The Billy Hart quartet plays NPR and WBGO's Live at the Village Vanguard concert broadcast series this Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. ET. And in writing a preview for the show, I was reminded that the live broadcast/webcast (and eventual online archiving) falls on John Coltrane's birthday anniversary.
Jos L. Knaepen
The Billy Hart quartet, pictured here at the Jazz Standard in New York, begins a week-long residency at the Village Vanguard tonight.
The Billy Hart quartet, pictured here at the Jazz Standard in New York, begins a week-long residency at the Village Vanguard tonight. Jos L. Knaepen
Appropriately, I also rediscovered a phenomenal interview with Hart, where he touches briefly on the subject of Coltrane. It was conducted by pianist Ethan Iverson, who plays in Hart's band, and comes in three parts, including an 11-minute untranscribed audio narrative. (All three parts live on the Billy Hart quartet Web site.) You should read all of it. It is truly one of the classic documents of the Jazz Internet.
Here's an excerpt of the Coltrane part — specifically, talking about Elvin Jones, the drummer in Trane's band for several years:
So when Coltrane formed his own band, I was waiting for it. I wasn't surprised, I was waiting for it. The thing that surprised me was Elvin. To see it! Jones ... to see it! I went every night. It was at the Bohemian Rhapsody. At the end of the last night, I was there looking at Jones taking his drums down. I couldn't move — like I was stuck in cement. I was just watching him. So finally he called me up to the drums, and he gave me his bass drum pedal, which had broken — the mallet part was broken. How do hit the bass drum so hard that you break the mallet without breaking the drum head? That's quite a physics problem. That's when he said, "Don't ask me to show you anything, because if I could show you, we would all be Max Roach."
How lucky we are that we still have people around who remember that sort of thing.
The Billy Hart quartet has an album. It's called Quartet, and it addresses The Coltrane Problem by playing his "Moment's Notice" (see Blue Train, 1957).
By "The Coltrane Problem," I mean something that I think many jazz musicians struggle with, once they almost inevitably become obsessed with Coltrane's oeuvre. How do you learn from him, but not sound like him?
The man wrote such distinct compositions, and copyrighted so many phrases in the lexicon, that it's hard to intersect with that universe without emerging draped in its trappings. I certainly do not envy Mark Turner, who plays Coltrane's instrument on a seminal Coltrane tune.
Luckily, the four musical personalities here are nothing like their '50s and '60s counterparts. In playing "Moment's Notice" they may not reinvent the wheel, but they replace so many spokes in it that you wouldn't think it could possibly spin smoothly. The wheel, however, remains true.
Allow me to point you to the opening 45 seconds or so, which are just about the hippest thing ever. Check it:
Those of you who know the original will recognize that opening piano riff from the turnaround to the song form. It is abruptly interrupted by a glorious blast of absurdity. Mark Turner's overblown, bottom-register entry — which can really only be described as bllaaatttt — is exactly what you didn't know you needed. In the original that might be a stop-time two-bar break for some virtuosic fluttering about. Here's it's just one big, fat, wretched onomatopoeia. (In the best possible way.)
All this happens in the course of about seven seconds.
The whole next chorus is the story of disorder gradually reorganizing itself, like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption in geologic time. Dig how Ben Street assaults you with powerful, low-end thumping until he relents to suggest a few of the "correct" chord changes. And how Hart takes his galloping snare, slows it to a stop, and rattles off an ADD fit about the whole kit until he realizes he better get a hold of himself. This goes on for about half a minute.
If you're paying close attention, there's a brief moment as early as :17 when you know the train has at least located the tracks again. (Not that the band doesn't know exactly what it's doing at all times.) But the whole mess still wobbles on that rail for a goodly while. Even when Iverson comes back with that turnaround piano riff, it's a mutated, dissonant sort of Frankenriff, played through the two-bar break.
It does align with Turner's emergence from the low-note wilderness, though. And by the time Iverson cuts out with an abrupt lift, Hart and Street have already been beating out a wicked fast swing groove for several bars. So at :45, Mark Turner needs only to switch on trademark Mark Turner for a few choruses. Thankfully, trademark Mark Turner sounds little like trademark John Coltrane.
We exhale. And voila: The Coltrane Problem is no longer.
The Billy Hart quartet does not espouse this particular brand of organized confusion throughout the entire record. But the spirit of surprise, however more subtle, certainly is common. I don't know if the band has special Coltrane plans in the works for our broadcast — or even if they'll be playing this song — though I would imagine they'll be cognizant of the date coincidence. I can't envision anything too elaborate, but you never know. The Coltrane Problem has many solutions.