It’s alright if you don’t know the name “Billy Hart,” because at the end of the day, you’re still one of his biggest fans. No one plays the corner quite like Hart—having built the rhythmic foundations to some of jazz most important records. His discography reads like a sacred text, reciting the names of the great prophets at each turn. Before finding himself in the booth properly, he was already performing with Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Jimmy Smith, and Wes Montgomery, all in the confines of his Washington, D.C. enclave. But as soon as he began to record, he never stopped, amassing one of the most prolific portfolios in music history.
Finding a point of entry is difficult. Do we begin with the ultra-hip soundtrack to the 1965 French film La Métamorphose des cloportes? Assisting Jimmy Smith, this is definitely an underappreciated gem. Speaking of soundtracks, what about the music from the 1968 documentary Pourquoi L’Amérique? We’ve got Eddie Harris up front with Hart holding down the tempo. That might not be a bad introductory piece either. Or perhaps, we should rewind one of the funkiest albums to ever be overlooked, Melvin Jackson’s Funky Skull. A trippy musical stroll around the block gets you here and Billy Hart rides shotgun.
Thinking about it, you really can’t go wrong, regardless of where you start. Hart’s discography is that good. Take for example Zawinul. Now, before there was a Weather Report, there was Zawinul. The electric backdrop, the jazz posturing — this was a seminal moment in the reinvention of jazz. And in this blessed union sat Hart, sticks in hand. Shortly thereafter, Pharoah Sanders is constructing his 37-minute sonic narrative highlighting the musical contributions of black and brown folks. If Sanders plays the lead, Hart deserves best supporting actor. While a member of the Herbie Hancock sextet, Hart saw much success, recording four well-received albums. Of particular note, Hart played on “You’ll Know When You Get There” from Hancock’s 1971 release Mwandishi. The ethereal composition would later be sampled by producer J Dilla for Slum Village’s 1996 record “Fantastic.”
Lost in this conversation is the individual genius of Billy Hart. Please don’t let me be misunderstood. There is an understated significance in that first decade of recording. By that point, he had most likely played with your favorite artists’ favorite artist and that’s commendable in and of itself. But as we reflect upon the discography of Billy Hart, I would be remiss if I did not mention this man’s intrinsic beauty.
Enchance deserves more than I have to offer. The 1977 release was the first for Hart as a bandleader. And even with such an illustrious career already constructed, this was arguably his greatest and yet most overlooked moment as a musician. Oliver Lake (alto saxophone), Don Pullen (piano), Marvin Peterson (trumpet), Dave Holland (bass), and Dewey Redman (tenor saxophone) each found space in a crowded room. Perhaps it was because he himself had lived in the background for so long, but Hart knew how to give each player a proper platform to shine. Take for example “Diff Customs. It’s as if each musician is playing their own individual song, but when placed atop the other makes complete sense. What should be cacophony turns to consonance. I still have trouble wrapping my head around it. My personal favorite, however, is the warmly affectionate “Layla-Joy.” It’s an effortless affair, combining a soft piano melody with the strong play of Peterson. For those that doubt the compositional aptitude of Hart, this is one hell of a response. I suppose that’s Enchance in a nutshell, though—a response. This is the public service announcement reminding you to not sleep on Billy Hart, the bandleader.
The ’80s saw a continued growth for his iconoclastic résumé. Included in this run was Stan Getz (Pure Getz, The Master, Blue Skies), James Newton (James Newton, Luella, The African Flower),Tom Harrell (Stories), as well as the band Quest (Quest, Quest 2, Quest III, NY Nites: Standards, Natural Selection). Despite the high profile nature of these endeavors, few compare to his contributions on the controversial Miles Davis album Tutu. A collaborative effort with Marcus Miller, the project oozes pop sensibilities—an appeasement, said by many, to modern audiences. Regardless, it was a landmark project by Davis, anchored by the contributions of another. For what was one of the most demonstrative albums of Davis’ expansive career, he called on the assistance of Hart. If that doesn’t speak volumes, I’m not sure what does.
For the last several decades, Hart has dedicated much of his energy to educating the next generation of great artists. Despite this, he has continued to record at an impressive rate. Most recently, he recorded the album All Our Reasons, once again in the capacity of bandleader. Performing with Mark Turner (tenor saxophone), Ethan Iverson (piano), and Ben Street (double bass), Hart hasn’t lost a step. The album has garnered much praise for its use of open space and the freedom afforded to its talented cast. Leading the charge is Hart; his play just as spritely as that teen who gigged his way around Washington, D.C.
Ironically, this lengthy discussion has only touched a small portion of Billy Hart’s overwhelming legacy. Despite a career helmed in the shadows of giants, he stands tall amongst each and every one. His efforts have given us innumerable legendary recordings and for that we should all be quite thankful. Do yourself a favor and take your own journey through the discography of the legendary Billy Hart.
Words by Paul Pennington (@paulpennington)