Drummer Billy Hart’s current quartet lineup has been together since 2003, working steadily for most of that time; All Our Reasons, however, is only their second album (and first for ECM). It follows their 2005 debut, Quartet, a rhythmically forthright effort that succeeded on a blend of bebop and free aesthetics substantially informed by the work of Keith Jarrett’s American quartet. But while its members-Hart, pianist Ethan Iverson, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street-have kept busy recording with other projects, this band has spent six years developing in studio silence.
That gap is an important consideration when examining All Our Reasons. The sophomore recording is so different from its predecessor that it’s hard to believe they’re by the same ensemble. Both echo the abstraction of Jarrett’s American quartet, which both Iverson and Turner have often cited as an inspiration. But where Quartet found earthiness in that abstraction, Reasons homes in on its ethereal aspects, rendering nine sublime, ruminative tracks that are as stark and atmospheric as the cover photograph, an arty shot of the Empire State Building that is quintessentially ECM.
In addition, its main thrust is not rhythm but melody. Iverson and Turner, who share composing duties with Hart (with three and two pieces, respectively), have considerable tune-crafting skills, with Turner’s spacious ballad “Wasteland” and midtempo jaunt “Duchess” being especially memorable. More important, both have a tender touch on their instrument, lifting the tunes from merely melodic to sumptuously so. For example, “Nostalgia for the Impossible”-Iverson’s tribute to Paul Bley-is all strange angles and gravitas, with free rhythm and harmonic concavities baffling the situation even more. Yet Turner approaches the tune with airiness, playing his tenor in the alto register such that his lines seem to float like a feather over Iverson’s craggy-but-sweet piano. They also find charms in the already playful closer, Hart’s “Imke’s March,” doubling on the theme with soft edges to each of their tones before Iverson tweaks warmth out of his own dissonant, somewhat disjointed lines.
Hart is a defining presence on each of the nine tracks, though he isn’t necessarily a timekeeper: There isn’t a one-beat to be found on “Nostalgia” or the opening “Song for Balkis,” and Iverson and Street (who generally operates at a near-subliminal level, even by bassists’ standards) hold the pulse on “Wasteland.” On these-and even on pieces like “Duchess,” where the swing is undeniable-Hart acts as a colorist. He taps at the ride cymbal on “Duchess” as though it were a crash, creating an effect not unlike little waves on a shore, and then accentuating that effect with the actual crash cymbal. On “Balkis,” he fanfares the album with sonorous mallets on the toms, and slaps at the snare with brushes on “Ohnedaruth.”
Yet he is also as profound a melodist as either Iverson or Turner. His composition “Tolli’s Dance” is built on two equally savory sections. The first, a flamenco vamp led by Iverson, is punctuated by a stately two-bar drum pattern that Hart plays identically each time-a melodic vamp in its own right-followed by a second, livelier construction that introduces the tune’s sinuous second section. “Nigeria,” meanwhile, dispenses of its head lightning-quick, so as to give Hart a three-minute solo in which he teases the cymbals, rattles the snare and rims and prods the toms, formulating and developing songlike ideas with an almost orchestral texture.
All Our Reasons is a splendid recording, superior to Quartet-if it’s fair to apply that comparison to such different beasts. The quartet’s evolution is breathtaking, if sadly under-documented; let there be no such intervals between this album and the next one.