It is a trademark of certain jazz festivals in wine country to provide attendees with a calm, comforting experience. In Napa, Brian Culbertson's annual smooth-jazz-and-wine "Jazz Getaway" routinely sells out. In Sonoma County, Rodney Strong Vineyards hosts a summertime series with the easy sounds of Boney James, Dave Koz, David Sanborn and others. The late Sonoma Jazz Festival infamously leaned toward accessible pop acts like Sheryl Crow and Boz Scaggs.
And then there's the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which has never shied away from edgier bookings. On Saturday night, that was more than apparent. As Joshua Redman, Oliver Lake, Eddie Henderson, Craig Taborn and Billy Hart recreated Hart's 1977 free-jazz album Enchance, you'd have thought you were watching a loft-jazz session at Environ in 1970s New York City and not a sit-down concert at a private school in current-day Sonoma County.
Chalk it up to Healdsburg Jazz's artistic director Jessica Felix, who called the concert "my personal favorite of my career." Or, let Billy Hart, the subject of the weekend's tribute, do it for you: "Our jazz angel," he called Felix, as the full crowd sustained a standing ovation at the end.
The evening was a double-header, in fact. Hart's first band, Quest, brought a searing, spiritual jazz to the theater; pianist Richie Beirach, who'd flown in from Germany for the show, often shouted across the stage, prodding bassist Ron McClure and drummer Hart to new heights. Saxophonist David Liebman sent spiraling lines across the room, and during Beirach's "Elm," managed to make a twig-like, wooden flute sound wild and human.
But this was Hart's night, and he made the most of it. What other drummer in the world, opening the ballad "Tender Mercies," would contrast the band's languorous pace with quick, jittery hi-hats? Or, as the notes dissipated at the end, unleash a blast of rapid-fire bass drum hits? This wasn't juxtaposition for the sake of opposites; it was simply Hart's uncommon, unexpected tastefulness, and it worked. (Hart also led the crowd in what's one of the few call-and-response drum solos I've ever seen.)