note records I had. That was it. I knew I had to come here, just from an actual visceral need to get more of THAT as a listener.

When you arrived at the New School, how did things progress? How fully formed were your ideas at the time?

I was pretty formed. Not to sound pompous, but I was more developed as a musician than maybe half of the students there,. But a few students there were a little ahead of me, and also two or three years older, which was perfect, because in addition to the teachers who were there, they acted as mentors and also friends. One was Peter Bernstein, the guitarist, another was Jesse Davis, the alto saxophonist. Larry Goldings was there, playing piano mostly—he was just starting to play an organ setup. Those guys were immediately very strong influences on me. I have a little gripe in the way we tell the narrative of jazz history, or the history of influence. People often are influenced by their peers, because they’re so close to them, and that was certainly the case for me. Peter and Larry had a huge influence on everything I did playing in bands at that time. That’s pretty much what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to develop my own band. I was just being a sideman and soaking everything up.

If I’m not mistaken, your first record was in 1990, with Peter Bernstein and Jimmy Cobb. Jimmy Cobb had a little group at the Village Gate maybe at the time?

Yes, Jimmy Cobb had a group that was loosely called Cobb’s Mob with Peter and [bassist] John Webber. He still has it in different incarnations. It’s a quartet, most of the time with Pete playing guitar. Jimmy Cobb taught at the New School, and his class was basically play with Jimmy Cobb for 2-1/2 hours once a week. For me, that was worth the price of the whole thing.

I think Larry Goldings said that during the first year, when the curriculum was pretty seat-of-the-pants. . .

Very loose! Arnie Lawrence would interrupt the harmony class, and say, “Okay, Art Blakey is here for the next three hours,” and that would become what the class did.

But getting back to this notion of influences from your contemporaries, how did their interests augment the things that you already knew? I’d assume that by this time, you were already pretty well-informed about all the modernist piano food groups, as it were.

A fair amount. I came here at 18 completely in a Wynton Kelly thing. Then it was early McCoy, then Red Garland thing, and then late ’50s Bill Evans. I was jumping around stylistically and still absorbing stuff I hadn’t heard maybe until four years in New York, and then I slowed down. It’s that whole notion of input and output, where you get just so much, and then slow down to digest.

But in New York, I suppose you’d have to find ways to apply these ideas in real time.

Right.

I’m interested in the way that process happened, to allow you to start forming the ideas that people now associate with your tonal personality.

Definitely. When I came to New York I had sort of a vocabulary, but not much practical knowledge of how to apply that in a group setting, which to me is indispensable if you’re a jazz musician. Part of my definition is playing with other people, and, if you’re a piano player, comping. Comping in jazz is very difficult to teach in a lesson, because it’s a social thing, an intuitive thing, something that you gain from experience—the seat of the pants. It also happens through osmosis—I watched players like Larry Goldings, Kevin Hays (who I was checking out a lot), and of course, people like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron. Nothing can replace the experience of watching a piano player comp behind a soloist. If you watch closely and to see what works and what doesn’t, that will rub off very quickly. I’d say doing that helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time. You don’t develop in that same social way, which to me is indispensable as a jazz musician.

Did you have direct mentoring from any of the older pianists?

I had some very good lessons at the New School with Kenny Werner and Fred Hersch, and Junior Mance was my first teacher there. He was a little different than Fred and Kenny. Fred concentrated on getting a good sound out of the piano and playing solo piano a lot, which was great, because I hadn’t gotten there yet. Perfect timing. Kenny showed me ways to construct lines and develop my solo vocabulary—specific harmonic stuff. With Junior, it was more that thing I described of soaking it up by being around him. We would play on one piano, or, if we had a room with two pianos, we”d play on two. I said, “I want to learn how to comp better. I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?” He said, “Well, let’s do it.” So we sat down, and he would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Yeah, soak up what he was doing. Junior is a beautiful person. A lot of those guys to me still are models as people, for their generosity as human beings, and Junior is certainly one in that sense.

Did you graduate from the New School?

I did. It took me five years. I took a little break, because I already started touring a little with Christopher Holliday, an alto sax player. That was my first gig. But I did actually get some sort of degree from there.

But as you continued at the New School, the Boston crew starts to hit New York, and a lot of them are focused on some different rhythmic ideas than were applied in mainstream jazz of the time.

For sure.

I’m bringing this up because once you formed the trio, one thing you did that a lot of people paid attention to was play very comfortably in odd meters, 7/4 and so forth, and it’s now become a mainstream thing, whereas in 1991 this was a pretty exotic thing to do. How did you begin the process of developing the sound that we have come to associate with you?

I’m not sure. A lot of it certainly had to do with Jorge Rossy. To give credit where credit is due, those ideas were in the air with people like Jeff Watts, who was playing in different meters on the drums. But Jorge at that time was very studious, checking out a lot of different rhythms, not just odd-meter stuff. He was grabbing the gig with Paquito D’Rivera and playing a lot with Danilo Perez, absorbing South American and Afro-Cuban rhythms. I never studied those specifically, but by virtue of the fact that Jorge was playing those rhythms a lot and finding his own thing to do with them in the sessions we had, it found its way into my sound.

We’d take a well-known standard like “Stella by Starlight,” and try to play it in 7 and in 5 as a kind of exercise. Some of them actually led to arrangements, like “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” in 5, which is one of the first things we recorded in an odd meter. Then we moved on to 7, and got more comfortable with it. It was fun and exciting, and it seemed to happen naturally. But Jorge was ahead of me in terms of the comfort level. There was a lot of him playing in 7, holding it down while I’d get lost and then come around again.

How long did it take?

It took maybe six months or a year where I felt as comfortable in those meters as I was in 4. Then also, I started to crystallize this idea about phrasing. If you listen to Charlie Parker or to someone really authentic playing bebop, like Barry Harris, you notice that they are completely free with their rhythmic phrasing. It’s swinging and it’s free on this profound level, because it’s very open. But when you hear people who take a little piece of bebop and condense it into something (they can also have a very strong style), it gets less interesting. One thing I’ve always loved about jazz phrasing, is the way, when someone is inflecting a phrase rhythmically, it’s really advanced and deep and beautiful, and also makes you want to dance. One thing I heard that perhaps we were trying to do was get that same freedom of floating over the barline in a 7/4 or 5/4 meter as you could find in 4/4, versus maybe… Not to dis fusion or whatever, but some of the things that people did with odd meters in the ’70s had a more metronomic rhythmic feeling, more literal—“Hey, look, we’re playing 7, and this is what it is.”

Another influence that filtered into the sound of your early trio was classical music, which seems as much a part of your tonal personality as the jazz influences. Were you playing classical music before jazz?

Yes. I started playing classical music as a kid, but I wasn’t getting the profundity of a lot of what I was playing. I didn’t like Bach, and I liked flashy Chopin stuff. I did already have an affinity for Brahms, though; he became sort of a mainstay. Then jazz took over.

Fast forward. I was around 22, maybe four years in New York, and for whatever reason, I started rediscovering classical music with deep pleasure. What I did, what I’m still doing now, as I did with jazz for a long time—I absorbed-absorbed-absorbed. I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. A lot of chamber music…

Records or scores?

Records and scores. A lot of records. A lot of listening. A lot of going to concerts here in New York. I guess it rubbed off a little. For one thing, it got me focusing more on my left hand. Around that time, I had been playing in a certain style of jazz, where your left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing. That’s great, but I had lost some of the facility in my left hand to the point where I was thinking, “Wow, I probably had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12 than I do now.” So it was sort of an ego or vanity thing that bugged me a little, and it got me into playing some of this classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.

Were you composing music in the early ’90s? After your first record, most of your dates feature original music. Around when did that start to become important to you? Was it an inner necessity? Did it have anything to do with having a record contract and having to find material to put on the records?

I’ve never actually thought of when I began writing tunes until you asked the question. I guess there were a few sporadic tunes from the time I arrived in New York until 1993, or 1994 even. I guess I was comparatively late as a writer in that I was an improviser and a player and a sideman before I was trying to write jazz tunes. Two of my early originals appeared appeared on my first trio record with Jorge Rossy and his brother, Mario Rossy. On my next record, when I got signed to Warner Brothers, Introducing Brad Mehldau, there were a few more.

A lot of your titles at the time reflect a certain amount of Germanophilia.

At the time, for sure.

You wrote liner notes that referenced 19th century German philosophy, but applied the ideas to the moment in interesting ways. Can you speak to how this aesthetic inflected your notions of music and your own sense of mission?

What I was trying to do was bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, and there was this disparity for me between Brahms in 1865 and Wynton Kelly in 1958—all these things I loved. Looking back, at that age, I was very concerned with creating an identity that would somehow, if it was at all possible, mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways).

One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.

Not too long after your first record for Warner Brothers in 1995, which featured both your working trio and a trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade, you began to break through to an international audience. You had a nice reputation in New York, but then overnight to receive this acclaim, where people pasted different attitudes onto what you were doing, whether it was relevant to your thoughts or not. . . . Trying to develop your music and stay focused while your career is burgeoning in this way could have been a complicated proposition. Was it? Or were you somewhat blinkered?

It was complicated. I think I was sort of in the moment, so I don’t know if I viewed it as such, but retrospectively, if you’re addressing the attention factor from other people, I developed a sense of self-importance that maybe didn’t have a really good self-check mechanism in it. If I could go back and do it all over again, some of the liner notes would be maybe a little shorter! Not completely gone…

You did write long liner notes.

Long liner notes. And I still do.

Using the language of German philosophy.

I still do, so I shouldn’t even say it. But I suffered a bit from a lack of self-irony (for lack of a better word). I think I’ve pretty much grown out of it now—an old geezer at 36.

People became accustomed to the sound of the first trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, and when you formed the new one, as an editor put it to me at the time, his friends in Europe were saying that they were afraid that now you wouldn’t play as well, that the things that made you interesting would be subsumed by a more groove-oriented approach, or something like that. Speak a bit to the way the trio evolved into the one you currently use.

What you’re alluding to is certainly true. A lot of people approached me directly and said, “What are you doing, changing this thing you have that’s so special?” That was interesting. One way I can mark the progression is that at first Larry and Jorge and I had a lot more to say to each other about the music. As I mentioned, Jorge and I would have these sessions, and work specific things like playing in odd meters. All three of us would talk about whether or not something was working on a given night, what it was about, what we could do to make it better. Over the years, as it became easier to play together intuitively, we reached a point where we had less and less to say. It was either working or it wasn’t. I don’t want to say that we were resting on our laurels, but there was a slight sense that almost it was too easy. That even was Jorge’s phrase. I think he was feeling that as a drummer, personally—just as a drummer, independent of playing with us—and wanted a new challenge playing a different instrument.

Then I heard Jeff Ballard in the trio Fly [editor’s note: with Mark Turner and Larry Grenadier], and felt a sense of possibility in the way Larry was playing with him. Larry plays differently with different drummers—he plays one way with, say Bill Stewart, and a different way with Jorge and me. In Fly, he plays in a way I’d describe as more organic and intuitive, and it surprised me. I almost felt sort of a jealousy. I thought, “Wow, I never heard Larry play like this, and I’m playing with him all the time.” It made me almost want to grab Jeff!

What was it about what he was doing? Was it a more groove-oriented approach?

I would say yes. A certain groove, and also, though it may sound strange, my trio has become more precise since Jeff joined. The way Jeff and Larry state the rhythm is very open-ended, but precise in the sense that I can play more precise rhythmic phrases, which adds a bit more detail to the whole canvas. You can see the details more clearly, let’s say. Jorge was always very giving; he usually followed my lead in terms of how I’d build the shape of a tune. One thing that Jeff does that’s different, which is sort of a classic drummer move (if you think of Tony Williams or Elvin or someone like that), is putting something unexpected in the music at a certain point. Say we’re on the road, we’ve been playing one of my originals or arrangements for a month, and we do a big concert somewhere in front of two thousand people—and he starts playing a completely different groove. At first, I had to get used to that—if I don’t change what I’m doing, it won’t make sense. So I have to find something new. Then we’re actually improvising again, developing a new form or canvas for the tune.

Talk about the balance between intuition and preparation, how it plays out on the bandstand.

I don’t write really difficult road maps, as they call it. Maybe some of my stuff is a little hard, but most of it is not too difficult where you’re going to have your face in the music. I like that, because then you start forgetting about the music, and it becomes more intuitive, which hopefully is the ideal. That’s how it feels with the three of us. A lot of times with a band, you start playing a tune, an arrangement or your own original. You find certain things that work formally within the entire shape of the tune, places along the way, roughly, where you build to a climax, or a certain thing that one of you gives to the other person, like a diving board that you spring from to go somewhere else formally. In that sense, the process becomes less improvised, because you get this structure that works, and it helps you generate excitement and interest.

A few years ago, maybe around 1999-2000, you began to look for new canvases by incorporating contemporary pop music into your repertoire, and on Day Is Done it comprises the preponderance of the recital.

Right.

That development coincided with your move to Los Angeles and associating with the producer Jon Brian, who it seems showed you creative ways to deal with pop aesthetics.

Mmm-hmm. What I loved about him when I first heard him at this Los Angeles club, Largo, was that I felt like I was going to see a really creative jazz musician—in a sense even more brazen than a lot of jazz musicians. Really completely improvising his material, the material itself, taking songs that maybe he had never played from requests from the audience, and then developing a completely unorthodox, strange arrangement in the heat of the moment, right there, for those kinds of songs, which were more contemporary Pop songs. Also Cole Porter and whatever. All over the map. Completely not constrained by anything stylistically. That was definitely an inspiration for me at that point.

As somone who’s played a good chunk of the Songbook and as a one-time jazz snob, can you discern any generalities about the newer pop music of that time vis-a-vis older forms? You’ve said that you see the limitations of a form as a way of finding freedom, rather than the other way around.

Right. For me personally, not a judgment on other stuff. I need to have some sort of frame. I need to have a narrative flow. That’s what makes it cool for me, if I’m taking a solo or whatever. With more contemporary pop tunes, pop tunes past the sort of golden era that some people call the American Songbook, all of a sudden there are no rules any more. That’s the main thing. With people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, you can often hear similar structures, with verse, chorus, that kind of stuff. But in a lot of pop music and rock-and-roll, it’s not that the forms are complicated, they aren’t at all, but there is not a fixed orthodoxy. In the songs of Cole Porter songs and Rodgers and Hammerstein and or Jerome Kern, there’s a verse and then the song itself, which is often in an AABA form, something within the bridge, and then that something again with the coda. These forms often keep you thinking in a certain way about what you’re going to do when you’re blowing on the music. When you get out of that, it becomes sort of a wide-open book, with often the possibility for a lack of form to take place. I try to take some of these more contemporary songs and somehow impose my own form on them in the improvisation. That’s the challenge. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn.t.

Given that you’ve been a leader and highly visible for more than a decade, it seems to me you’ve tried hard to sustain relationships with the people you came up with and to keep yourself in the fray, as it were—being a sideman on Criss-Cross dates and so on. Is it important for you to do that?

Someone like Keith Jarrett comes to mind as someone who is really in his own realm, who hasn’t been a sideman. But I value the experience of connecting with other musicians who are outside of my band, and not being a leader. Not to sound self-righteous or whatever, but it does teach a certain humility when you go into a record date and you have to submit your own ego, to a certain extent, to someone else’s music, and go with the musical decisions they want to make. The challenge is to negotiate a balance between your own identity, which the person who called wants to hear, and the identity of their music, what they’ve written. To try to do justice to that is always fun and exciting, and I like that challenge.

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Brad Mehldau DownBeat Article (2010-Directors Cut):

 

The announcement last spring that Brad Mehldau would be the first jazz musician to occupy the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall for the 2010-11 season—an honorific he shares with such luminaries as Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter, John Adams, and Thomas Adès—drew surprisingly scant notice from mainstream cultural gatekeepers as a watershed event.

With the exception of Wynton Marsalis, it’s difficult to think of a musician possessing greater bona fides in the classical and jazz arenas. From his earliest albums, Mehldau established his ability to weave the harmonic language and feeling of Brahms and Mahler into the improvisational warp and woof—swinging or rubato—of trio and solo performance. He gave his songs Germanophilic titles (“Young Werther,” “Mignon’s Song,” “Angst,” “Sehnsucht”), and described his intentions and thought process in liner notes and essays that refracted a long timeline of German philosophy and literature, producing as extensive an aesthetic manifesto as ever produced by any jazz musician not named Anthony Braxton. His deep grounding in the various tributaries of post Bud Powell piano expression came through in the career-launching Introducing Brad Mehldau, which also documented his knack—he was then 25—for getting to the heart of a ballad. By Mehldau’s second recording, The Art of the Trio, Volume 1, he displayed a nascent comfort zone with 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, constructing contrapuntal phrases with a flowing, over-the-barline quality. Numerous pianists of his Gen-X peer group paid close attention. They kept listening as Mehldau, after moving to Los Angeles in 1996, increasingly brought contemporary pop songs into his mix, resolving, as he once wrote, to “bypass the temptation to use the collective language of the past.”

Long a devotee of art song, Mehldau upped the ante five years ago with Love Songs [Nonesuch], a pair of fully notated song cycles set to poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Louise Bogan for interpretation by the prominent mezzo soprano Renee Fleming. Fellow diva Anne Sophie von Otter, already a fan of his trio recordings, was impressed, and requested Carnegie Hall to commission her own project with Mehldau. The result is Love Sublime [Naive], comprising one disk on which von Otter sings five stark, ravaged Sara Teasdale lyrics from the ‘10s and ‘20s, and a poem apiece by E.E. Cummings and Philip Larkin, and a second on which she traverses a varied menu drawn from a trans-genre cohort of songwriter-composers, among them Jacques Brel, Joni Mitchell, Leo Ferré and Bob Telson. Throughout the proceedings, Mehldau, the virtuoso soloist, embraces the role of accompanist, playing throughout with restraint and dynamic nuance. For the poems, he adheres strictly to the scores, which are at once fresh and idiomatically evocative of the lieder tradition; on the “middlebrow” fare, he imparts an old-school saloon piano feel, interpolating graceful comp with solos that contain no wasted notes.

“Brad plays beautifully, in the truest, most seriously meant sense,” von Otter emailed. “During one of our early meetings, I described my my range to him, my strengths and weaknesses, what I would encourage and discourage in the vocal lines. We also discussed our tastes in poetry. The songs sound American to me—Copland comes to mind, though not overly so. But they also have a strong Mehldau style, meaning that Brad has managed—and this is not so easy—to create his very own sound, something fresh and new.”

` There’s no mistaking the Mehldau touch on Highway Rider [Nonesuch], his first recorded exploration of the orchestral implications of his pianism. Recorded last March, It’s a motivically connected, 15-movement suite on which a two-drummer edition of Mehldau’s working trio and saxophone soloist Joshua Redman interact with a chamber orchestra comprised of 23 strings, three french horns, bassoon and oboe, each given a separate part on two selections, and functioning sectionally elsewhere. Both on the orchestral selections and the quintet, quartet, trio, and duo pieces that comprise much of Highway Rider’s second part, Mehldau weaves into his own argot a host of dialects—Euro and American streams of classical music, various iterations of post-songbook pop and classic rock, swinging and odd-metered jazz, flamenco and bolero, the blues. The piece, which has an imaginary screenplay quality, is chock-a-block with achingly gorgeous songs—seasoned with well-proportioned dollops of atonality, and threaded together with recurring harmonic and melodic themes—that seem to be begging for a lyric.

Mehldau toured Highway Rider in early November, recruiting the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for a three-concert American leg that concluded with a November 9th appearance at Zankel Hall, in advance of a fortnight-long, seven-concert European sojourn. During the afternoon runthrough, Mehldau negotiated the mix section by section with conductor Scott Yoo and Zankel’s efficient soundman. Occasionally, he responded to the flow with extemporaneous contrapuntal responses; at other points, he walked to different spots in the auditorium to hear for himself. After all these issues were settled, after Yoo and SPCO had resolved to their satisfaction various nuances of phrasing and vibrato, the quintet soundchecked with a brisk version of Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” Left leg crossed over right, leaning into the keyboard, Mehldau tossed off an intense, ready-for-prime-time solo of several choruses, abstracting the refrain, alternating block chords with hurtling single-note passages.

Hit time was 8:30, and Mehldau had a five o’clock meeting with pianist-composer Timothy Andres at Steinway’s 57th Street premises for a pre-dinner parsing of the selections from Andres’ two-piano suite, Shy and Mighty, that the two were slated to perform at a March 11th Zankel Hall concert that would conclude Mehldau’s composer-in-residence obligations. (The third concert, on February 19th, presented Mehldau and Von Otter in support of Love Songs; for the second, on January 26th, Mehldau played solo, per his 2011 Nonesuch release, Live at Marciac.)

Before leaving, Mehldau took ten minutes to sit with me. He turned 40 last year, and his dark hair contains the barest intimations of gray. He’s taller and more buff than is evident from a distance or in photos, with ropy arm muscles—accentuated by a tattoo on his left bicep—that are a pianist’s equivalent of an embouchure. Unfailingly polite, he reiterated a message conveyed by management the day before: He had no time to meet face-to-face before his departure for London two days hence, and he’d remain in Europe through December with his wife Fleurine, the Dutch singer, and their three children. Our conversation would have to be by phone.

On the appointed day, Mehldau spoke at length about a variety of subjects. But taping goblins interfered. The proceedings evaporated into thin air. With a deadline drawing nigh, Mehldau agreed to a second go-round via email.

In a 2006 conversation on WKCR, Mehldau related that when he was “around 22, maybe four years in New York,” he “started rediscovering classical music, which I’d played as a kid, with great pleasure. I did what I did with jazz for a long time—I went on a buying frenzy to absorb a lot of music. Scores. A lot of records. A lot of concerts. It rubbed off a little. I’d been playing in a style where the left hand accompanies the right hand playing melodies when you’re soloing, and I’d lost some left-hand facility to the point where I thought I had more dexterity in my left hand when I was 12. It was a sort of ego or vanity thing that got me into playing classical literature where the left hand is more proactive.”

In 2010, I asked about the gestation of Highway Rider.

I like to read scores like someone else reads a regular book—in the train, in bed if I’m trying to fall asleep, wherever. It’s a great way to get inside a composer’s head; I feel like I’m getting to know the person who wrote it, even if he’s been dead for 200 years. It’s like he’s telling you everything about himself, right there in the room with you. So writing for orchestra came on its own time. The inspiration was cumulative. All the events in my life led to that moment.

Mehldau cited a passage from Rilke, first in the original German, then in translation: “Everything is gestation and then birth. To let every impression and every germ of feeling complete itself, wholly in itself, in the dark, the unsayable, the unconscious, unreachable by one’s own conscious understanding; and then to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour of deliverance, when a new clarity comes: This alone is the artist’s life: in comprehension as well as in creation.”

Highway Rider is the largest scale thing I’ve done. I don’t mean just the amount of musicians; I mean the aspiration to have formal continuity throughout an extended, multi-faceted piece. The process in which I wrote it might be something like writing a novel, in the sense that when you start to write, you are not starting at the beginning, and as you go along, you don’t know where it’s leading. You have to pay attention, and not over-extend yourself by adding too much material—you achieve continuity by vigorously sticking with one central idea. What happens, then, is super cool: At a certain point in writing—maybe about one third of the way—the theme starts to take over. It starts to dictate what you’re writing, and, in spooky ways, large-scale connections between the various parts of the whole start connecting to each other, without your effort, by their own accord. I wrote the first piece for Highway Rider—it wound up being the title track—in a dressing room when I was touring with Pat Metheny. I let it sit awhile, thinking maybe it could be a trio tune. Then, a month later, in the tour bus with Pat, I got some ideas for the string piece, ‘Now You Must Walk Alone.’ I saw a thematic connection, and thought that was interesting and maybe I could exploit it. Then I began to consciously stay with that motif. But the order of the pieces, and more importantly, what I think of as the narrative ‘arc’ wasn’t there yet—it took another year.

As the titles imply, said narrative arc pertains explicitly to travel—the notion of a journey, a life cycle. Since the 2000 trio recording, Places, the road, a fundamental reality for any working performer, has been an ongoing trope in Mehldau’s work.

Music travels through time; often we are traveling through space. So travel works well for me as a metaphor for music. I think that’s pretty universal—when you begin a piece, you feel like you’re in one place, and when it ends, you have gone somewhere. Or perhaps, like in a few things I’ve done already, Highway Rider included, you’ve traveled back to where you started, and maybe you’ve had some kind of gnosis: You’re where you were, but you’ve gained something. Music always expresses itself through the dialectic of a fixed identity and difference: As a piece develops, some part of its identity is constant, but there is also constant change. Likewise, in a journey, there is always the traveler—his or her surroundings change, but he or she remains the same conduit for all of those varied surroundings.

As a teenager, Mehldau discovered the Songbook tunes that would later enter his repertoire through recordings by female singers like Julie London and Peggy Lee; he’s described instrumental lyricism as striving for a voice-like quality. He addressed the way these concerns play out in his musical production in 2006, responding to a question on his Germanophilic predispositions.

“I was trying to bridge the gap between everything I loved musically, from Brahms in 1865 to Wynton Kelly in 1958. I was very concerned then with creating an identity that would somehow mesh together this more European, particularly Germanic Romantic 19th Century sensibility (in some ways) with jazz, which is a more American, 20th century thing (in some ways). One connection that still remains between them is the song—the art songs of Schubert or Schumann, these miniature, perfect 3- or 4-minute creations. To me, there is a real corollary between them and a great jazz performance that can tell a story—Lester Young or Billie Holiday telling a story in a beautiful song. Also pop. Really nice Beatles tunes. All those song-oriented things are miniature, and inhabit a small portion of your life. You don’t have to commit an hour-and-a-half to get through it. But really good songs leave you with a feeling of possibility and endlessness.”

[2010]: As a pianist you have the limitations of your instrument, and the big one is that the note dies away after it’s played. Still, you have all these models from the human voice, horns, and bowed stringed instruments, where the sound continues. You try to find your own way of sounding like a horn. A lot of the expression comes in the actual intention—if as a piano player you are getting inspired by a horn and try to play with a horn-quality, you won’t sound like a horn, but something different will happen in your playing.

Do ‘classical’ and ‘jazz’ sides coexist within you? Do you enter different mind-spaces in addressing one idiom vis-a-vis the other, or is the process more holistic?

It doesn’t feel holistic, but it is. Basically, my gift is this: I have the ability to synthesize the classical music I’m listening to, studying, and playing, and let it find a way into my conception. I’m an okay classical player, but I never would have made it as a virtuoso concert artist. You have to have steel balls for that; it’s just not in my character. For example, a few years back I worked on Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata—a real warhorse ass-kicker—for a few months. I gave up in self-disgust after trying to play it for some friends and completely flailing. But then it seeped into my solo thing—different parts of it at different times. So I never stop learning classical music or exposing myself to new things. Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock—each of them let classical music rub off on their jazz playing.

In the program notes for Highway Rider, Mehldau states that the structure and instrumentation mirrors/responds to Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, a civilizational threnody composed in 1945, at the end of World War Two.

Metamorphosen is the perfect piece of music for me if there ever was one. It has everything: That thematic economy I mentioned, on a high level, and the perfect marriage between “horizontal” and “vertical” expression—very harmonic and very melodic all at once. The contrapuntal rigor is unparalleled, yet at times the piece can come at you like a big, fat, beautiful series of chords. Strauss’ harmonic language at this period in time—and early Schoenberg in pieces like Pelleas und Mellisande, and Mahler in his later symphonies, particularly the Ninth and the unfinished Tenth—is a language that I want to inhabit. It’s right on the edge of the abyss; yet it’s still tonal. There’s a tragic, hyper-real feeling to that.

Scott Yoo: After our last concert in Paris, I told Brad that the more I dealt with the piece, the more I liked it, and that I enjoyed conducting it most on the last day of the tour. That’s something that happens with Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms—the really great pieces are the ones you enjoy more as you do them more. I’m as much of a layman on jazz music as you can get, but with each different show, I could see what stayed the same with the group and what changed. For example, Brad had a lot of what we call cadenzas. One of them is the epilogue, and he played it very straight the first time I heard it. I thought, ‘ok, fine; that makes sense.’ From night to night, the cadenza became more elaborate. Actually, it was very classical. There were times where I thought it was a shame that what he was putting forth wasn’t being documented, because he was making up such profound music on the spot. Then I realized, ‘Aha, so this is what jazz is all about.’ The ephemeral quality of something existing in a brief second of time, and then evaporating, never to appear again, that’s the whole beauty of it. It was a little disconcerting to hear different notes every night. But once you understand that, and let go, then it’s not so hard.

Joshua Redman: I’d played ‘Don’t Be Sad,’ ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’ and ‘Old West’ on duo gigs wtih Brad in 2008 and 2009, and he sent us demos a few months before the recording. But although I had some sense of the general vibe of the songs, I had no conception of the orchestral aspects going in. Often when I’m soloing, it’s in the context of orchestral passages with bold, sometimes dissonant harmonies. So it was a wonderful challenge, hearing it for the first time in the studio, to interact and figure out how to make my soloistic voice blend [with] and complement what the orchestra was doing. On the tour, the challenge, night after night, as I gained more insight into how everything fit together, was somehow to approach the music like I was playing it for the first time, to preserve that freshness and spontaneity.

There’s a lot in the piece that’s new and groundbreaking, but it sounds like a natural extension and development of all the musical ideas Brad’s worked with in the past. To me, almost every band he’s had, almost every record he’s done, there has been a sense of arrival, of completion, as though fully formed in its time. He’s a true virtuoso, but it’s not intimidating—in in every instance he employs his chops in the service of musicality and an emotional statement, not for display. You feel so much warmth and empathy and soul and love, as well as the intelligence, rigor and complexity music should have. Hands-down, he’s the best comper I’ve ever heard; he plays exactly what you would play for yourself if you were smart enough to think about it and empathic enough to feel it. The raw, God-given musical talent; the skill he’s acquired through years of playing, listening, and working on music; and that empathy—I’m not sure I’ve encountered that combination of elements in any other musician.

In 2006, Mehldau related that although he was well-conversant in jazz vocabulary when he arrived at Manhattan’s New School in 1988, he “had not much practical knowledge of how to apply it in a group setting.” He added that comping was “part of my definition of being a jazz piano player,” that it’s “a social, intuitive thing,” better learned by osmosis than in the classroom. He observed elder peer-groupers like Larry Goldings and Kevin Hays, and veterans like Cedar Walton and Kenny Barron, noticing what worked and what didn’t, and learning on the job on gigs with veterans like Jimmy Cobb, and contemporaries Mark Turner, Ugonna Okegwo, and Leon Parker. Junior Mance, Mehldau’s first teacher at the New School, helped, too. “I told Junior, ‘I listened to you on these Dizzy Gillespie records, and your comping is perfect. How do you do that?’ He said, ‘Well, let’s do it.’ We sat down, and Junior would comp for me, and then I would comp for him and try to mimic him. Doing these things helped me become a more social musician, versus friends of mine who came to the city at the same time I did but stayed in their practice room the whole time.”

[2010]: Comping is just plain fun. Think about it: Someone is blowing his or her brains out in front of you, telling a story. What to do? Do you interject? Do you support? Okay, you support, but…do you support strongly like a church choir, or softly like a harp? Or a little of both? It’s like playing basketball—you’re where you need to be right when your guy needs you to be there. That takes maturity. Comping is also a quick way to find out how a pianist thinks about harmony. You may showcase some worked-out stuff in a solo, but comping will show your actual knowledge of things like voice leading, register considerations, etc.

This being said, the preponderance of Mehldau’s schedule until the end of April are solo concerts in support of Live in Marciac.

I felt like I had something to say solo with Elegiac Cycle, but my solo concept wasn’t as loose in the concert setting. The looseness—the relaxed thing I have playing trio—kicked in the next few years and I gradually got drawn to doing it more and more in concert. I put out the first live record, In Tokyo, because it represented for me a transition in my solo conception—the end point of something that had developed, and the beginning of something that was hatching. In the same way, Live in Marciac is the summation of certain things I’ve done, with some glimmers of a new conception, which is now in full throttle, I would say.

In the January solo concert I’ll intersperse music from the classical repertoire with my own music and talk a little, showing examples of how various composers have influenced how I write, improvise, and arrange other people’s tunes. I never take this approach; it’s intentionally didactic, and that’s not my thing. But I’m doing it in my role as the composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall, and I’ve given it some real thought. The position is certainly a great honor. A lot of ink is spilled about how the jazz and classical music worlds inform each other, and it’s been a tired trope for years—it kind of knocks the danger out of each one. The only way for both genres to inform what you’re doing in a meaningful way, whatever kind of musician you are, is to engage deeply in both disciplines.

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Filed under Brad Mehldau, DownBeat, Jazz.com, Piano, WKCR

For Billy Hart’s Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2007 and a Jazz Times Feature From 2012

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.

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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.

 

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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.”

 

 

 

 

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