My friend and neighbor Doug had a spare ticket to Billy Hart's concert at Stanford Jazz last night. It was a show that had caught my eye. Hart, 75, has played drums with many of the greats, and can be heard on some 500 albums, according to the program. He has a pretty ferocious, hard-driving sound, heavy on the cymbals. His band features pianist Ethan Iverson, of Bad Plus renown, saxophonist Mark Turner, and bassist Ben Street. I'm not a big fan of Bad Plus, the music being too precious for my taste, but Iverson is undoubtedly a fine player and a clever composer. I was interested to hear what would happen when he got together with a hard-bop master drummer who has some free jazz tendencies.
The music? Cerebral, brilliantly played, a bit chilly, and... boring. The compositions—several by Iverson—featured complex thematic introductions, modal harmonies, and stop-and-start rhythms. There was not much you could hum along to, Doug and I agreed afterward. That's OK with me. But even (especially?) the avant-garde benefits from some heart and soul to go with the brains, and soul was in short supply here.
Turner, standing straight and still, improvises on tenor with extended modal runs; you could almost see the circuits rapid-firing in his brain as he turned the lines inside out and upside down and made up crazy but logical chord transitions on the fly. His style reminds me of another great tenor man of the same generation, Chris Potter, whom I also heard at Stanford, and I had a somewhat similar, chilly, reaction. Iverson's playing, also impressive, was likewise technical and inward-focused. Ben Street's bass was the highlight for me, though he never got to take a solo. Rock solid, melodically interesting, he unified the group and warmed things up a bit.
As for the bandleader... Hart is undoubtedly inspired by playing with these younger dudes, but that didn't prevent a certain incongruity between his thrashing pulse and the more composed, angular, and precise rhythmic attack of the others. He gave the impression of a musical force hemmed in, flailing about, trying to break loose of the musical mind games his younger colleagues were playing. Break loose to do what exactly? Explode? Emote? Swing?