John Hart – A Q&A Session

John Hart
A Q&A Session

by Lorraine Tucci

John Hart’s latest recording for Hep Records, Indivisible, keenly showcases the guitarist’s fertile composition skills. The CD’s title Indivisible — three as one as the liner notes state — perfectly describes this intuitive trio of Hart, bassist Bill Moring and drummer Tim Horner. With each new John Hart recording we get to hear more and more of the inventive guitarist’s compositions. Indivisible features more of his originals than any of his prior recordings and they always leave you wanting more. His uncanny knack for storytelling launches the listener on an adventurous and evocative journey.

JazzUSA: You wrote 8 of the 11 tracks. You’re such a creative, lyrical and prolific composer; do you see a completely original recording in the near future?

JH: I’d love to do an album of all original music, I’ve always included standards partly because of record company requests, partly because I love playing standards and also as a way to strike a balance on a recording. The challenge is to make the standards fit, I’ve tried arranging them so they sound more like my original music, I’m also looking for different songs to cover, for instance I did a Joni Mitchell song (Both Sides Now) on my previous CD. I can envision an all original album where a cover tune just might creep in if it’s the right fit. I’m also thinking of doing an all standards record with the trio, something less arranged and more spontaneous.

JazzUSA: In a lot of your tunes, you’ll switch grooves, time signatures, tempos…seamlessly. You take the listener on a journey – they don’t notice the bumps in the road — all they know is that the scenery is changing. You’re never hit over the head with “wow – this is going from 11/8 to 7/8″…you just get swept away by the music – it just takes you. Almost like watching a movie. Do you have a story line in mind when you write a piece? What’s your composition process like?

JH: When I’m writing I usually don’t make a conscious effort to compose something in an odd meter. It usually begins with a figure or a groove, a bass-line or melodic fragment, then I realize, this groove is in 11/8. In the process of refining a composition sometimes I’ll hear a section where I need to leave out or add a beat or two, in order to facilitate the flow of a melodic line. Foremost I’m concerned with melody and the groove, the meter changes are always in service of the composition. I used to shy away from playing in odd meters, it’s tricky stuff, still is, then the next thing I know I’m writing music with meter changes. I guess I’m confronting my fears!

JazzUSA: I noticed you have a lot of family references in your tunes on this album in particular: Runs in the Family, Not My Generation, Child at Heart, Clone Me (referring to you and your wife’s personal mantra as a father of three!). Are any of your kids developing an interest in the guitar, or in music in general?

JH: All three of my boys are playing music, two are playing guitar and one is playing the saxophone. Pretty soon I can start sending them out on gigs and I can take it easy a little. I don’t think they like the music I like, but give them time. It’s exciting to watch each one’s progress, we have a very relaxed attitude towards their study. I don’t want to make playing an instrument a labor for them, rather it should be something they grow to love.

JazzUSA: When you play covers, you have this uncanny knack of tapping into the soul of the composer. You have the tune, then you take it – always in a reverent way – but always John Hart. You become an extension of the composer, flawlessly bridging the gap between the composer and yourself. Is your approach to arranging similar to your approach to composition?

JH: The challenge to writing an interesting arrangement on a cover is to be able to take a lot of liberties but still retain the essence of the song. The same applies to improvising on a familiar tune. A great solo is not about running rampant through a set of chord changes, you have to play the song. All the great tunes from the Great American Songbook have a unifying element, each has it’s own unique and memorable melodic line. Many tunes have similar chord changes but the melody sets each one apart. If you are true to the shape and contour of these melodic lines you can play as abstractly as you want and still connect to the composition. A great improviser thinks like a composer; this is the point where composer, arranger and soloist/interpreter all merge as one.

JazzUSA: With each new recording, your sense of exploration takes us somewhere new. I love the fact that you allow other genres — beyond the jazz world — to seep into the music. What other musical influences besides jazz have there been in your life? Have you spent some time in the rock arena?

JH: Like many guitarists my first experiences improvising were playing rock and roll so it has always been a natural thing for me to do. Also as a working guitarist you’re called upon to do many different things. When I was much younger I spent a period of time where all I listened to and practiced was jazz, I think that was necessary to learn the intricacies of bebop. When I came to NYC in the early 80’s my tastes began to broaden, I started listening to a lot of classical music, Brazilian and other world music. Now my listening habits are very eclectic, I’m listening to a lot more pop music than I have before and also I’m really into acoustic roots music, bluegrass etc. I love Miles and Coltrane as much (or even more) as I did when I first heard them but I’m curious to check out stuff I’m not as familiar with and I’m making some great discoveries.

JazzUSA: The trio — you, Bill and Tim have been friends and band mates for some time now, and that cohesiveness and camaraderie really comes through. The same stellar trio is featured on your last CD Scenes From a Song. How did you three originally come together?

JH: Bill was one of the first people I met when I moved to New York in 1983, Tim I met probably in the next year or two. I had a quartet with Bill, Chris Potter and Andy Watson for years and I played a lot with Tim with Maria Schneider’s band. I can remember us playing as a trio informally years before we did the first album but I think “Scenes from a Song” solidified us as a group.

JazzUSA: Will this be a continued collaborative effort going forward?

JH: Yes, we’re working now as a cooperative group called Circles. Bill and Tim are contributing music and we’re trying to write music together, I think this will broaden the sound of the band even more. Plus we love to hang out together, it might make it easier to book gigs with the three of us confronting club owners demanding work!

JazzUSA: Your music, whether you’re playing your own tunes or others has a pervasive honesty. You have an ongoing sense of adventure that digs deeper and deeper with each new recording. Ever exploring, like a Child at Heart…in fact that tune is a great example of your exploratory sense. It’s that child-like excitement of discovering something new, then trusting where it takes you. You hear it throughout your compositions and in the way the trio plays off each other. You let it all in — all your influences — effortlessly, taking us on a ride through a multitude of genres and feels. Have you been pulled over by the jazz police lately?

JH: That’s a good question, I’ve always felt there are no rules in music. You have to have a mastery of the language but after that anything goes. The concept of following an idea, allowing it to grow is the cornerstone of improvised music. It doesn’t matter if it is totally free improvisation or playing over chord changes, it should be a liberating experience. It’s difficult to resist the urge to second guess the audience, to think I have to play a certain way or the music has to sound a certain way or people won’t like it. But I think people actually will respond more in the long run to the honesty, the fact that you’re creating a space and inviting them in.

JazzUSA: I love the way The Thing developed on Indivisible. Is there more free improv in your live shows? Ever do an entirely free set?

JH: We usually have some portion of a set where there is free improvisation, either as a transition between songs or as a stand alone piece. Sometimes we’ll start a set with a free piece, it actually helps me to relax. I like the idea because it forces the band members to really listen from note one. As I alluded to in the last question there is always the fear that the audience will be turned off, but on the contrary I have observed that often the audience enjoys being part of the discovery process. There are so many approaches to free playing, it doesn’t always have to be angular or angry, it can can be lyrical and pretty, I love to explore the different directions the music can go.

JazzUSA: Any touring plans coming up?

JH: We’re working on a tour of Brazil later in the year, it will be the first time this band has played outside of the States. Also we will be touring the Midwest US in October 2005.

JazzUSA: Thanks and good luck…?

John Hart’s discography as a leader:
Indivisible, Hep Records, 2004 (2088)
Scenes From a Song, Hep Records, 2001 (2080)
Bridges, Concord Records, 1997 (4746)
High Drama, Concord Records, 1996 (4688)
Trust, Blue Note, 1992 (95206)
One Down, Blue Note, 1990 (93476)