Billy Hart’s ongoing education

Masterful
By JON GARELICK  |  March 21, 2012

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Billy Hart still remembers his first drum "lesson." He was on the road with Hammond B3 genius Jimmy Smith— the first real, long-term gig for this self-taught drummer from Washington DC. Smith was famous by this point, the "Incredible Jimmy Smith." The band was playing to a packed house in Cleveland. At the end of the night, as Hart stepped off the bandstand heading for the dressing room, a man at the bar gave him a look. An autograph seeker? But as Hart approached, it looked like the man had tears in his eyes. Was he crazy? Hart greeted him, "Hey man, how you doin'?" The stranger looked at Hart and said, "Man, what the fuck are you doing with this gig?"

Hart bursts into laughter telling me the story during a break in his teaching schedule at New England Conservatory. "He caught me by surprise," Hart says, "but luckily I came up with the right answer. I said, 'Well man, I'm just trying to learn how to play.' " The man looked back at Hart and said, "All right, then meet me here tomorrow afternoon at 3 o'clock and I'll show you."

Hart no longer even remembers the man's name, or what specific lesson he gave him. He just remembers it was one of the "rudiments" of jazz drumming— a pattern to practice. Hart — now, at 70, one of the undisputed jazz masters — has never stopped searching for more "rudiments." He watched other drummers, talked to them, learned a little bit from everybody, and worked worked worked. His lessons extend from the living masters he's encountered to his studies of music from all over the world, to his friendship with Marvin Dahlgren, the author of the definitive 4-Way Coordination: A Method Book for the Development of Complete Independence on the Drum Set. And of course, the late Boston drum sage who Hart calls "the Aristotle" of jazz-drum education: "Alan Dawson's way of teaching is the way."

Hart's career spans from his days with Smith, Shirley Horn, the Montgomery Brothers, Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi sextet of the late '60s and early '70s, McCoy Tyner, Stan Getz, and, by his own estimation, about 600 recordings as sideman or leader.

Unfortunately, his role as leader is limited to only a handful of discs, but one of them, All Our Reasons (ECM), is one of the highlights of the young year. He brings the band from that album — saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson (of the Bad Plus), and bassist Ben Street — to the Regattabar on April 11.

Hart can play anything, from straightahead to free, with an uncommon musicality. His sensitivity to timbre and dynamics includes a melodic sense of the drum kit, and his ear, agility, and compositional approach allow him to define form as well as anticipate changes in the music.

All Our Reasons is both fiery and meditative. Iverson plays with pointed economy, and Turner's supple tone, with its beautiful upper register, is a centerpiece. Last year's Hart release Sixty-Eight (named for his age when he recorded it) is equally fine, but with sharper bebop outlines. All Our Reasons, though featuring strong compositions, indulges an appealing free-associative tendency to drift. At the core is a Coltrane-ish sound (even the usually reserved Turner gives in to explosive Trane-ish arpeggios).

"Coltrane is my reason for everything," says Hart. "If it's 'all our reasons,' then Coltrane is mine. " And that's why he wanted to join the band of former Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner. "Coltrane proved that it could be done by hard work."

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