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Billy Hart Quartet at the Village Vanguard

Dan Bilawsky By

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Billy Hart Quartet
Village Vanguard
New York, NY
June 3, 2014

What does it take for an esteemed veteran drummer to get his due as a leader? In the case of the great Billy Hart, it seems that a pair of albums under his name on the ECM imprint—All Our Reasons (ECM, 2012) and One Is The Other (ECM, 2014)—helped to do the trick.

Hart, who's been around the block more than a few times, cooked behind organist Jimmy Smith early in his career, added settled and unsettled rhythms to pianist Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi era music, worked with trumpeter Miles Davis, held the drum chair in saxophonist Stan Getz's band, and supported a long list of other luminaries over the course of the past fifty years. As a leader, he's raised eyebrows with compelling and challenging albums, like Enchance (A&M, 1977) and Oshumare (Gramavision, 1985), but he's done so infrequently. In the past, Hart spent the bulk of his time supporting others, but it would seem, with the critical acclaim surrounding his well-established quartet and the two albums they've released on Manfred Eicher's clout-carrying label, that his time has finally come. Such was the feeling surrounding the opening night of this stint at one of New York's most high profile jazz clubs.

The first set of the Billy Hart Quartet's stand at the Village Vanguard was rooted in the idea of restless energy. The music was gloriously grounded and wholly unsettled, pointing to the delightful dichotomy that makes this group so special. The show opened on pianist Ethan Iverson's "South Hampton," where bassist Ben Street's work was surrounded by Hart's scampering musings. The arrival of Iverson and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner brought out a heavy Hart, with the drummer delivering caustic snare drum exclamations and slicing left foot rejoinders. Turner's bluesy solo turn, which proved to be the highlight here, found the quartet in grooving streamlined mode. The follow-up—Hart's probing "Amethyst," which opened with stick-on-stick suggestions, rim play, splashy exuberance, and drum head antics—was the most rootless number in the set. Iverson's searching lines and Turner's lithe-and-lively tenor work proved to be the draws, as both were completely captivating.

Turner's portrait of pianist-educator Lennie Tristano—"Lennie Groove"—opened on Iverson's piano but took shape around Street's slick bass groove. Turner's protean saxophone was a delight to behold; serpentine lines, graceful arcs, and powerful suggestions all leaped forth from his horn. Hart and Street had a ball playing off of one another on this one. Hart's "Irah" came next, proving to be one of the more conventional offerings on the program. Gentle brushwork turned to spang-a-lang cymbal play, Turner delivered a brilliant masterclass on the art of behind-the-beat soloing, and Hart's heartbeat bass drum worked against Iverson's piano as the song neared its end.

Hart introduced the lone songbook standard—"Some Enchanted Evening"—by twisting a line from the song, stating that "you may meet a strange band." He was right. The quartet gave this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic a unique impressionistic interpretation that was simply spellbinding. The set came to an end with Iverson's "Neon," which opened with the drummer's two-sticks-in-one-hand smackdowns. His opening and closing spots on this one both referenced drummer Max Roach's eternal "The Drum Also Waltzes," the rest of the crew entered and exited the piece in resolute fashion, and everybody took the music to a mellower place in the middle.

While opening nights of long engagements tend to find groups finding their footing, that didn't seem to be much of an issue here. Maybe the band sounded ten times better by the end of this run, but nearly every piece during their first set at the Village Vanguard won out in mutable-yet-firm fashion. This performance made it easy to see why this group is finally getting its due.

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