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Billy Hart & the WDR Big Band: The Broader Picture

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Billy Hart is beyond a “first-call” drummer. He is all but inescapable. It is not surprising for him to turn up almost anywhere. Except in Germany, leading a big band.

Actually, the conductor here is Christophe Schweizer. Hart occupies the drum chair, his explosive rhythmic forces shaping and motivating every track. Schweizer, from Switzerland, studied with Hart in 1992 at the Mannes College of Music in New York. For this album, 24 years later, he created new big-band arrangements for eight Hart originals. The tunes were originally recorded between 1977 and 1996 on Hart’s small-group albums Enchance, Rah and Oceans of Time.

Hart’s writing is like his drumming: theatrical and suspenseful. You never know when turbulence will be unleashed. Schweizer’s charts fully exploit a large ensemble’s capacity for density and impact, and Hart’s tunes thrive in such an environment. The orchestra sounds huge and looming, but it can move quickly under Hart’s lashes. On “Layla-Joy,” Schweizer makes you think of Gil Evans. His color palette is darker, but like Evans he can blend an ensemble into a single majestic voice. “Song for Balkis” is a rubato flowing, a muted seething, in support of a sprawling, wildly lyrical tenor saxophone solo by Paul Heller. “Téulé’s Redemption” is a harmonically adventurous piece that gathers like a storm over the ominous rumblings of bassist John Goldsby and Hart.

The WDR Big Band, based in Köln, is one of the many capable regional radio orchestras of Europe. It nails Schweizer’s challenging charts and is full of badass soloists like Heller, trumpeter Rob Bruynen, alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer, trombonist Andy Hunter and pianist Frank Chastenier. That a project as improbable and international and powerful as this one got made gives one hope for the survival of big-band jazz.

Originally Published