A rare organism, glimpsed twice over the weekend. Two working bands, each a sax-piano-bass-drums quartet led by an underrated veteran, i.e., drummer Billy Hart (at the Vanguard on Friday - check out the ) and pianist Connie Crothers (at the Stone on Saturday). Strangely, these two were born less than a year apart, Hart on 11/29/40 and Crothers on 5/2/41. Is the parallel significant?
I think so, mainly because there was a refreshing beauty and openness at work in both sets. You could tell that these were full-spectrum bandleaders with a firm grounding in bop basics but with a yearning for something more. No self-conscious avant-gardism reared its head in either set. In both cases, this was accessible music, basically suited for a "jazz club." But the special strangeness was there if you were looking.
I said "organism" above because both groups moved and functioned that way. This outfit led by Hart (pictured above) has been around at least since 2005. The lineup at the Vanguard on Friday was the same as the one on Hart's amazing 2006 album Quartet (which I've praised before on DFSBP): Mark Turner on sax, Ethan Iverson on piano and Ben Street on bass. And the set I caught was an extension of that release, reprising several of its pieces and generally continuing along that line of inquiry.
The band's original pieces, mostly by Hart and Iverson, are stunners. Iverson's album opener, "Mellow B," also opened the set, and it was just right for introducing this band's special kind of moody mystery. It's sort of a ballad, but a murky almost mischievous one, with a sly, creeping-around-on-tiptoes melody and this extremely peculiar B section in which Iverson and Turner scamper in unison through a sort of scatterbrained aside. This latter segment gives the whole piece a kind of Monkish wit. On Friday, the band seemed to really be emphasizing the cavernous spaces between the different sections of the head - there were these huge expanses where Hart was filling in the blanks with his strange diffuse timekeeping. A very tense effect.
The rest of the set was all over the place, in a good way. There were vintage chestnuts (I'm pretty sure a piece from Birth of the Cool was played), an absolutely gorgeous Hart ballad from Quartet ("Charvez," a piece that should stand as the shining example of how jazz can sound exceedingly smooth and yet not the least bit cheesy) and a hard-grooving funk tune.
The band played with utter authority, and the arrangements were just effortless. Players laid out here and there, solos oozed into one another; everyone got a lot of space to say what they needed to say. And sometimes, the band would lock into these intensely complex unison patterns, just "presto," out of nowhere. The contrast with the heavily aspirated looseness at work during much of the set was startling.
That looseness was largely Hart's doing. I felt like I was hearing the closest thing to vintage Tony Williams that I may ever hear live. He's a fearless drummer, but at the same time wispy. Like Paul Motian, he can seem like he's not even there one minute and then come crashing through the music the next. He rides on cymbal and snare when he feels like it, but other times he plays only cymbals, summoning this great washy cloud of sound. The other players all executed beautifully - Iverson brought an ultrasubtle reflectiveness, Turner a sturdy, introspective boldness - but it was definitely Hart's night. He even took some fun and cryptic mike breaks, sometimes almost seeming to poke fun at his sidemen (introducing Iverson he made a strange reference to Vogue and Better Homes and Gardens), but mostly expressing awe at their abilities.
One gets the sense that Hart is as happy as he's ever been behind the kit. He has a working band with a strong book of tunes and three hungry sidemen who know the entirety of jazz as well he does. Every veteran should be so lucky.
Connie Crothers (pictured above), whom I previewed in Time Out New York a little while back and who curated the second half of September at The Stone, is fortunate enough to be in a similar situation. As far as I can tell, the band she led on Saturday - with Richard Tabnik, Ken Filiano on bass and Roger Mancuso on drums - has been around for at least a decade. (Filiano is one of everal different bassists have worked with the quartet.)
A week ago, I wrote about Bill McHenry and Ben Monder and their aesthetic of floating music. This Crothers set wasn't quite the same thing but the vibe was very similar - a remarkable feeling of pillowy drift, with the music oozing in and out of time and the instruments swirling together softly.
The band performed a few of Crothers's tunes, a few of Tabnik's tunes and an older piece by a singer whose name I didn't catch (I think Crothers announced it as "Laughing to Keep from Crying" but don't quote me on that). It might seem cheesy or reductive but one of the things that really impressed me about this band was the fact that no one was reading music, and furthermore that everyone seemed to have internalized the pieces entirely. Now this is usually the case with a band that's been together for a while, but too many jazz gigs seem like extensions of rehearsal, with the sidemen sort of tentatively following along. There was none of that here: The three supporting players had the music down just as well as Crothers, and these were some seriously complicated pieces.
It's well known that Crothers was a longtime associate of Lennie Tristano, and if I hear any of his influence on her, it's in the impossibly complex yet beautifully sinuous lines she writes. Tabnik's compositions had the same feel. The lines just kept building and building, and the players executed them with an uncanny kind of drifting ease.
Each musician in the band was extraordinary, just world class. And it struck me how odd it was that at least two (if not all) of these musicians are largely unknown. I guess I'd have to start with Tabnik, who simply has one of the oddest and most compelling approaches to the saxophone that I've ever heard in my life. To describe his tone as liquid would be a severe understatement. The notes flow out of his horn with a weird languor that kept making me think of honey or some other gel-like substance, midway between liquid and solid. The notes burble along in a way that at times suggested the squawkier, more pinched registers of a clarinet or a soprano sax. But to be honest, Tabnik's sax sounds more like a cat's meow or the cry of a small bird or monkey than any other horn player I can think of. Just extraordinary, and he fit into the mix so effortlessly. (Anyone have a clue where Tabnik has been hiding out? I've never heard of him except w/ this band.)
Mancuso, too, played with an otherworldly lightness. As with Hart, I thought of Paul Motian, but Mancuso's playing was even more daring and diffuse than Motian's. Stewarding the beat with the slightest hint of timekeeping, suggesting cushions of air, billowing this way and that.
Crothers was remarkable as well. Tempestuous - swooping up and down the keyboard - but with a light, caressing touch. Like the rest of the band, she seemed to be spinning clouds. The music as a whole was much more dreamy and abstract than the Hart band. While Hart & Co. mixed quite a bit of sass and badass heat into their jazz, the set by Crothers & Co. seemed like one big long reverie, touching on a familiar style but mainly just floating away into some swirled kind of bliss. The knotty tunes brought it back to earth just enough.
These bands both exhibited an openness I want to hear more often. Again, I keep coming to the idea of jazz that's weird but unself-consciously so. We're talking about the highest ideal, i.e., experimental music that doesn't try too hard to be experimental, that doesn't foreground it's difficultness. It's really just a matter of letting jazz breathe, respecting its basic principles, retaining some and jettisoning others, but never pointlessly assailing them. I recall many interviews with Steve Lacy (in the amazing Conversations book) where he's yearning to know what comes after the anarchy of free jazz. How do you organize things just enough, so that you don't choke or stifle the musicians. Folks like Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, Grachan Moncur III, Andrew Hill and others were hard at work at this in the '60s, and you can hear their legacy in the groups I saw this weekend. May Hart and Crothers continue to walk this wondrous line for many years to come.
[Update: I forgot to mention that you can hear the entirety of the Hart Quartet's set from last Wednesday night - and check out a great interview w/ Hart - over at NPR Music. Thanks to the anonymous commenter for the reminder.]