For some jazz bands — though they may work from written material or previously agreed-upon strategies — “composition” is really what takes place in performance. Whatever may have been on paper, the piece is really created in the live, spontaneous interaction of the band. That was certainly true of the Billy Hart Quartet at the Regattabar Wednesday night.
The quartet — the veteran Hart on drums, Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus on piano, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, and bassist Ben Street — released their debut album, All Our Reasons, on ECM last year. They announced at the Regattabar that they’re getting ready to go into the studio again for ECM this weekend.
Form — the “composition” — is ever-present with this band, but also elusive. That’s part of what makes them so tantalizing. Maybe the most straightforward tune of the night was the fourth, Turner’s “The Lenny Groove.” Iverson introduced it, with a series of gradually accelerating runs spelled by deep, dissonant left-hand chords. And then Turner entered with the theme – a fast, silky chromatic line, played in unison with Iverson. It was indeed the Lenny Tristano sound. Unlike the previous pieces, here was clear verse-chorus song form with legible chord changes. But what impressed as Turner soloed was the unrestrained freedom within the form. Street kept up a constant chatter of counterlines along with Turner. He was suggesting rhythm — and the chords — but he was easily as free, just rolling along. And it was the tension between the two that held the piece in suspense.
For most of the set, things were rarely spelled out so clearly. Iverson’s “Maraschino” began with a short brush intro by Hart, and then a rubato ballad tempo for the band that had no clear harmonic markers and yet it sustained edge-of-your-seat tension. Maybe it was Street’s spare, falling interval of a couple of hard-struck notes: THUNK-thunk . . . THUNK-thunk . . . THUNK-thunk . . . against Iverson’s wispy phrases. And then Turner’s solo, with his beautiful, supple tone, clear and airy, from the uppermost altissimo to the cellar – short groups of notes, all connected, not in obvious patterns of scales or arpegggios, just pure, spontaneous melody, bel canto, with Iverson running in economical lines behind him. At the end of the tune, Turner and Iverson climbed into the upper register together and then ended way up top, Iverson getting in the last pinging note.
Anyway, it was like that. As beautiful and uncompromising as jazz gets. Introducing the encore, Iverson mocked the band’s refusal to play standards, and so they did: “Some Enchanted Evening.” It really was.