My job is a lot of fun sometimes, and this is definitely one of them. These recordings are wonderful and were great to write about. http://on.wsj.com/U96U7L
Drummers don’t often lead jazz ensembles. But when they do, usually the sound is either bright, hard charging and rhythmically precise, as in the classic recordings of Art Blakey and Arthur Taylor, or big and propulsive, as in the work of contemporary musicians like Jeff “Tain” Watts and Cindy Blackman Santana.
Billy Hart and Jeff Ballard defy those stereotypes. Both drummers front bands that lean toward a more nuanced approach, and they create music that is more complex and texture-driven. The percussion leads the band, but in a gentler way. Both musicians released superb recordings earlier this year. Mr. Hart’s “One Is the Other” (ECM) features his quartet, with which he’s worked for nearly 10 years; on “Time’s Tales” (Okeh), Mr. Ballard is in a trio setting with guitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Miguel Zenon. Mr. Hart’s group is on the road from Tuesday through June 20, starting with six nights at The Village Vanguard in New York, while Mr. Ballard’s is making select stops from Tuesday through June 12, beginning in Washington at Blues Alley and including four nights at New York’s Jazz Standard.
Mr. Hart, who is 73, has played with some of the major figures in jazz, including saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist Wes Montgomery and organist Jimmy Smith. He also played with pianist Herbie Hancock from 1969 to 1973, which is widely regarded as one of the keyboard great’s most productive periods. Until the founding of this band, the drummer had rarely stepped into the foreground, but his work with his quartet, which features pianist Ethan Iverson, saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street, has won considerable acclaim. Their previous recording, “All Our Reasons” (ECM), made many “best of” lists for 2012.
It’s a sign of Mr. Hart’s reserved style that he isn’t heard until nearly one minute and 45 seconds have elapsed on “Lennie Groove,” the first track of the new recording. The piece was written by Mr. Turner as a tribute to pianist Lennie Tristano, and it begins with a long passage by Mr. Iverson before Mr. Hart is heard on cymbals. Tristano is sometimes seen as a fringe figure in jazz, but Mr. Hart regards his influence as universal. “Max Roach, one of my heroes, was influenced by Tristano,” Mr. Hart said by phone last week from Berlin, where the band was on tour. “Lennie’s influence is in all aspects of modern jazz.”
Another highlight of the recording is the quartet’s performance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Some Enchanted Evening,” which Mr. Hart, a fan of movies and musicals, brought to the recording session. He aimed to highlight Mr. Turner’s sound. “Mark has one of the most lyrical styles of any saxophonist today,” Mr. Hart said. “It’s almost like he’s singing; he can do any ballad beautifully.” The drummer said that this band has lasted longer than any other group he’s led and attributes its longevity to the atmosphere of mutual respect. The rapport among the musicians is evident on the new recording; elegant and often austere, the band moves with stunning grace from solo to ensemble segments. Mr. Hart’s gentle propulsion serves as the unifying element.
Mr. Ballard, who is 50, is best known for his work in intimate ensembles. He is in the Brad Mehldau Trio, one of jazz’s most popular groups, and he joins forces with Mr. Turner and bassist Larry Grenadier in Fly. The drummer said that the smallness of a trio setting appeals to him. “It’s kind of like a tripod,” he said via email. “Each player (each leg) is responsible for keeping their side of things together.” He added: “So if anyone of us changes up their ‘role’ in the group, then it really has a powerful effect on the music.”
The trio on “Time’s Tales” was formed eight years ago, but Mr. Ballard estimates that it has played together for only about a month of that time. Still, the rapport between the bandmates continued to make the group a priority. “It felt right from the start that we all were coming from similar places musically,” he said, “so it has always felt like we have been playing together as a group forever.”
While Mr. Hart’s recording is pensive and complex, the sound on Mr. Ballard’s album is engaging, highlighted by diverse small percussion instruments. Mr. Ballard has collected various instruments from his global travels, and he employs many of them on the recording. The repertoire is also varied, ranging from George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” to “Hanging Tree” by Mark Lanegan and Alain Johannes of Queens of the Stone Age.
Many of the remaining tracks have distinct African and Latin musical flavors, fitting for a band with a guitarist from Benin and a saxophonist from Puerto Rico that is led by a drummer from California.
Mr. Ballard cites Mr. Hart as one of his idols, along with such other great drummers as Paul Motian, Ed Blackwell and Milford Graves, which suggests that the line of exceptional drummers who created a different approach is getting longer.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.