A gem from the ECM label, and one of the best jazz LPs of 2012 so far.
Peter Marsh 2012-05-01
The band on this recording has been together since 2003, and were initially known as the Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner Quartet, before becoming the Billy Hart Quartet a couple of years later. Though this is the kind of thing that gives compilers of internet discographies and the like sleepless nights, it's a reflection of Hart's standing as one of the most thoughtful and accomplished drummers still working.
Though he first came to prominence with Herbie Hancock's electric Mwandishi group in the early 1970s and appeared on Miles Davis' seminal On the Corner, Hart was never a funkster or a fusioneer, but a proper jazz drummer with an elastic, supple swing and an ear for texture.
This is the quartet's first recording for ECM, though Hart's been a regular on the label over the years, mainly as a member of Charles Lloyd's group. The music here explores similar territory to that band, and in places even recalls the airy freedoms of another date featuring Hart, Bennie Maupin's classic The Jewel in the Lotus.
This is especially true of the opener Song for Balkis (Balkis was The Queen of Sheba – who knew?), which unfurls gradually in a restless series of harmonic and rhythmic contractions and expansions. It's gorgeous, sensuous and one of the finest things to come from the ECM stable for some time.
Turner's tenor playing is controlled, pin sharp; one of his key influences is the often-neglected Warne Marsh, and it shows. He mixes a cerebral, weightless approach with gutsy bursts and flurries, but he knows what not to play, even when the tempos rise.
While pianist Iverson is a little more garrulous, his playing with this group seems several notches above the kind of thing he’s known for elsewhere, usually with The Bad Plus. He's clearly one of those players with great sackfuls of technique, but like Turner he applies it with taste and precision. His short solo Old Wood is one of the sweetest things on the disc, and his connection with Hart borders on the telepathic at times.
Likewise, bassist Ben Street provides a muscular but unobtrusive undertow throughout, shadowing Hart's elastic time with dexterity. Even when they're not playing straight time (which is most of the time), they're swinging. ECM may have its detractors but they've given us an unexpected gem here. It's one of the jazz records of the year so far.