Review: Niels Vincentz/Billy Hart in Helsinki

Wif Stenger finds drummer Billy Hart at the top of his game in Helsinki in a band led by saxophonist Niels Vincentz – with no generation gap in their way

The good news is that drummer Billy Hart is at the top of his game, and has found a mutually inspiring partnership with Danish-American saxophonist Niels Vincentz. The bad news is . . . well, there’s no bad news this time.

With jazz veterans so often backed by little-known youngsters, it’s refreshing to see the tables turned. Hart and bassist Cameron Brown have stellar careers, between them having played with virtually every jazz great over the last half century.

At Helsinki’s intimate Koko Jazz Club, they backed the 44-year-old Dane in a set that struck the golden mean between looseness and precision, melodicism and experimentation.

Yet "backed" wasn’t the right word. This was an evenly balanced three-way conversation, expanded later to a foursome with guest Finnish pianist Jukkis Uotila.

Uotila, a jazz professor at the city’s Sibelius Academy, introduced a wild card into this agile trio, which has played together for a decade and a half. The trio seemed invigorated by this added ingredient on the last show of a 10-day Nordic tour.

This summer Vincentz plays Charlie Parker tribute shows in Denmark – and Bird was vibrantly present in his original Later. Mostly, Vincentz draws on the early free jazz and hard bop traditions. On the standards You Go To My Head and Nancy With The Laughing Face, and the Danish spring song Den Blå Anemone, his tenor sound was mellow yet dry, romantic without being cloying.

As impressive as Brown, Vincentz and Uotila each were, the most riveting presence was Hart. Like a benevolent monarch, he subtly ran the show from behind his Pearl kit without overtly imposing his will. Yet there it was: the muscular yet sensitive, propulsive yet precise sound familiar from albums such as Miles Davis’s On The Corner and Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi.

Hart’s playfulness, the sparkle in his eye and easy self-amused grin spurred a kaleidoscope of images. By turns, he suggested an Asian chef skilfully whipping up a giant stir-fry with outsized chopsticks, or a conductor leading his own one-man orchestra with a pair of batons.

Sonically, his drums padded like a panther on the prowl, intercut with little-drummer-boy martial rat-a-tats, sputtering, exquisitely controlled cymbals and painterly brushstrokes. With an impish grin, he made it all seem effortless and a joy. Hart played few solos per se, yet remained the centre of attention, pure pleasure to hear and watch.

Brown – who, like Hart, is a spry 70-something – led the group in For Dad and Dannie, an elegy in memory of his father and Mingus drummer Richmond, Brown’s rhythm partner for many years. Brown soloed with a liquid, singing tone, subtly underpinned by Brown’s padded mallets, suggesting tiptoes down a hallway at night or distant summer thunder.

The next piece began with a gong-like cymbal from Hart, followed by a breathy sax like a shakuhachi bamboo flute, immediately transporting us to Japan. Brown stepped up to the microphone to recount a parable about a Zen master and a baby – backed by a subtle heartbeat drum. His composition Is That So? is the title track of the trio’s recent third album on Stunt Records, recorded last summer near New York with trumpeter Tom Harrell.

Hart began Take That Hill, a Vincentz original, with jittery rapping and tick-tocking on the rims of his drums. Brown and Uotila answered with nervous little runs and trills. Vincentz entered on soprano sax, playing mostly in its lower registers without shrillness, leading the quartet from a free beginning to a swinging conclusion. The fact that Vincentz gracefully interacts as a peer with these masters of the classic generation, with obvious mutual respect and affection, speaks volumes about his talent.

Photo by Wif Stenger

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