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04 Jun

Billy Hart: A 40-Year Retrospective

The opening weekend of the 18th Healdsburg Jazz Festival features four distinct bands led by the same person. His name is Billy Hart and he is a drummer. Billy is probably a familiar name to local jazz fans, because he has been a driving force in more Healdsburg Festivals than any other musician – 11 festivals and over a dozen bands in the drum seat. If you saw James Newton (he’ll be emceeing the Billy shows), Julian Lage, Charlie Haden, the Cookers, Michele Rosewoman and Kenny Burrell at previous fests, chances are your fond memories have a lot to with the drummer.

Billy’s tireless presence has been a great thing for the festival, of course, and Billy has had the time of his life doing it, or else he wouldn’t have kept coming back. But the drawback has been that the full meaning of Billy has remained a bit in the shadows. This year, Healdsburg rectifies that slight. The festival is turning turns the tables, putting Billy in the spotlight. That involves letting audiences know a big extent of what he’s accomplished in more than 50 years of making music. Billy has led some of the most powerful jazz bands of the past four decades. And now they are here.

Saturday presents the bands Billy led in the 1970s and ’80s, opening with Quest, a co-op founded in 1981. Featuring Dave Liebman (like Billy, a Miles Davis veteran) on saxophones and flute, Quest is a band of contrasts – fire and ice, forest and river. Liebman, a Coltrane acolyte, blends remarkably well with impressionistic pianist Richie Beirach, who cut his teeth with Stan Getz, Chet Baker and Lee Konitz. Bassist Ron McClure – perhaps best known for his stint in Charles Lloyd’s incredibly popular late-’60s band — is a simmering player who along with Billy’s subtle polyrhythms powers a band of co-equals.

Enchance, which released a landmark album of the same name in 1977, consists of a who’s who of great players from the ’70s and ’60s. Master bassist Dave Holland brought in the legacy of Miles Davis, whirlwind pianist Don Pullen came off a long tenure with Charles Mingus, astringent saxophonist Dewey Redman had been the tenor foil for alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

And what history did Billy Hart bring to the party? Well by then he had already played in the bands of Shirley Horn, Otis Redding, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock – and on and on. Enchance captured the ferment and excitement of a neglected period in jazz, when the breakthroughs of the 1960s (engineered by many of the people on the record) were leading to new creative possibilities.

On Saturday the Enchance lineup will be Hart, the legendary Dave Holland, subtle piano practitioner Craig Taborn (replacing Pullen, RIP), tenor sax star Joshua Redman (replacing his father Dewey, RIP), blazing alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and trumpeter-of-a-thousand-colors Eddie Henderson.

Sunday starts out with The Billy Hart Quartet, the drummer’s current working band, which draws on a lineup representing the best of the current New York jazz sound – rhythmically adventurous, deeply thoughtful, emotionally probing, quietly fiery. The players are the unpredictable pianist Ethan Iverson (of the Bad Plus), first-call bassist Ben Street, cerebrally swinging tenor man Mark Turner, and Hart.

Wrapping up the Billy extravaganza is Oceans of Time, which made a record of the same name in 1996, capturing a bit of the energy of early fusion bands like Weather Report, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and, of course, Mwandishi, the seminal Herbie Hancock band that featured Billy (and also Eddie Henderson of Enchance). Billy’s generous drumming with Oceans of Time, lays down a magic carpet for local tenor sax hero Craig Handy (replacing John Stubblefield, RIP), tenor-sax wonder Chris Potter, dazzling violinist Mark Feldman, explosive guitarist David “Fuze” Fiuczynski, propulsive pianist David Kikoski, bass stalwart Cecil McBee, funk-forward drummer Lorca Hart, and Billy Hart too – a father-and-son drum dream team.