Read the introduction and see the full album list here.
I bought it at my local record store in 2007, the year after it came out. I’d seen Hart play with Kurt Rosenwinkel in Boston that year with some more knowledgeable friends from my school’s jazz band (I was a freshman in high school, just getting into jazz). I’d been fascinated by Hart’s playing, and even more so (at that time) by his cymbals, stacked and inverted like nothing I’d ever seen before.
So I was browsing the bins in the record store, and one dark jewel case stood out – a Billy Hart album. The cover looked cool, with Mark Turner (who I’d also seen at the Kurt gig) statuesque in front of the band, and Hart in the foreground of the photograph, with that face and those cymbals. I actually begged three bucks from some guy farther down the jazz aisle to get enough money to buy it.
But Billy Hart’s Quartet – with Hart, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street and Turner – scared the shit out of me. I didn’t even listen to the whole thing until a few years later.
The sheer diversity of Quartet‘s music is what kept me coming back, however. For every moment I heard as just a sound and fury, signifying nothing, there was another that captivated me completely; and as I returned again and again to those moments, more revealed themselves to me. The bewildering passages unfolded into comprehension, and with each listen, more and more doors were opened.
The disc starts out like the soundtrack to a nightmare; a dark, crashing chord from Iverson starts the first tune, ”Mellow B,” and gives way to an ominous walk from Street’s bass, accompanied by a crisp swing from Hart, progressing to a skittering solo. Turner and Iverson are beautifully suited to each other (Iverson plays on Turner’s own Dharma Days) and the whole group seems almost telepathic.
That telepathy creates one of my favorite moments on Quartet. During Turner’s solo on the impossibly beautiful Hart ballad ”Lullaby For Imke” (never say a drummer isn’t a good writer), Iverson collaborates, seemingly accidentally, with the saxophonist on an incredible line from around 3:22 to 3:29, supplying the last note in Turner’s descending trill.
For those of you who’ve seen the master list for this blog, it’s obvious that my earliest jazz education came from the Golden Age of jazz, the 1950s and 1960s. Quartet, then, was a double revelation – it was my first experience with the sound of jazz contemporary to myself, a sound wholly different from that of the Blue Note and Prestige records I loved, and it was also an introduction to the evolution of style. After all, Hart had started out playing in the Golden Age. As I reverse-engineered his evolution, the way was paved for my love of the young and old styles of drummers like Paul Motian, Roy Haynes and Jack DeJohnette.
I doubt if I ever would have explored Kurt Rosenwinkel’s music if I hadn’t heard Ben Street and Mark Turner here; I never would have picked up a record by The Bad Plus if it wasn’t for Iverson’s endlessly creative piano on Quartet. It was probably the sixth or seventh time listening to the quartet’s version of ”Confirmation” before I finally saw a point to its seemingly endless repetition of the melody – but by forcing me to hear the same lines over and over again, it also forced me to hear the nuances of melody that a more abbreviated reading would overlook – and helped me understand where the masterful Iverson solo on the same tune was coming from, at least partially.
Quartet is a great record. Its cover photograph shows the band playing at the Jazz Standard in NYC; this is a studio album, but its greatness comes from the interaction of a band used to playing onstage. Just like Art Blakey’s Free For All or Miles Davis’s Milestones, part of the magic comes from hearing a band for whom connectedness has become second nature, not through the self-conscious rehearsal process, but through the vivid and living experience of the stage.
And you know what? It still scares the shit out me. May it be ever so.