Nostalgia for the Impossible: All Our Reasons by the Billy Hart Quartet

By Daniel Garrett

The Billy Hart Quartet, All Our Reasons
with Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson, and Ben Street
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Engineered by James Farber and Fernando Lodeiro
ECM Records, 2012

The music, contemplative, intense, rhythmic music, of the Billy Hart Quartet has range; and sometimes conjures the sense of a mysterious journey and the arrival at an intriguing destination.  On the quartet’s All Our Reasons, in the “Song for Balkis” smoking and sustained drumming opens the piece, followed by soft piano playing, sonorous saxophone, and a shower of cymbal strokes that give way to a tangle of emotion and rhythm, and an evolving saxophone melody.  Inspired by John Coltrane, the slow weighted notes of the piano in “Ohnedaruth” grow quicker and shorter, and the mellow saxophone gains in energy and speed, before beginning a rhythm that pokes then sings.  More like the score for a relationship than a social dance, and reportedly taking the blues as a model, “Toli’s Dance” has a dramatic, near-tumultuous opening with intense percussion, both of drums and cymbals as well as piano; and the saxophone plays full, long, rich, round notes.  (I understand that what I hear as cymbals could be another form of comparable percussion.)  The shifts in rhythm are like shifts in heart or mind.

“When I was coming up, there was more of an emphasis on finding your own sound,” said musician Billy Hart in conversation with his colleague and friend Ethan Iverson (the interview, from January 2006, was still online at the site devoted to Hart’s work six years later).  The drummer Billy Hart confesses that he had to learn to swing; a reminder that talent is not always full-born, that it sprouts and grows.  Hart articulates the idea that the development of individuals and societies can be heard in music; and he recalls a time when some men played percussion with whatever was at hand, such as knives and forks, and the fact that multiculturalism—such as appreciation for African and Cuban music—is not new.  So much of culture is about remembering what was known but has been forgotten.  Drummer Billy Hart, born in Washington, the nation’s capitol, in the first half of the twentieth-century, came under the spell of African-American composed, improvised, and syncopated music, jazz, when he was in his teens; and since he became a professional musician Hart has worked with Shirley Horn, Wes Montgomery, Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry, and Joe Lovano.  Hart has said that every great drummer has been influenced by the great experimental jazz percussionist Max Roach, who had been accepted for the Baltimore Symphony and then showed up, a black man, and was sent away; but that he, Hart, while citing the great value of an original player like Kenny Clarke, a drummer and pianist, as well as Roach, thought of singer-pianist Shirley Horn as “my most important teacher.”

Billy Hart, a musician and a teacher, the kind of talented and developing journeyman without which jazz could not exist, periodically works with saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson, double-bassist Ben Street as part of a quartet, beginning almost a decade ago.  The quartet’s saxophonist Mark Turner also works with a trio called Fly, and pianist Ethan Iverson with The Bad Plus, and bassist Ben Street with Danilo Perez, Sam Rivers, and James Moody; and with Billy Hart they get to play with someone whose history is deep in jazz.  Together, the four have created the recording All Our Reasons, a recording that has musical and temperamental range.  The attention to detail in the quartet’s work, with clarity and changes in sound, constructs a distinct drama.

The recording of nine mostly improvised musical pieces by the quartet’s members was done in New York, where the group sometimes performs at the Village Vanguard.  Freedom of expression has been a goal.  Musicians take an element—an emotion, an idea, a rhythm, a tone—and explore it in time with their colleagues.  On All Our Reasons, both the saxophone and the piano make very strong sounds in “Nostalgia for the Impossible,” establishing values that are emotional and musical (I would not describe their interplay as harmony, though it is not dissonance); and then the piece becomes spare, like pure atmosphere.  “Duchess” begins with a groove from the saxophone, percussion, and piano; and, without sounding like something you would hear on top forty radio, without sounding like current dance music or soft jazz, it does sound very contemporary.  The bass, which is often restrained, is very up front in the introduction to “Nigeria,” which has a quick, running saxophone rhythm, percussion pounding, and an interlude of near silence, a doubled percussion beat, lightly marching, another interlude, and an increase in intensity, with the instruments playing different rhythms.  (“Nigeria” was inspired by a composition by saxophonist Sonny Rollins, “Airegin,” which is the African country’s name spelled backwards—the piece conveyed the impression Rollins received from Nigerian dancers.)

Musicians take an element—an emotion, an idea, a rhythm, a tone—and explore it in time with their colleagues.  “Wasteland” has an especially thoughtful sound, being more composed than improvised; and the short phrases, and changes in rhythm, are distinguishing, part of what makes jazz a music of moment and motion, of mediated meaning.  “Old Wood” has a lot of quiet, solitary piano notes.  “Imke’s March” begins and ends with whistling, and features the percussion of drum and cymbal, with a swinging saxophone shadowed by the piano.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and his writing has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.