The tipoff comes with the cover photograph on Billy Hart's splendid new album, All Our Reasons. It depicts a wintry, nocturnal glimpse of New York, silhouetted and accented by cosmopolitan glows.
It's a noteworthy shot for many reasons, not the least of which is that it cements the continental and stylistic expansion of the European ECM label, an organization that helped nurture a sound (and with its often luscious album photography, a visual representation) of jazz that was open, mysterious and atmospheric. Critics only half-jokingly referred to the resulting music as Nordic.
All Our Reasons is hardly the first North American view of an exiled sound. After all, Keith Jarrett has recorded for the label for more than 35 years. Also, renegades Dewey Redman, John Surman and, for a time, the Art Ensemble of Chicago have cut ECM albums. But All Our Reasons might well stand as one of the more formidable recent examples of what the label can generate outside the icy Nordic soundscapes.
The album-opening Song for Balkis employs a patient, distant-sounding rumble as a preface for a spacious serenade that engages the plaintive tenor sax lead of Mark Turner (of ECM's Fly trio) and the more restless piano orchestration of Ethan Iverson (from new generation strategists The Bad Plus). What you experience is a spacious, loose-limbed and deliciously moody ambience that quickly brings to mind another ECM giant who, like Hart, has helped cultivate similarly open-ended jazz in a number of New York ensembles: the late Paul Motian.
Turner, in particular, echoes the kind of varied, shape-shifting sax accents that Joe Lovano designed for Motian's long-running trio with guitar great Bill Frisell. Turner offers two fine originals on All Our Reasons that wonderfully embellish this very American-ized take on the ECM sound: Nigeria (which begins with slo-mo bass fills from Ben Street before developing into expertly fragmented swing) and Wasteland (in which the slow bounce of his own tenor sax figures is the very depiction of solo blues in a New York nightscape).
Iverson works efficiently in and out of the quartet boundaries with Ohnedaruth, in which his sparse and initially somber piano meditation breaks through the clouds for a Turner-led jam, with Hart discreetly playing from the passenger seat.
At 71, Hart is no grandstander. Sure, he can sound demonstrative on the McCoy Tyner-esque Tolli's Dance. Mostly, though, he follows a lighter, more introspective muse throughout All Our Reasons. One might suspect it's the original ECM spirit calling from across the ocean. But All Our Reasons isn't that nostalgic. It has four resourceful instrumentalists and a playground as big as all New York to forge a music that is both familiar and new.