Billy Hart Quartet
An intergenerational jazz partnership yields mutual bliss
Mon Mar 26 2012
Photograph: John Rogers
Interviewing Ethan Iverson and Billy Hart in a jazz club is like trying to catch simultaneous Pitt and Jolie gazes on the red carpet. The competition, a steady stream of kibitzers and well-wishers, is fierce, but the struggle illustrates what the two musicians have in common. Iverson, a white, 39-year-old pianist raised in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Hart, a black, D.C.-born drummer who turned 71 last November—bandmates in the quartet that performs and records under Hart’s name, as on a beautiful new ECM LP, All Our Reasons—both relish the age-old jazz tradition known as the Hang. Whether or not you’re performing, you show up and engage in chitchat that’s light and often profane (“That’s the real shit,” Hart whispered to Iverson as he watched Marion Felder play vintage N’awlins-style drums at Birdland this past February, prior to Hart’s own gig with the quintet Contact), but dead serious in its way. Between sets, Hart and Felder traded obeisances as Iverson geeked out over classical virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin with fellow pianist Ehud Asherie.
If you’re familiar with Iverson, best known as one third of the Bad Plus, you know that his collaboration with Hart is something like fate. The pianist, who moonlights as arguably the sharpest jazz blogger on the Web, has made a habit of engaging his heroes both on the bandstand and in interviews. (His 2006 Q&A with Hart, archived at dothemath.typepad.com, is priceless.) Iverson met Hart in the late ’90s, when both worked with trombonist Christophe Schweizer, and recruited the drummer for a 1999 trio record and a 2003 Village Vanguard run co-led by saxophonist Mark Turner and featuring bassist Ben Street. Hart tapped the same players for a Montclair, New Jersey, gig, and Iverson & Co. unanimously voted to transfer leadership to the drummer.
What emerged was a great record (2006’s Quartet) and an honest-to-God working band, a steady-personnel vehicle of the sort that once prevailed in jazz but is now the exception. Long-term groupings are one of Iverson’s gospel tenets, something he feels jazz needs to reembrace in order to remain creatively and commercially vital, and the Bad Plus’s admirable career arc bolsters his argument. Hart has freelanced in countless situations, but he too values consistency: The drummer has spent decades playing in tight-knit groups, from Herbie Hancock’s early-’70s Mwandishi outfit to the ongoing quartet Quest. “Mwandishi was sort of the last in a certain tradition of jazz ensembles,” says Iverson. “Guys knew they were in bands with these heavy leaders, and everyone possessed the music to the utmost.”
That’s certainly true of Hart’s quartet, an alliance that benefits everyone involved. In Hart’s case, the project showcases a musician who’s headed various groups since the late ’70s but remains better known for his elastic, texturally masterful drumming; it also aligns him with younger luminaries whose profiles eclipse his own within some circles. In the pianist’s case, the partnership represents a valuable co-sign from an esteemed elder. (Insiders know Iverson’s jazz credentials are unimpeachable, but to some, he still scans as the punky upstart who made his name covering Blondie and Black Sabbath in the Bad Plus.) “To see how Ethan’s mind works is unbelievable,” says Hart, asserting the same of Turner and Street. “I don’t know if I want them to start their own school or run for office—I believe in their outlook so strongly.”
The mutual respect is evident on All Our Reasons, which features originals by Hart, Turner and Iverson, along with ingeniously rewired standards. The quartet jells handsomely on extroverted pieces like the dramatic, slyly funky “Tolli’s Dance,” but the real stunners are sparser, more exploratory tracks such as “Wasteland,” a Turner composition that hinges on Hart’s gorgeously subtle mallet and brush work. Performances like these could have grown only out of a deeply supportive collaboration. You know Hart’s found one when you hear Iverson praising the drummer’s quiet idiosyncrasies, like his tendency to trade brushes for sticks on the last eight bars of familiar ballads. Seizing the pianist’s shoulder, Hart breaks out in a huge, grateful grin: “You noticed!”
Follow Hank Shteamer on Twitter: @DarkForcesSwing