If jazz is America’s distinctively homegrown art form, blues is probably its most sustainable foundation. The dramatic evolution of this so simple 12-bar form from the black laborer’s work song to modern-day jazz deconstructions never ceases to fascinate me. There is just something indestructible about the blues, probably because it developed out of resistance to one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of humanity. But hey, I’m no music scholar, and to gain some theoretical insights into why jazz came to be what it is – a music style that consistently refuses to be categorized– a good place to start is to read Leroi Jones’ Blues People, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
But what I’d like to share today is a video of the Billy Hart quartet delivering their own personal take on the blues. The handful of loyal readers out there will surely notice that I’m lavishing praise on the usual suspects here, pianist Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus fame), saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street and of course the veteran drummer Billy Hart. But what can I say? This is a stellar cast and they are just killing! I guess what made me want to squander away precious time on Youtube is to hear how each musician appropriates the idiom with their signature chops while somehow summoning its 100-plus history off the well-trodden path. I have to admit I first didn’t identify the song as a blues until Iverson’s solo kicks in. The opening theme’s convoluted line played in unison by Turner and Iverson over Street and Hart’s spacious time doesn’t really give any hint either. Soon enough though, the essence of the blues shines through in all its fascinating beauty, each musician appropriating the lineage with casual resolve. What I find particularly engaging here is that despite the well-known adventurous nature of these improvisers, this is a pretty straight-ahead take on the blues! I don’t detect any major reharmonization or complex time signatures, or any kind of “device” usually required to avoid clichés and hackneyed licks. So, what’s going on here? What is it about this rendition that does justice to the blues in the refreshing context of modern jazz?
Let’s try to break it down a little bit. The song begins with an intro played in unison by Iverson, Street and Hart. This sets the mood very nicely and allows Hart and Street to lock in and build up the ensuing drama. The slow-burn groove these two establish is one reason the song works so well, Hart’s subtle ride and crash shadings wrapping seamlessly around Street’s roving line. And in comes Turner, stating a darkly sinuous theme totally in sync with his lyrical tone. By this time, things are still fairly open-ended as to what kind of improvisation will follow. Psyched, I grab my bass and listen for the bass. Well, I’ll be damned, they’re playing a blues in G7! Of course, they would choose a relatively common key, stupid. It’s what they do with the obvious that commands respect. So, Iverson’s solo starts, his spare line building out of little fragmented dabs and leaving huge chunks of space to devastating effect. It feels so good to hear Monk, Wynton Kelly or Paul Bley lurking in there, melded into Iversonian mode. As the piano solo gathers steam, bass and drums switch into 4/4 swing, the music takes off, swinging hard but softly, if you know what I mean. I love the way Turner comes in, four bars into the form, taking his own sweet time but just nailing it. Everybody seems relaxed but dedicated to celebrating the mysterious appeal of this simple form. But that does it for my tentative shot at the jazz concert review (I wasn’t there anyway!). Though this is an all-star band, there are no heroic displays of virtuosity here. But somehow, in the way they put their modernist vibe on the blues, these musicians are showing tremendous respect for its vital contribution to jazz. From the Mississippi Delta to the Village Vanguard, the blues has come a long way. There’s comfort in knowing that jazz musicians today still believe in its undying power. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out: