Pianist Kevin Hays, Bassist Ben Street and Drummer Billy Hart Gang Up On ‘All Things Are’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

On the first weekend of December 2020, three great musicians gathered at the otherwise empty Smoke Jazz & Supper Club in New York to celebrate renowned drummer, Billy Hart’s 80th birthday.  The three had never played as a unit before but took the bandstand after just one rehearsal for a series of virtual performances.  All parties were so elated with the results that now we have All Things Are, featuring pianist Kevin Hays and bassist Ben Street joining Hart for improvisational, free-flowing performances. Hays and Street are some three decades younger than Hart, so it’s fair to say that this is a multi-generational trio. Street is most familiar with Hart as he’s been a member of Hart’s working quartet with pianist Ethan Iverson and saxophonist Mark Turner since 2006.  Hays, however, only played with Hart in an impromptu invite in Spain when he was just 18 years old. Nonetheless, Hays is integral to this recording not only as a player but as a composer.

Hays composed six of the seven pieces, three original melodies, and three crafted contrafacts of well-known standards. He is a versatile pianist, described mostly as favoring duo and trio settings, note that he is a core member of The Steve Gadd Band too, as heard on their latest release (covered on these pages) Live: At Blue Note Tokyo. Hays has some of the unpredictable qualities albeit with a smoother touch, that we associate with Monk. You’ll hear this on the opening “New Day,” the only non-Hays original, where the band finishes the head and then drifts into a completely different space. Street stopped playing, Hart hit a few different beats and the pianist took the cues and led them into left field. Piano enthusiasts may recognize “Elegia,” as it debuted on Modern Music, Hays two-piano recital with Brad Mehldau. The chord changes here are beautiful, and, also at times unexpected. 

One can likely guess the contrafacts from the titles. Of course, the title track stems from “All the Things You Are,” “Unscrappulous” from “Scrapple from the Apple” and “Twilight” from “Stella by Starlight.” Street, who is keenly aware of Hart’s style, commented that Hart was supporting Hays much in the way he would support a vocalist. Street, too picked up on that claims that it guided the session. As you listen the two of them are mostly in restrained and subtle support to Hays. The interplay is tight but unlike many piano trios, there are not many solo opportunities but some distinct ones for the bassist and drummer here, for example, Street’s lyrical plucking toward the end of “Elegia.” Hart and Street in tandem mostly alternate pushing or following Hays in his improvisational excursions. So, the bare bones of the compositions are here but the trio gives them a very free and open feel.

“Unscrappulous” is based on the bop tune original but Hays and trio twist and turn it, injecting some blues, as Hart’s flourishes come to the fore as well. The almost 12-minute long “For Heaven’s Sake” is a contemplative ballad played deliberately as Hart uses his brushes deftly, a technique he’s widely respected for. The title track moves briskly with syncopated rhythms in spots, punctuated by Street’s pulsing bass and Hart’s skittering snare work.  There is a break for some Hart-Street dialogue and Street ‘s melodic, robust solo followed by Hart’s own declamation. “Sweet Caroline” boasts some of Street’s best bass work, colorful chord changes, and a series of shimmering runs.  Street also leads into the closer, “Twilight,” where Hays takes more to chords and a minimalist approach on the melody. 

The conversations among this trio range from overt to subtle to “let’s try this.” The open spirit of the session unfolds perhaps just a little tentatively at first but by the closing “Twilight”, they are operating like a well-lubricated engine.

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