Billy Hart had made a name for himself quite a long time ago drumming in bands or recording dates led by Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi, Shirley Horn, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Sten Getz, and all at times when each of these artists were still making vital music. His reputation as a first-call sideman has been such that even his critically lauded his first solo project Enhance didn’t shake off that label. His infrequency in leading his own dates also made it convenient to forget his abilities as a bandleader and composer.
That started to change in the mid-2000s with a HighNote issue, Quartet but when he debuted with ECM in 2012 leading a new quartet with All Our Reasons, the seventy-plus year old legendary rhythmist he earnestly began to build a legend as bandleader. With that foundation laid with Mark Tuner (tenor sax), Ben Street (double-bass) and the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson (piano), Hart enlists the three again to help him build upon that foundation.
One Is The Other (out March 4, ECM Records) isn’t trying to recreate the free form playing he did on Enhance or on any number of avanteer dates he’s played for, but it’s clear he’s opening up the band. In fact, the first tune cued up is Turner’s harmonic puzzle “Lennie Groove,” a fair representation of the kind of dense complexities that took bop to the outside and pioneered by Lennie Tristano. Iverson commences a chase for notes — all charted — and Turner enjoins him. Holding it together is Hart, whose mastery of serpentine rhythms makes this child’s play as he sprinkles cymbal and snare fills in his signature style.
Also impressive is the leader’s work on Iverson’s “Maraschino”; Hart is Motian-like in his stealthy rhythms even though as a contemporary of Paul Motian, he’s not overtly influenced by him. Meanwhile, Iverson’s economy of notes to let the air into the song is sublime. “Amethyst,” an original Hart first recorded for his 1993 album of the same name, finds him following closely to what Turner and Iverson is doing, a role reversal to the conventional script of the front line guys grounding themselves to the rhythm section. Turner plays in a very relaxed manner, allowing the notes to come to him, and Iverson follows with some fragile asides. Another Hart composition, “Yard” sounds like an Eddie Harris tune wanting to get out, accentuated by Turner’s funky sax diction, and once again Hart implies one rhythm while playing another one.
Turner’s “Sonnet For Stevie” might lead you to think it’s going to be funky too, since the “Stevie” Turner has in mind is Stevie Wonder. Instead, it’s somewhat abstract, but Turner anchors it with some soulful lines. Both he and Iverson tease out the outer limits of the melody only to return to core and maintaining its lyricism the whole time. For “Big Trees,” another Iverson contribution, Hart solos in the usual meaning of drum solo but even as the rest of the band plays out the composition, with several shorter solo spots in between, he continues to play his drums in the same manner; he is always mindful of the harmony and progression of the song even when he’s left alone to improvise.
The only cover undertaken illustrates Hart’s love for show tunes. Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” is lithe and flutters like a butterfly with the treatment Hart and his quartet gives to this tone poem butterfly, providing Turner a wonderful platform for his thoughtful, emotive remarks.
Hart’s late career renaissance is astonishing in that he really had nothing left to prove. But he went ahead and proceeded to prove even more by assembling a band that meshes together so well, it’s difficult to think that he could have achieved more with any of the even bigger marquee names presumably at his disposal. If none of his other solo records proves that Enhance was no fluke, One Is The Other most certainly does.
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