Parks/Street/Hart: Find The Way (ECM 2489)

Find The Way

Find The Way

Aaron Parks piano
Ben Street double bass
Billy Hart drums
Recorded October 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 21, 2017

The first time that Melquíades’ tribe arrived, selling glass balls for headaches, everyone was surprised that they had been able to find that village lost in the drowsiness of the swamp, and the gypsies confessed that they had found their way by the song of the birds.
–Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

After making his lauded ECM debut with Arborescence, Aaron Parks returns with his first album for the label as bandleader. Featuring an enviable dyad of bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, Parks’s outfit is melodious enough on paper before PLAY is even pressed. I caught up with the pianist and composer via phone to ask about his experiences making Find The Way with producer Manfred Eicher:

“By the time Manfred and I began discussions, I had been working with this trio for a number of years already, and mentioned it to him as a band of special energy. Later on, as it turned out, we had a six-day tour in the UK. I had it in mind to capture the band in the studio right after the tour, and he was into the idea.”

Special energy comes across as an understatement when the different generations represented in each player align as if by genetic suggestion. Track 5, “The Storyteller,” is an emblematic summation in this regard, for like an oral storyteller Parks focuses on the integrity of plot arc without privileging any word over another. This dynamic is as conscious as it is inevitable, given the simpatico atmosphere in which the trio operates:

“At our best, we felt like one organism. You can hear that especially later in the album’s sequence. Being in that environment, hearing it back in the studio, makes you play differently, as does having Manfred there listening. I went into that session with the idea of radical surrender. With the trio in general, I’ve got my compositions, but Ben and Billy create a context for me to let go of them and explore together.”

Although “Adrift” was recorded second, upon hearing it Eicher immediately knew it would be the first track of the record. So it goes when a trusted pair of ears notices things of which sometimes not even creators themselves are aware…

“We were really sequencing it on the fly as we went along. There’s an interesting architecture, intended or not, in the sequence. The tunes at the end are solidified, while “Adrift” feels tumultuous to me, as if we might not make it out alive. We’re all coming from different angles at once, circling the beat by virtue of a common gravitational pull. And in general, there’s a feeling throughout the record of gradually achieving solid form.”

Parks Trio
(Photo credit: Bart Babinski)

As it stands, the set’s opener lands us softly into its seascape, folding wings made not of feathers but vinyl, beating hard against the sun in defiance of Icarus’s folly. Across the spectrum of “Song For Sashou” (a bossa nova for a dear friend), “Unravel” (a connective introspection), and “First Glance,” we encounter laid-back yet fully rendered images in which Parks gets every last molecule of pigment out of his sonic paintbrush. Gentle on the ears yet even gentler on the heart, his solos read like love letters, balancing prosody and poetry while avoiding the temptation to self-edit as he writes. He lets everything go, giving more than taking, his chords swept like a pond’s surface beneath willow branches.

The title of “Hold Music” is something of a misnomer. Sounding nothing like the vapid pedantry one usually encounters in a maze populated by customer representatives, it delineates an emotional pause for reflection that keeps us steady while the world rushes by on its own path to self-destruction. Hart’s depth-soundings here reveal the piece’s original conception as a “miniature drum concerto.” Park goes on:

“I used the same 15-chord sequence in an old tune called ‘Chronos,’ which appears on James Farm [Nonesuch, 2011]. Something about those chords takes me to outer space every time, so I decided to revisit them here. I think of the title in terms of creating a space to hold this music. Also, in this song you’re waiting for something that never really happens.”

Throughout Find The Way, transitions are never oversold. “Alice,” taking inspiration from the selfsame Coltrane, is a syncopated wonder, marking differences not only within its borders but also between them and surrounding territories. Over shifting tectonic plates, it works its way into a bluesy froth, spreading across shoreline like butter over toast until it melts: a memory to be savored. The equally evocative “Melquíades,” named for a character in Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork, reads fantasy into every note. The album finishes with the title track, the only not by Parks. Written instead by Ian Bernard and first sung by Rosemary Clooney on 1963’s Love, it closes the door in bliss.

“The tune has always stood out to me for its beauty and oddness: asymmetrical form, 7-bar A sections, playing with minor and major tonalities in unexpected ways. And the lyrics are so sad and strange. I’d known I wanted to cover it for a long time. And it felt so natural with this band. Billy’s performance on this one is just astonishing to me.”

But so should it all astonish, for the album’s banner of coexistence is something we can all uphold. In its shadow, we enter a natural order of things, where everything is a balance of safety and unpredictability. And because ECM has always thrived in such soil, there could be no better home for this music to have taken root.

Billy Hart Quartet: One Is The Other (ECM 2335)

One Is The Other

Mark Turner tenor saxophone
Ethan Iverson piano
Ben Street double bass
Billy Hart drums
Recorded April/May 2013 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Bob Mallory
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It is like jigsaw pieces on a mission that tenorist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson, and bassist Ben Street have fallen into place around master drummer Billy Hart, with whom they return for a second ECM round. One Is The Other is therefore a manifold title for the achievements of this unique quartet. Not only does it imply something shared among the musicians, but also emphasizes the ways in which their individual voices interlock. With freshness of voices and depth of spirits, they ply an ancient trade of intergenerational communication. Teaching and learning occur in both directions. This sense of equality pervades every exchange.

BHQ

Turner contributes two tunes, including the flowering opener, “Lennie Groove,” in which so much of what happens is indicative of what follows. A geometric intro from Iverson gives way to the rhythm section’s smooth entrance and the composer’s own tenor arcing into focus. Solos are tasteful, keenly attentive to Hart’s timing and, above all, sincere—not a shade of pretention within earshot. The gorgeous “Sonnet for Stevie,” which reappears on Turner’s leader date, Lathe of Heaven, is even more intimate here than it is there. Anchored by soft two-part harmonies from Street and Hart’s glittering cymbals, pianist and reedman stay a course that cares little for arbitrary destinations. Iverson counters with a deuce of his own, of which “Big Trees” ends the album in style. The textural brilliance of Hart’s intro betrays little of the slippery groove that unfurls in its wake. Especially noteworthy are Turner and Iverson’s solo, which despite being their most abstract of the set are also their most grounded. Hart also blushes us into “Maraschino,” an endearing track made all the more so for its vulnerability. One can hear every process at work. This is no small feat.

Hart offers up a triangle of originals. Beginning with “Teule’s Redemption,” a groovier affair with turn-on-a-dime interaction between him and Turner, pushing on through the cymbal-splashed energies of “Amethyst,” and ending in the urban vibe of “Yard,” these tunes comprise a mini album in and of themselves and highlight the consummate skills of everyone involved. Top it all off with the cherry of “Some Enchanted Evening” (from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific), and you’ve got yourself quite the confection to savor.

People often talk of artists being in their “prime.” Hart, however, proves that it’s as much a matter of revealing as knowing yourself. Indeed, here is a peacock with plumage fully fanned and ready to play.

(To hear samples of One Is The Other, click here.)

Billy Hart: All Our Reasons (ECM 2248)

All Our Reasons

Billy Hart
All Our Reasons

Mark Turner tenor saxophone
Ben Street double bass
Ethan Iverson piano
Billy Hart drums
Recorded June 2011 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Fernando Lodeiro
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s no coincidence that Billy Hart’s surname is homophonous with “heart,” because this album is filled with it. From the simpatico yet open-ended musicianship to the flowing compositions, his quartet knows exactly where it’s at…and where it isn’t. In the latter vein, the bandleader-drummer emotes as much on the inhale as on the exhale, selectively deploying bursts of illustration. Pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street make their first ECM appearances, while tenorist Mark Turner and Hart himself represent two very different intersections with the label: respectively, with the Fly Trio and the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

It’s Lloyd, in fact, whose influence is most apparent in “Ohnedaruth,” the first of three tracks penned by Iverson. Despite being based on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (Ohnedaruth was Coltrane’s adopted spiritual name, a Sanskrit word meaning “compassion”), the balance of viewpoints between Hart and Turner is, both here and across the album’s full spectrum, so strong that I could easily imagine a duo flight in the vein of Lloyd and Billy Higgins’s Which Way Is East. Hart is staggered (and staggering), deciphering Iverson’s chromatic twists like a locksmith jiggling his way into Street’s fixed grooves. Turner’s studied approach spreads virtuosities as the icing of a delicately layered cake. Iverson is as bold as a composer as he is understated as a pianist. Even when given the spotlight, as in his Paul Bley-inspired “Nostalgia For The Impossible,” he opts for an inward quality that allows Hart’s brushes to sing. Iverson’s alchemy is naked and slow, and all the more impactful for it. His solo interlude, “Old Wood,” cuts the corner pieces of the larger puzzle.

Turner offers up two tunes of his own. “Nigeria” takes inspiration from Sonny Rollins’s “Airegin.” Its wing-beat opening fades from theme to solo, Hart taking a downright spiritual path of expression. As a drummer, Hart can be at once free and meticulous, but as a musician he combines molecule after molecule into the audible compound of this track’s flowering architecture, all while Turner and Iverson open every window to let in a flood of sunlight. Street, meanwhile, responds to gradations of the passing day. “Wasteland” opens with an acrobatic introduction from its composer and floats along its own ripples through the other instruments toward the opposite shore.

Hart shares his gifts on four originals. On the whole, they reap distinction from the incantational properties of his playing. One by one, they till the soil with a uniquely shaped implement every time. His most artisan spade breaks ground in “Song For Balkis,” which inspires his musicians in turn. Turner’s tone is bracing and wrought in spirit magic, working busily to transmit the messages his fingers receive into mortal recognition. Iverson tears up patches of earth and replaces them with sound. His pianism, restless and responsive, breaks every mold that clutches it. Hart, for his part, carves directly into the bedrock something beautiful. A rustic feel pervades the funkier blues that is “Tolli’s Dance,” which from modest foundations builds a tower to the sun—only this one isn’t made of brick, rivet, and lime, but of slick rhythm and rhyme. Hart’s “Duchess” and “Imke’s March” are by turns ecstatic and revelatory. The latter’s bee-wing delicacy wears such personal clothing that one can envision its colors with eyes closed and ears open.

All Our Reasons has plenty of reasons to discover, appreciate, and enjoy. But most important among them is the realization that mastery exists only when egos get left at the door. This is music for the soul, because only the soul knows how to detach itself from harmful desires that would get in the way of the experience.

(To hear samples of All Our Reasons, click here.)

Bennie Maupin: The Jewel In The Lotus (ECM 1043)

The Jewel In The Lotus

Bennie Maupin
The Jewel In The Lotus

Bennie Maupin reeds, voice, glockenspiel
Herbie Hancock piano, electric piano
Buster Williams bass
Frederick Waits drums, marimba
Billy Hart drums
Bill Summers percussion, water-filled garbage can
Charles Sullivan trumpet
Recorded March 1974, Record Plant, New York
Engineer: Dennis Ferrante
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Remastered by Manfred Eicher with Jan Erik Kongshaug in Oslo in February 2007

After 33 long years, this ECM classic finally saw the light of day on CD in 2007. Thankfully, I came upon it since then, thereby saving me from the difficulties of tracking down its highly sought-after vinyl counterpart. On The Jewel In The Lotus, eclectic reedman Bennie Maupin is joined by his Mwandishi crewmates Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams, and Billy Hart, along with Headhunter percussionist Bill Summers and drummer Frederick Waits. Bassist Buster Williams further expands the Mwandishi nexus, while underrated trumpeter Charles Sullivan—who just two months later would step into the studio with Carlos Garnett to record the latter’s Black Love—rounds out the stellar cast. Maupin’s first album in leader’s shoes (his bass clarinet had already made an indelible mark on Miles’s Bitches Brew) is a space of many moods and consistent colors. The tentative bass of “Ensenada” flickers like a candle in a developing photograph. Subtle brass and hints of percussive breakouts adorn a rolling, poetic sound that is as vast as it is immediate. I cannot help but be reminded of the ensemble pieces of Gavin Bryars, such is the cinematic reach of Maupin’s extensive arrangements. Maupin turns to flute in “Mappo,” making way for Hancock’s floating reveries (both of which lift the stunning but ephemeral “Past + Present = Future”). Maupin’s haunting incantations open our ears into “Excursion.” Percussion tinkles like coins tossed into a prayer box. Instruments accustomed to leading instead become fragments in an impartial wash of sound, building to tightly controlled chaos. The title cut is bookended by Hancock’s spacey electric ornaments, complete with a “Fly Like an Eagle” moment or two (sans kitsch), and between which the grainy touch of snare and swaying bass provide a rhythmic hammock in which Maupin’s sax can lounge comfortably. “Winds Of Change” is another brief interlude, not surprisingly for winds only, and cleanses the palate for the final two tunes. The sparse bass solo and unimposing development of “Song For Tracie Dixon Summers” finds much common ground with ECM’s many Nordic projects, whereas “Past Is Past” stumbles into heavily romantic territory, with Hancock providing a fullness of sound that’s hard to resist. The album ends on a somber note, riding a wave back into the darkness from which it sprang.

Having never heard the original vinyl, I cannot speak for the remastering. All I know is that the reissue sounds terrific. While noticeably top-heavy, ever so slightly undercutting the bass in the process, the trebly focus works well enough in its present form. Rhythm comports itself erratically, as if hesitant to assert its presence out of mere expectation, and in so defying that expectation comes up with far more interesting things to say. The entire album moves in slow motion, as if a more concise musical statement unraveled, allowing musician and listener alike to bask in its finer nuances. Every moment is like an introduction and a finale in one, each speaking to the infinity implied therein.


Original cover