Album review

John Hart – ‘Checkmate’

John Hart – Checkmate
(SteepleChase SCCD 31910. CD review by Mark McKergow)

Guitarist John Hart teams up with baritone sax legend Gary Smulyan for this quartet date. The music is confidently calm and laid back, with a fine balance of punch and poise. 

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John Hart’s long career goes back over three decades, first as a regular on the New York scene and a 16-year spell with organist Jack McDuff, and since 2012 as Head of Jazz Guitar (a job the careers teacher never mentioned to me!) at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. Hart has appeared on over 100 recordings as a sideman and occasionally steps forward as a band leader. On this occasion he was inspired by In Pa(s)sing, a 1978 ECM album by guitarist Mick Goodrick which featured John Surman’s baritone saxophone and realised that guitar/bari was hardly ever featured, for no very good reason.

Seeking a baritone saxophone sparring partner, Hart looked no further than Gary Smulyan, another New York veteran and leading exponent of this specialist instrument. The session features six Hart originals alongside three standards including Night and Day and Isn’t It Romantic. Hart has a beautifully full and rich sound in rather a classic jazz guitar style, and even at fast tempi he gives the overall impressions of restraint and space in which to place the notes rather than force them. 

The opening 123 Blues shows where the music is headed – a classic 12-bar blues theme at a deliciously loping speed, swinging ‘like a bag of week-old shit on a frosty morning’ (as my late friend Leeds cornetist John Pashley would have said). For the avoidance of doubt, that’s a very good thing indeed. Hart glides effortlessly along, his tenure with Jack McDuff paying off in spades as he explores the edges of the familiar chords with dexterity and finesse. Smulyan follows, laying back from the beat and daring the rhythm section to falter (they don’t, of course). Power Of Three is a gently lilting waltz-time affair which allows bassist David Wong to feature both in his variety, in shifting from one to three to two beats in the accompaniment, and also in a well-taken solo.

Even in this simple quartet line-up there is variety to be heard. Everything Happens To Me is taken as a guitar/sax duo with both players improvising against the other in a way that reminded me of Jimmy Guiffre’s work with Jim Hall in the Jimmy Guiffre 3 – all beautifully placed and spaced. Miniature, on the other hand, is a trio ballad feature for guitar, bass and drums which floats along with Wong going a bit Spanish and drummer Andy Watson producing precise and imaginative work in support.

Hart and Smulyan are both enthusiasts for contrafacts – new melodies placed over existing chord sequences. Here, the title track Checkmate is a contrafact of Benny Golson’s Stablemates, the angular melody jumping into life and Hart finding space between the rhythm for more relaxed soloing. Right To Lie is a take on the I Got Rhythm changes written by Hart in the 1990s and proves a worthy closing number, racing along into high speed baritone soloing with Hart knowing when to lay out, before Watson is let off the leash for a spritely drum solo.

This album is filled with understated jazz of a very high order. Well worth a listen, particularly if you don’t normally have baritone sax for breakfast. 

LINK: Checkmate at UK distributor Proper Music

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