Swiss-German Arranger Christophe Schweizer
Collaborates with Famed WDR Big Band Cologne,
Setting Original Small Group Compositions of BILLY HART
First full-length album dedicated to large ensemble arrangements of Jabali’s original music. Compositions are drawn from “Enchance” (Horizon A&M, 1977), Rah (Gramavision, 1987) & “Oceans of Time” (Arabesque, 1997), among others.
Picture a young musician from Switzerland one sunny New York morning in September 1992, in the basement of The Mannes College of Music. The ensemble class has just finished a performance of a Bud Powell composition called “Webb City” at the request of their coach, and it’s obvious these five musicians from radically different cultural backgrounds – some of whom will later go on to become well known in different scenes – feel less than at ease playing with each other for the first time.
After a moment of silence, pregnant with uncertainty, the ensemble coach finally declares, “You guys need to learn how to love each other.” You can guess who that teacher was.
Swiss-born, Hamburg-based arranger-composer Christophe Schweizer is of course is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of musicians and fans, that maestro Billy Hart has touched – and continues to touch as an educator and performer. Schweizer calls Hart’s touch a “generosity of self.” Over the course of a career spanning over five decades, Hart’s collaborations are perhaps greater in significance, number, and diversity than most living jazz musicians.
According to Schweizer, Hart’s essence is “something that sticks with you for a long time as a listener and as a musician, consciously or not.” Interestingly, as much as Hart has accumulated a wealth of historical knowledge about playing music and musicians’ playing, which he readily shares with fellow musicians and with his students, “he lives it in a very present way and keeps evolving, his iPod always stacked with samples of the most recent developments in improvised music and of course drumming,” says Schweizer.
When Schweizer first approached Hart with the idea of producing a large ensemble recording of his compositions, not only was Hart’s response positive in the sense that doing so had been a longtime dream of his, but also in his willingness to collaborate with Schweizer following a decade of no contact. Little time was spent talking about what the approach was going to be. Billy’s main stipulation as Schweizer recalls it was, “If you are going to do this, I want you to put as much of your concept in there as possible.”
The first composition here, “Téulé’s Redemption,” is dedicated to Hart’s eldest son. The original version played by Quest didn’t have the bass introduction heard here, which was added years later on a different recording, 1997’s Oceans of Time. The tune makes reference to some of John Coltrane’s concepts, while the rubato introduction comes from trumpeter Dave Ballou, who didn’t perform on Oceans of Time, but was present at the recording session.
The concept of this section became the starting point for the large ensemble arrangement. The tenor soloist is Paul Heller, who incidentally considers Billy one of his biggest influences, while guitarist Paul Shigihara finds the perfect way of relating to the rather dense ensemble happening around him. The opening featuring bassist John Goldsby starting by himself and pianist Frank Chastenier joining in, is also the first of many examples on the recording that showcase how the pianist and bassist immediately caught onto the spirit of the music, having received no verbal instruction before tape rolled.
“Layla-Joy,” “Song for Balkis,” and “Reneda” are connected here as a suite. Billy considers them different versions of the same song. He composed “Layla-Joy” for his first album as a bandleader, Enchance, and dedicated it to a friend’s newborn child. The original arrangement was by Dewey Redman, and the treatment here uses all of its components (plus a few additions) including the flugelhorn solo by Rob Bruynen. The ensemble transitions led by trombonist Ludwig Nuss into the second movement, “Song for Balkis.” This melody, is the most recent “version” of this composition, and has already seen vastly different recordings. Schweizer likes Ethan Iverson’s “original” arrangement from Hart’s 2012 ECM album All Our Reasons.
“Reneda,” which concludes the suite, was chronologically the middle piece, recorded in 1987. It’s original arrangement was the work of the late keyboardist Mark Grey, and the idea of the bass having the first solo is also taken from that version. Generally, pianists play an important role in Hart’s compositional voice. “Billy kept drawing my attention to the playing of Kenny Kirkland, who died in 1998, far too soon. Thus, a good portion of the material behind solo sections by Karolina Strassmayer on alto and Andy Hunter on trombone are actually adapted from Kirkland’s comping and soloing on the original performance.
“Lullaby for Imke” is another more recent song and was written for Billy’s youngest daughter. When it comes to straight ahead ballads, Coltrane is again Billy’s model, especially the concept of using bass pedals. The arrangement here uses an almost entirely new harmony and some additional material with contributions from Chastenier on piano, Andy Haderer on flugelhorn, and Johan Hörlen on alto flute. I love the groove the rhythm section establishes towards the end – a pure product of their spontaneity. “Let the music decide”, as John Goldsby quite appropriately put it.
“Tolli’s Dance” is an example Billy’s way of looking at the blues. It exposes to great effect several of Billy’s concepts: that of patterns, both melodically and rhythmically; that of simplicity and of mental imagery. In several respects, “Naaj” (originally recorded on Rah) points in a different direction than the other pieces on this album: it’s his interpretation of the approach of Cedar Walton as a representative of what Billy calls “composers of the harmonic era.” It is the most “straight ahead” song on this album, and leaves plenty of space for solos by Chastenier, Hörlen, and a duet between the saxophones of Hörlen and Heller.
“Imke’s March” rounds out the set. The idea of this piece is that of a father holding his small child by the hand as she is balancing atop a wall. To keep her from becoming distracted, he whistles a simple march-like tune to her. A point of reference in this tune is the second line, one of Billy’s favorite drum topics (it’s so much more than “just” New Orleans parade drumming); Miles Davis; Elvin Jones. Finally, this piece has something to do with a certain “sense of humor,” because the child experiences a Shostakovich-ian grotesque of grown ups’ war games.
Hart, who to this day considers himself a student, likes to tell a story from the days when he must have been in his teens. He goes to see Elvin Jones play with Coltrane. “You cannot imagine the energy this cat had.” After the last set, he walked up to his idol in order to talk to him; to extract some knowledge. Elvin simply hands his bass drum pedal to Billy, saying: “Don’t ask me anything, because If I could show you, we’d all be Max Roach.