Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hart beat

If I ever were to change the title of this blog to reflect the content, the new name would undoubtedly be "Apropos of Nothing." As you've noticed, there's no guiding principle other than whatever my scatterbrained head is fixated on here and now. Timeliness is not an issue, nor is much else. Anyway, apropos of that, I wanted to mention some recent for-pleasure listening that's been occupying my brain.

I'm always going off on these jags--these little phases of obsessing over one artist or period or style or record. Right now, it's all about Billy Hart and Pete La Roca. After seeing Hart perform the other night with Don Byron, I realized I needed to hear more of this guy pronto. Synapses started firing and I remembered my former Time Out colleague K. Leander Williams writing a very enthusiastic review of Hart's latest record, simply titled Quartet, back in '06. Amazon link is here.

I knew I didn't have a copy of the disc, so I punched it up on iTunes and downloaded it a few nights ago. Let me just say that I'm very sorry I slept on this for so long: This is an absolutely astounding session. There's nothing weak on it: It's spectacular and highly unusual. A fully integrated lineup (depicted above) that has become a working band: Mark Turner on sax, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass. A real group feel. Hart, Iverson and Turner all contribute tunes. A few things strike me:

1) POWERFUL mood vibes on this one. It's suffused with this sumptuous, brooding quality--a lot of ballads or semiballads. Incredibly elegant and gorgeously recorded at that. Iverson's "Little B," Hart's "Charvez" and "Lullaby for Imke." This is billowy, patient, kingly music but with a mischievous edge. Smooth but with a dark, murky undercurrent. Funky grooves creep up ("Lorca," the end of "Charvez") and take on an almost menacing swagger.

2) Innovative arrangements. There are a few standards on here and each is somehow messed-with, yielding fascinating results. "Moment's Notice" gets a very odd treatment, wherein the proper head is saved for the very end. Iverson plays that jaunty little familiar intro at the beginning and then Turner cuts him off with this rude tenor squall and things get freaky and almost Ornette-ish. "Confirmation" is very odd too--I'm not exactly sure what they've done here, but the head is way elongated, stretching to an almost uncomfortable length, during which Street lays out. Tension builds and builds and builds.

3) Resolutely unboring solos and distinctive voices. This is my first extended exposure to Mark Turner. He's a questing player that reminds me a lot of classic, i.e. DARK, Wayne Shorter. There's a struggle and sublimated anguish to his playing that I love. Iverson is a wild card. Sometimes he's craggily warm and Monkish ("Mellow B"), sometimes floaty and haunting and almost gospelish ("Lorca"). This record is an excellent showcase for him, as it is for everyone who's on it. Re: Hart, I haven't even begun to crack what this guy is up to. Let me just say that on this record, his cymbals breathe as naturally as Tony Williams's did; there's a sacred looseness about what he does and also a refusal to show off, even when he's slipping into captivating free time slurs.

This is a record for people who cherish the reflective mood, highly individuated playing, thoughtful arrangements and general feeling of discovery--not to mention quality-control--that pervades the best inside-out mid-'60s Blue Note sessions. The one that comes immediately to mind as a point of comparison is Pete La Roca's Basra--apparently out-of-print--another fantastically moody sax-quartet record (recorded in '65) led by a drummer. The sonic world of Quartet reminded me instantly of this classic session. The darkness, the breathing openness, the questing sax work--it's Joe Henderson on Basra, and there's a definite comparison to what Turner does here: both performances feel like an extremely assured postbopper bravely probing avant-garde styles--and the general feeling of elegance combined with risk.

Search these out. They represent the best kind of small-group jazz--strong structure and ties w/ tradition, but completely surprising. Hart's Quartet in particular just floors me: It couldn't feel fresher. Apparently this band is still gigging and I can't wait to hear them live. Much info on the band can be found at Hart's site, including Iverson's lengthy interviews with Hart; haven't dug in to those, but can't wait to. I can't quite remember what I read about the genesis of this band, but I think the deal was that Iverson and Turner had a group and they specifically asked Hart to assume leadership. I need to get the details on this straight; can anyone help?

There's another interesting Hart session from '77 called Enchance that's well worth investigating. It's out of print so I don't feel too weird providing this link to a page where you might still be able to grab the MP3s. It's freer, wilder, grittier and far less integrated than Quartet, but then again, the personnel is incredibly heavy: Oliver Lake, Dewey Redman, Don Pullen and Dave Holland, among a few others. Insane, right? This one has an almost zany, Art Ensemble-esque ferocity about it at times. Haven't digested it completely, but I know it's something to check out.

Also, I should cite Pete La Roca's very compelling Turkish Women at the Bath (from '67), which I think is also out of print. Blog-savvy folks ought to have no trouble locating a download of this, Chick Corea, John Gilmore, Walter Booker. Very moody, questing sax-quartet music, in the general vein of Basra, though not quite as gorgeous. But I think the connection between this Hart group and the La Roca-led foursomes in general is a striking one. Check all of this stuff out if you like your small-group jazz dark and dignified and highly purposeful.

No comments: