Q: What do drummer Billy Hart and the Obama administration have in common? A: They both have a propensity for leading from behind. In the latter case, it’s often a cause for maddening frustration amongst the electorate, but in the former it frequently results in a recipe for audience adoration.
Hart has been something of a perpetual sideman and old reliable for much of his career, notching memorable session work in the 1970s, first in his native Chocolate City under the mentorship of saxophonist Buck Hill, and then across the globe with a legion of luminaries over the ensuing years too numerous to catalog here. That prolific tenure under the tack of others informs his prodigious style to this day. Only in the last decade or so has he taken to recording (somewhat) regularly with his surname at the helm. All of those instances are uniformly worth hearing, and his latest is right on par.
The quartet on All Our Reasons is the same as that on Hart’s 2006 date for HighNote, but there are some notable differences between the two albums. Most noticeable is the production accorded by the ECM aesthetic. Clean and crisp dynamics enhance the majesty of the disc’s nine pieces, starting with the Hart scripted “Song For Balkis,” an episodic opener that wends through a series of spacious ensemble permutations. Hart drives the action from his kit with subtlety and grace, freely handing off the lead to saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Ethan Iverson at various junctures. Iverson takes the first few minutes of “Ohnedaruth” — a dedicatory piece with a title borrowed from the Sanskrit for “compassion” and a progression transfigured from Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” — to himself, dropping out as the other three enter with a shared forward momentum. Turner capitalizes on the comparatively spare rhythm backing with a serpentine statement worthy of the heavyweight dedicatee.
Double bassist Ben Street is the only member not represented by the songbook, but what he lacks in compositional input and solo space he more than compensates for in terms of ensemble color and energy, particularly on the visceral thematic swirl that encompasses Turner’s “Nigeria.” There, and elsewhere, Hart’s fluidity has a flooring effect — his gravity-defying fills on “Tolli’s Dance” communicate a near perfect poise along with an aqueous amicability, and on Iverson’s “Nostalgia For the Impossible,” it’s an extended exercise in peripatetic brushes as the four sculpt in lush ballad structures. Hart’s lovely “Duchess” almost pours the melodic sugar on to a fault; thankfully, there’s some leavening tension built in the rhythmic suspensions that segment its duration. Texture-saturated mallets join brushes in marking the passage of time on Turner’s introspective “Wasteland,” while the closing “Imke’s March” brings a Colonel Bogey vibe to the closing, with the ensemble’s whistling giving way to a final seminar in less-is-more percussive ingenuity and alacrity. Thoroughly satisfying in sum, Hart and crew still succeed in leaving the listener desirous of more.