This new album by the Billy Hart Quartet, recorded Spring 2013, is a remarkable improvement on its predecessor, All Our Reasons (2011). That earlier date remains a pure pleasure, but this new set of compositions by Hart, Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson is one of exhilarating, freewheeling, almost insouciant grace and power.
The album begins with a brief piano solo , the ending of which hints, briefly, at a louche cocktail jazz vibe, but what we actually get is the nimbly pulsing, tightly corkscrew-licked “Lennie Groove”, a Turner composition dedicated to Lennie Tristano that blends the latter’s ‘cool’ jazz with Afro-Cuban and urban M-Base jazz influences. Turner solos loquaciously throughout, spiralling in and out of the serial hooky lick which threads the piece together; always shadowed, in impeccably tasteful variations, by Ethan Iverson’s piano.
The more I hear of Iverson away from the Bad Plus, the more I appreciate how wonderfully astute he is. Witness the gorgeous ballad “Maraschino”, one of his own compositions, which has all the qualities of a standard: one could imagine Strayhorn presenting this to Ellington, and no eyebrows raised in response. While his companions play it fairly straight, Billy Hart’s percussion is all coloratura, percussively bustling brushwork patterning an implicit rhythm that a less tasteful drummer (i.e. any other drummer) would sound out on skins. Iverson also makes Turner’s “Sonnet for Stevie” his own, giving the tune’s implicit swing a Monkish bebop feel, before Turner reclaims ownership, the sinewy precision of the tenorist’s patiently uncoiled lines streamlining and tightening the group’s focus. (“Sonnet for Stevie” gets a more expansive treatment on the Mark Turner Quartet album Lathe of Heaven.)
On “Teule’s Redemption”, another Hart composition, Turner’s well-knit lines hark to lessons learned during tenures in groups led by Wayne Shorter and Charles Lloyd. Turner solos over the tune’s driving groove with muscular plasticity, the apparent effortlessness and bold simplicity of his conception compares favourably to both precedents.
Hart is busier on his own composition “Amethyst”, one of the most open pieces here, playing wonderfully in support of Iverson’s limpid melodicism, their duet a multifaceted jewel of light and shade. Even more subtle and just as entrancing: Hart’s lightness of touch in support of bassist Ben Street’s nimble bolstering of Iverson’s solo on the drummer’s “Yard”: everything in tune with everything else. Hart’s subsequent solo is impeccably conceptually incisive, and it seems doubtless that the collective decision to play to Hart’s rhythm sense was perfectly astute.
Manfred Eicher’s production is perfect for this music, and rightly emphasises its limpidity: there’s no disguising the quartet’s tensile strength. They imbue the set’s sole standard, Rogers and Hamerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” with grace. Turner, in particular, interprets this South Pacific showtune with mellifluous, agile lyricism; Iverson with his customarily elegant lucidity.
The album closes with Iverson’s “Big Trees”, a reminder of the quartet’s, and specifically Billy Hart’s reserves of kinetic energy; energies accumulated over a ripe decade of activity, yielding the unit’s most deceptively relaxed and spontaneously invigorating recording to date.
This is the one of three back-to-back reviews of new ECM recordings featuring tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, the others being Lathe of Heaven, the debut recording of Turner’s new Quartet, and Stafano Bollani’s Joy in Spite of Everything, on which Turner plays in a quintet alongside guitarist Bill Frisell.
Mark Turner tenor saxophone; Ethan Iverson piano; Ben Street double bass; Billy Hart drums.
Billy Hart – All Our Reasons.
Andrew Cyrille Quartet – The Declaration of Musical Independence.
Barry Altschul’s 3dom Factor – Tales of the Unforeseen.
Paul Motian – ECM Old and New Masters (6CD ‘white box’ reissue).
Buy One is the Other direct from ECM.