When Ethan Iverson talks about Billy Hart, it’s easy to understand why so many younger jazz musicians avidly seek out the 75-year-old drum maestro. “He’s part of the anointed community who started playing straight-ahead jazz at the highest level when it was folk music,” says the Bad Plus pianist. “Some people think ‘folk’ means less advanced than classical, but I mean more advanced. As a master folk musician anointed by the community, you have something that can reach anyone.”
Hart has deep and abiding ties to the Bay Area, and he returns on June 4–5 as the subject and driving force of a weekend extravaganza at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which runs from June 3–12 at venues around the town. He’s performed at Healdsburg more than any other artist in the festival’s 18-year history, and the series' theme of 'Honoring Billy Hart' is designed to highlight some of his most important recordings and relationships. Saturday’s double bill features an all-star ensemble based on Hart’s classic 1977 album Enchance and the collective quartet Quest, which toured and recorded widely in the 1980s. (The group also performs Monday, June 6 at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center).
Sunday’s program reassembles players from another epic Hart recording, 1996’s Oceans of Time, a multi-generational cast that includes saxophone stars Chris Potter and Berkeley High alum Craig Handy; bass legend Cecil McBee; and San Francisco jazz drummer Lorca Hart, who joins his father on trap set duties. The evening’s other ensemble is the celebrated Billy Hart Quartet with Ethan Iverson, bassist Ben Street, and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. (The group also plays the Stanford Jazz Festival on July 31, SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab on Sept. 15-16, and the Monterey Jazz Festival on Sept. 17.)
When Iverson talks about Hart’s anointment, he’s referring to the drummer’s formative years accompanying seminal acts like soul greats Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, Hammond B-3 organ star Jimmy Smith, and guitar genius Wes Montgomery. Hart had all those gigs under his belt and more by the time he played on Pharoah Sanders’s classic 1969 album Karma, which consisted almost entirely of the spiritually charged free jazz hit “The Creator Has a Master Plan.”
In a series of phone conversations, Hart recently shared his thoughts on five particularly significant recordings from the hundreds of albums he's played on in his long career since.
1. Pharoah Sanders, 'Karma' (Impulse!, 1969)
“It was a popular record for Pharoah, and it started a concept we’re still dealing with. You listen to Kamasi Washington, and he’s definitely coming out of ‘Karma.’ It built on something that I was curious about from Coltrane’s last period, something that John referred to as multi-directional music. John had actually asked me to play with him, but he died before I got a chance, so I didn’t get to work on that concept until Pharoah called me. And I brought that concept to Herbie Hancock. It still part of my musical direction today, and you’ll hear that concept with all four bands at Healdsburg.”
2) Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi 'Crossings' (Warner Bros., 1972)
“Mwandishi was the first time I played in a band where everybody was the same age. Up until that time I was always playing with people older, which doesn’t happen in today’s world so much. Politically, we had similar interests, which made the direction compatible. All of those musicians were challenging in a great way, but Herbie was still the leader because he was such a brilliant musician. Everybody brought something to the table, and for me it was the influence from Pharoah.”
3) McCoy Tyner 'Sama Layuca' (Milestone, 1974)
“Of all the albums I made up until this time, this one was the most significant because I was in McCoy’s ensemble at the time. He brought in other players too, and I got a chance to meet one of my heroes, Bobby Hutcherson, and John Stubblefield, who later played in my first traveling band. In every situation you learn something, and that band was predicated on playing high energy. That’s McCoy’s style. I really had to build up to it.”
4) Billy Hart 'Enchance' (A&M/Horizon, 1977)
“Eddie Henderson and Buster Williams came out of my situation with Mwandishi and Herbie Hancock. Dewey Redman had come on the scene performing with Ornette and was in that unique Keith Jarrett Quartet that’s still a big influence today. Dave Holland was with Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers, and Don Pullen had come out of Mingus with George Adams, but for me he was more in the direction of Cecil Taylor. It was a really diverse group of very contemporary musicians. They hadn’t performed that much together. That made it really exciting for me, and really exciting for them too. I was still a member of the Stan Getz ensemble, and they all looked at me like, we knew you were a fan, but we didn’t know you were prepared to embark on a situation like this.”
5) Billy Hart Quartet 'One Is the Other' (ECM, 2014)
“Those guys are quite a bit younger than I am and they had a common style that was more youthful. I guess they thought they were going to try to come up with something more related to my style. But of course, I was more interested in theirs. I don’t know a group of younger musicians that knows more about the history than these three guys. Ethan Iverson just gave a seminar on James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. You can talk to Ben Street about James Jamerson of Motown, and also Walter Page and the Blue Devils, to say nothing of Oscar Pettiford or Jimmy Blanton. And Mark Turner is amazing to the point of magnificence. He’s got a certain lyricism, along with this contemporary facility. There’s all this depth to whatever we do.”