Billy Hart: A Drummer for All Seasons

Workaholic sticksman returns as leader with his ECM debut

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Billy Hart
By John Rogers
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Billy Hart
By Tom Marcello
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Ben Street, Billy Hart, Ethan Iverson, Mark Turner, 2008
By John Rogers
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Saxophone Summit, 2008
By Andrew Lepley
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The Cookers (courtesy DL Media)
By DL Media - Don Lucoff

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It’s embarrassing, really, at my age,” Billy Hart said over the phone in February, prefacing a long enumeration of the working bands for which he plays the drums. In a few hours, one of them, Contact—Hart plus Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, Marc Copland and Drew Gress—would start night three of a week at Birdland, and he didn’t have time to spare. Still, as has happened more than once during our 20-year acquaintance, a perfunctory chat—we were pinning down an interview—was ballooning from five minutes to 90. “I tell people I thought my career was over at 30, that I was too old and behind the game,” said Hart, 71. “But that’s when it started. I joined Herbie Hancock, which opened a whole ’nother thing. I couldn’t be any busier. If I don’t stop it, it looks like it won’t stop.”

It was hard to dispute this assertion. For one thing, Hart was anticipating an early April Birdland residence with the quartet he has led since 2003—pianist Ethan Iverson, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street. The dates would celebrate Hart’s ECM leader debut, All Our Reasons, which the band recorded after a six-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in December.

But there was much to discuss about the here-and-now. The previous weekend, at Iridium, the drummer had propelled the Cookers—in which old friends Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, George Cables and Cecil McBee navigate David Weiss’ charts of their compositions—through sets that evoked the romanticism and balls-out energy that these elders had displayed as young lions. Four days hence, they’d fly to Europe for nine engagements supporting their 2011 album Cast the First Stone (Plus Loin). In March, Hart would briefly recommence his normal schedule: a Monday flight to Ohio to teach three days at Oberlin; a Thursday flight to Boston to fulfill obligations at New England Conservatory. “I get home late Friday night,” Hart said. “If people know I’m home over the weekend, I end up working at Smalls or something like that.”

Hart maintains this schedule despite diabetes and a “worsening” retinal injury that makes “driving at night almost impossible.” Furthermore, he added, “my daughter is 14 and I’ve hardly spent any time with her. I love this family but I’m never here. The worst thing is they don’t say anything; they just deal with it. I’d rather have some complaints.”

While abroad with the Cookers, and on a mid-March long weekend in Europe, Hart would perform with several other groups that retain his services at regular intervals. “My students don’t even want to hear me play with American musicians,” he said. “They think the interesting records are the ones where I feel less inhibited.”

After remarking that he’d recorded four times since December, Hart named several newish releases: The Same As It Never Was Before (Sunnyside) is an introspective open-loose performance by French trumpeter Stéphane Belmondo’s working quartet with pianist Kirk Lightsey; Cymbal Symbols: Live at Porgy and Bess (TCB) is Hart’s third equilateral trio date since 2002 with Austrian-based saxophonist Karlheinz Miklin; and Billy Rubin (Enja), his fourth session with the accomplished German tenor saxophonist Johannes Enders, is a swinging, harmonically daring affair. Enders connected Hart to an experimental German electro-acoustic collective called the Tied & Tickled Trio (La Place Demon, Morr).

It was observed that turning down such gigs—and Hart’s itinerary listed even more—is an option. “Well, no,” he responded. “They make you an offer you can’t refuse, but it’s not just that the money is cool. The people who call me, for the most part, have interesting music. How do you turn down interesting music? How do you remain yourself? And what are you going to do? Retire?”

He mentioned the Tied & Tickled Trio, which Hart headlines, spontaneously orchestrating from the drum kit. “We play big concerts, and they let me play whatever I feel like. Not only that, they respond to it the way it’s supposed to be. That’s encouraging, and it’s happening more and more.” And he effused over an unreleased recording by Saxophone Summit, on which he functions as a kind of cross between Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, generating multidirectional grooves for Liebman, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane. “Our last few tours we’ve played Coltrane’s ‘Meditations Suite’ only, and it’s a 90-minute set,” he said. “The new record is all of our compositions out of that perspective.”

As Lovano put it, “Billy’s vocabulary is vast, and he can execute all of his ideas, but the dynamics from which he does that are deep from his soul.” But what is striking is how seamlessly Hart’s notion of unfettered self-expression matches real-time collective imperatives. Whether sharing the bandstand with peer-groupers or post-boomers, he assesses their vocabulary and idiosyncrasies and creates a flow apropos to their particulars, sometimes leading, sometimes following, changing colors and feel behind each soloist. If quiet fire is required, Hart needs little coaxing; if requested, as Harper had done at Iridium, “to keep this shit up there,” he’s more than willing to oblige.

“It’s to get them to play what satisfies me,” Hart said with a chuckle, downplaying the idea that he is unusually accommodating.

Liebman, an associate since 1982, when Hart joined him, pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Ron McClure in the still-extant quartet Quest, begged to differ. “He dances around with his partners more than most guys from his generation,” he said. “He’s open and democratic, fair and equal to everyone. His ability to be chameleon-like, always high level, is based on his very insightful, thoughtful personality. It’s psychological and technical insight. If you want to get into detail about bar 22, he’ll go there with you; if not, he doesn’t.

“Uniquely in his generation, Billy is a storyteller. His playing has a dramatic quality. He knows where chapter one goes, and where it should go next. He knows how to make you connect to that, makes you feel like your choice was exactly the right one. That’s why you can have 18 guys in a row soloing and no solo will sound the same.”

Hart’s narrative instincts come forth most palpably on his seven leader recordings since Enchance (A&M), from 1977. Already one of the busiest sidemen in the business, he then held a steady gig with Stan Getz, with an impressive contemporaneous discography including Miles Davis’ On the Corner and unsung classics with Charles Sullivan, Eddie Jefferson, Joanne Brackeen, Tom Harrell and Sir Roland Hanna.

He was not so far away from his years of apprenticeship in cusp-of-the-’60s Washington, D.C., where native sons like Jimmy Cobb, Osie Johnson, Ben Dixon, Harry “Stump” Saunders and George “Dude” Brown set standards of excellence. Jazz was in his blood. His family lived five blocks from the Spotlite Club, where the underage drummer pressed his ear to the window to listen to the Coltrane-Adderley-Evans edition of the Miles Davis Sextet, and the Lee Morgan-Benny Golson edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. His father, a mathematician and “an intellectual cat who demanded respect and knew a lot about a lot,” was a staunch Ellington fan; his paternal grandmother had played piano for Marian Anderson and knew William Grant Still. His mother was devoted to Jimmie Lunceford; his maternal grandmother—who bought him his first “good drum set for a gig with a good bebop band”—was a friend of D.C. tenor hero Buck Hill, who turned Hart on to Charlie Parker, and hired him at 17 for nine months of weekend gigs at a spot called Abart’s, where fellow McKinley High School students Reuben Brown and Butch Warren joined him six nights a week as the house rhythm section.

He matriculated at Howard University as a mechanical engineering major, but left when Shirley Horn, who had hired Hart out of Abart’s, took him on the road. Hart credits her with teaching him to play bebop at a simmer, not a roar; he also learned Brazilian rhythms from the source on early ’60s sub jobs at Charlie Byrd’s Showboat Lounge with Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and Bola Sete. Through local connections, he had backstage access to the Howard Theatre, where he analyzed such master New Orleanians as Idris Muhammad (the Impressions), Clayton Filliard (James Brown), Ed Blackwell and Earl Palmer (Ray Charles). (For a few months in 1967, he even occupied the drum chair in the theater’s house band.)

Howard classmate Marion Brown introduced Hart to Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali. Hart increasingly self-identified as an experimental musician, drawing on their example in a trio with Joe Chambers on piano and Walter Booker on bass. Later, during mid- and late-’60s stopovers in Chicago with Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery and Eddie Harris (on one residence, he roomed with Anthony Braxton), he attended to the “textural, timbral approaches” of AACM drummers Thurman Barker, Steve McCall and Alvin Fielder. He applied those lessons during two years with Pharoah Sanders, a period when, via percussionist Mtume, he received the sobriquet “Jabali” (Swahili for “wisdom”). In the first half of the ’70s, Hart’s mature tonal personality—advanced grooves drawing on “some knowledge of African and Indian music, and all the American traditions”—emerged during three years with Hancock’s Mwandishi band and a subsequent two years with McCoy Tyner.

Hart drew on all these experiences in conceptualizing Enchance and, subsequently, Oshumare (1985), Rah (1987), Amethyst (1993) and Oceans of Time (1997). On each record, he assembled idiosyncratic virtuosos from different circles, each signifying a stream of cutting-edge jazz thought. Functioning more as a facilitator than a stylist, he meshed their distinctive personalities, generating fresh ideas through intense drum dialogue. Each date has a singular quality, as though Hart had conjured a unitary vision out of various strains of the zeitgeist.

In his basement-den practice space two days after our initial conversation, Hart described his thought process for Oshumare, for which he convened Branford Marsalis and Steve Coleman on saxophones, Kevin Eubanks and Bill Frisell on guitars, and Kenny Kirkland and Mark Gray on keyboards, along with violinist Didier Lockwood, bassist Dave Holland and percussionist Manolo Badrena. “I had a dream in Germany that two guitar players could improvise together and sound like one person playing the harp,” Hart said. “Marc Johnson recommended Frisell. When I asked what he played like, Marc said, ‘I can’t tell you.’ I said, ‘Then he’s in; that’s what I’m looking for.’ Eubanks had all the James Brown stuff, so it seemed interesting to put them together. No one could follow in Herbie’s footsteps more than Kenny Kirkland. Badrena is South American, so that’s anywhere from Dizzy Gillespie to Tony Williams. For me, Dave Holland was almost the perfect bass player—someone who played with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton but also Herbie, and who knew the workings of the electric bass, which is to play these ostinato patterns [not walking lines through chords] that originated in Afro-Caribbean music, which was transformed into pop music. I was trying to do what I did on Enchance—find a way to play like Ornette and Cecil and Coltrane and Miles—with a more contemporary viewpoint.”

Hart follows a similar conceptual m.o. on Sixty-Eight (SteepleChase), a 2011 homage to Roy Haynes, Tony Williams and Ed Blackwell. There, Hart’s first-class ensemble of young individualists—Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Jason Palmer, trumpet; Mike Pinto, vibraphone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Chris Tordini, bass—interprets inside-outside repertoire from ’60s dates by Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Mal Waldron and Jaki Byard: records on which Williams, Haynes and Blackwell—all key roots of Hart’s influence tree—performed. “It turns out that if I try to explain what I do academically, it always goes back to Tony,” said Hart, who cites Elvin Jones as another primary inspiration. “Tony is the architect and designer of contemporary drumming as I know it today. Someone asked him, ‘When did you first discover you had your own style?’ He said, ‘I never thought I had my own style. I was trying to sound like Art Blakey, Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones—if they were me.’ That meant a lot to me.

“Tony was a prodigious bebop scholar, but he also emerged at the time of ‘straight eighths,’ which started with Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Caribbean music and then was called rock and roll. That meant Tony could legitimately relate Cuban music to rock and roll, whereas the beboppers were always a little condescending about it. Then, right after he moved to New York, the Brazilian thing hit, and the beboppers condescended to that because they couldn’t hear the samba. Tony could relate to all three.”

Around 1964, just before Hart started his three-year run playing “advanced pop rhythms” with Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane heard the Chambers-Booker-Hart trio play a Saturday matinee. A year or so later, after Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner had moved on from his employ, Coltrane asked Hart to play in his new band alongside Rashied Ali. “John had been in Jimmy’s first band, which is one reason why I interested him,” Hart explained. “I turned him down. For one thing, I didn’t think I could do the music justice. I think he could have coaxed me into it, but he was taking his music somewhere very unpopular, and he needed somebody to be sure that’s what they wanted to do. If I’d had two or three days of the experience I got playing with Pharoah, I’d probably have been in that band. Maybe I would have done OK.”

Hart pointed to a shelf of orange-and-black-spined Coltrane LPs on Impulse! “As we speak, he’s still the reason for me,” he said. “Even on his very last record, Expression, he has this incredible lyricism that almost nobody else has. He had that ability to sing, to be like a vocalist on the instrument. Stan Getz had that—Coltrane complimented Stan. Miles played like a singer, too. Coltrane’s way is my way. I would follow him anywhere. As loud as I’ve learned to play, I would like to be a drummer that’s a singer.”

Coltrane and drumsong come through abundantly on All Our Reasons, particularly in Hart’s inspired interplay with Mark Turner on the opening tracks, his own “Song for Balkis” and Iverson’s “Giant Steps”-ish “Ohnedaruth.” “You’re only going to push Mark so much—you’ve got to build a solo with him,” Hart said. “That takes me back to Shirley and Stan. He reminds me of something Elvin told me about Philly Joe: ‘Man, I didn’t want to play like him, but I savored him like a fine wine.’”

Indeed, throughout the program, it’s evident that each member—all were born when Hart was already well established—ideally suits the aesthetic space the leader has reached over the last decade. (So does ECM founder and producer Manfred Eicher, a fan of Hart’s dynamics and cymbal sound from the ’70s [Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel in the Lotus] on through his three end-of-the-’90s ECM dates with Charles Lloyd. The Eicher touch suffuses the proceedings—the rendering of Hart’s pointillistic brushwork on Iverson’s “Nostalgia for the Impossible,” the crisp snare-toms-cymbal combinations and surging ride cymbal on Turner’s Sonny Rollins homage “Nigeria,” the signifying second-line bass drum on Hart’s “Imke’s March.”)

“They’re brilliant contemporary conceptualists,” Hart said of his younger partners. “Even though we’re playing a lot of my older tunes, I’m not playing any freer with anybody than I play with them. Mark profoundly understands Coltrane, but also has total command of Lennie Tristano’s vocabulary. With Ethan, it’s like playing with Thelonious Monk or Andrew Hill one minute and Herbie Hancock the next. Ben has a command of all the Afro-Caribbean and Indian flavors that are the biggest influence on so-called jazz today.”

With the quartet at Dizzy’s in December, Hart set up his accompaniment or solos by grabbing a sound from one or another component of the drum kit and then developing it through ever-expanding permutations and combinations. Drummer Billy Drummond referenced this quality when he called Hart a “shape-shifter.” So did Matt Wilson in describing Hart as “a Picasso of rhythm, who abstracts something we already know so that it sounds different coming at you.”

“With [this quartet], I can’t smash like I’ve done on so many bands,” Hart said. “I’ve had to go back to lyricism, the things I learned with Stan and Shirley. It’s almost irritating how I’m forced to play this way, but then I remember that playing with all this space—a lot of cymbals, that higher-pitched sound, tuning the drums high—is the way I really play. It’s [trying to take] the music out of techniques, so that suddenly you’re not hearing C-minor, but it’s raining. Or the sun is shining. Or grass is growing.”


Iverson and hart first connected on a 1999 rehearsal for a date led by trombonist Christophe Schweizer. “It was very advanced academic music,” Hart recalled. “Christophe told me he hired Ethan because he was the only guy in New York who could read it. Just that description made me very interested in him.”

The feeling of urgency was mutual. “When Billy started playing, I immediately felt I wanted to be next to this and I’d do whatever it takes,” Iverson remembered. Two weeks later, he asked Hart to join him and bassist Reid Anderson for two trio concerts. The proceedings became The Minor Passions (Fresh Sound). The relationship deepened on a brief Italian tour. “You can learn a helluva lot about swing just by watching Billy talk to a stranger,” Iverson said. “I can think whatever I think about music and play what I play, but this man is what jazz is.”

Even as the Bad Plus coalesced and blasted off, Iverson and Hart worked occasionally, and in 2003 Ben Street and Mark Turner joined them for a week at the Village Vanguard. Soon thereafter, Hart asked his young partners to join him at a New Jersey concert. “We added his tunes for the gig,” Iverson recalled. “Then he was on the microphone talking, and we agreed right then that this should be Billy’s if he wanted it.”

All Our Reasons displays the group’s evolution since their 2005 debut, Quartet (HighNote). “It sounds a little constricted now, because we hadn’t figured out all the ways we should try to play together,” Iverson said of the earlier document. “In some ways we’re still figuring each other out. Billy can be very intense, and you need to step up to the plate.

“Billy plays this constant selection of incredible patterns with the maximum vibe,” Iverson continued. “It’s this very secure, indomitable collection of stuff that makes everyone else play a certain way and raises the music to the highest level. I don’t hear enough of that in younger cats. He has this undulation, an older sense of space. We’ve all had to adjust to make this work when it’s so swinging, but the t’s aren’t crossed and the i’s aren’t dotted like we learned off records and playing with our peers. At Dizzy’s, it began to inhabit a different rhythmic sphere, like we were letting go of something.”

In Hart’s view, he’s growing along with his bandmates. “I’ve never thought about these cats being so much younger than me,” he said. “They say each generation transforms art into its own image. My take is that it’s not the art that changes, it’s the image. I like the art. In other words, I don’t think whoever was playing drums in 5000 B.C. felt what they were doing any less than I do. They might have felt it more. I want that.”

Originally published in May 2012

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