Billy Hart Makes Magic with Local Musicians in Montreal


Billy Hart (second from left), performs at Upstairs in Montreal with bassist Rémi LeBlanc, trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier and pianist Jean-Michel Pilc.

(Photo: Randy Cole )

There was magic at Montreal’s Upstairs Bar & Grill throughout the last weekend of January, when veteran drummer and educator Billy Hart—one of the most prolific and creative drummers in jazz—shared the stage with an ensemble of the city’s leading musicians.

An ineffable dynamic was at play, all the more rewarding given the fact that this was the band’s first time playing together; and yet, there it was—compatible, trusting communication that expanded and deepened as the weekend progressed.

Playing with Hart were bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier, exploring standards as well as originals by members of the band. It was the third in an Upstairs series led by LeBlanc, bringing U.S. jazz artists up to Montreal to play with eminent voices on the local scene.

With dexterity and skill matched by warmth and passion, LeBlanc demonstrated why he is one of the city’s most in-demand bassists. The 32 year old plays with Pilc, pianist Marianne Trudel, L’Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal and numerous others, and has also accompanied several U.S. artists including Dave Binney, Terri Lyne Carrington, Greg Osby and Seamus Blake.

“I’ve always been a fan of Mr. Hart’s playing,” LeBlanc said. “It’s loose, subtle, and mysterious, yet energetic and impetuous. Most importantly, I knew that he was well-versed with anything ranging from bop to contemporary improvised music. I was attracted by his openness.”

On the scene for over half a century, Hart has hundreds of recordings to his credit, playing with jazz luminaries from Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner, Shirley Horn and Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band.

His captivating, challenging recordings as a leader include two critically acclaimed albums on ECM featuring his quartet with Mark Turner, Ben Street and Ethan Iverson (All Our Reasons, 2012 and One Is The Other, 2014). At 76, Hart shows no signs of slowing down, touring the world with various groups including the all-star band the Cookers.

“I consider him a genius and a national treasure,” said Pilc. The two displayed a particularly strong rapport, having played together extensively between 2008 and 2012, when Hart was a member of Pilc’s trio.

“Playing with Billy is like flying with giant wings. What he plays always sounds meaningful and right for the music, yet fresh and surprising, which is nothing short of miraculous.” The self-taught, Paris-born Pilc arrived in New York in 1994, where he lived and worked for 20 years, playing artists such as Roy Haynes, Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman. His artistic style—cerebral, adventurous, often frenetic, yet deeply passionate—lent an impressionistic quality to the music, complemented by Mr. Hart’s visceral, commanding anchoring.

Billy Hart Upstairs in Montreal
Jean Michel-Pilc (left), Jean Nicolas Trottier, Billy Hart and Remi-Jean Leblanc pose for a group shot at Upstairs Bar & Grill in Montreal. (Credit: Randy Cole)

With no rehearsal time, and no pre-determined set list, the band went for an open, anything-can-happen approach, and the music created over the course of the weekend was a testament to the musicians’ talent and artistic sensitivity.

Playing to a full house for all four sets, the ensemble explored compositions by Wayne Shorter (“Capricorn,” “Footprints”), Pilc (“The Other Night,” “A Brief History Of Time”) and LeBlanc (the tender “Talk Loud Not Soft,” completed only days prior), as well as several standards (“All Blue,” “Basin Street Blues”).

On Lee Morgan’s “Afrique” Hart tackled Art Blakey’s legacy with fervor. The band created a somber aura, taking the audience to outer realms, alternating with insistent swing.

For the weekend’s final set, the group launched into 40 minutes of uninterrupted music, an open blues leading into Mongo Santamaría’s “Afro-Blue,” then “My Favorite Things” and Miles Davis’ “Nardis.”

Hart’s agility, expansiveness and power, melding beautifully with LeBlanc’s feel, never overshadowed the proceedings, serving to bring forth the other voices, and propelling the ensemble’s cohesive performance with energy and intensity. All band members shared an inquisitive, exploratory quality—perhaps what Mr. Hart referred to when he mentioned their “common interests” during our interview.

Hart’s visit in Montreal included a master class at McGill University, organized by Pilc, who has served as Associate Professor, Jazz Area Chair since moving to Montreal in 2015. Emma Rose, a student in attendance, felt “lucky to have the opportunity to attend master classes with such well renowned musicians,” noting that “It was inspiring to witness not only Mr. Hart’s adventurous spirit through his music, but also his humble approach.”

“It’s been a reward, a gift,” mused Hart at the end of the night, when I asked about the band’s interplay. “Every culture on the planet has a classical music; in these Americas, we have a musical tradition we all seem to be familiar with”—a language whose richness was fully on display. DB

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