DITMAS PARK – In an age when digital distribution renders the avant garde just another playlist on Spotify, the Endangered Heart Quartet is making unique music not by going further out but by finding spaces in between. As violinist Jesse Mills explained, somewhat elliptically, “We’re not in there, and we’re not out there. It’s not even charting new territory; we’re one step removed from that. It’s just right in there between different things.”
Saxophonist Roy Nathanson, founder of the Jazz Passengers, is somewhat more direct, though he defines the band by what it is not. “This is not a Kronos [Quartet], this is not Bang on a Can, it’s not avant garde. It’s none of that.”
The group, called EHQ for short, is currently finishing its debut album and will perform selections from the record at Bargemusic on July 27 as part of the classical music venue’s Here and Now series.
The group has its genesis in a series of low-key shows conceived by Nathanson and double-bassist Tim Kiah as a way of saying “thank you” to their neighbors in Ditmas Park. In one of the many ironies that mark the group, they recruited additional musicians based more on personality than chops. (Nathanson described the organizing principle for the band: “Because we’re friends!”)
The paradox is that the principle delivered a four-piece that’s impressive for both the breadth and the depth of its musical pedigree. Nathanson tapped trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, whom he first played with in the Big Apple Circus band almost 40 years ago. Living in Bed-Stuy, Fowlkes has been the go-to guy for scores of jazz and rock musicians looking for a horn player, from the Lounge Lizards and Charlie Haden to Sheryl Crow and Cibo Matto.
“He’s really amazing,” Nathanson said. “It’s like the world has understood that now. People consider him one of the greatest trombone players in the world for a reason. He’s so insanely musical and listens so well. He’s so understated that you would think that it wasn’t as good as it is.”
Mills, twice nominated for a Grammy for his classical work, was an old friend of Kiah’s, but they hadn’t seen each other in years until a shaggy dog story involving a melted tea kettle and a trip to the Flatbush Avenue Sears outlet brought them back together just in time for the violinist to round out the quartet that would become EHQ.
The recruitment effort left EHQ with a collective resume that comprised jazz, classical, rock, R&B, bluegrass, spoken word and more, but it also left the group with an unusual instrumental line-up.
The quartet is one of the most popular group forms, often found in the classical world in chamber music groups. Those tend to feature instruments of a single type, like strings, brass or woodwinds. Jazz quartets are also common, and typically more diverse, but almost always include a drummer.
EHQ breaks both molds, with saxophone, trombone, double-bass and violin. “It’s a really odd instrumentation,” Kiah admitted. “Usually you have a guitar or a cello or a mid-range instrument that is chordal for balance.”
“We can’t fall back on tradition because there’s no set way that this is done,” Mills said, “so we are forced to invent a way. We have to be real careful about how we get in each other’s way, but that creates something very special. It takes some thought and it takes some planning.”
In another of the paradoxes that marks the quartet, the lack of a drummer is one of the most distinctive elements of the group, but their music has a strong rhythmic component despite the absence of drums or percussion.
“It requires us to be more responsible for the rhythm because we don’t have a drummer,” Mills said. “Everyone has to sort of play a rhythmic role, or it doesn’t sound good. We can’t fall back on somebody keeping time for us, so that means that we all have to collectively be our own drummer in the way we play our rhythms.”
“It’s a conversation,” Nathanson added. “It’s a conversation with people who are really close. It’s a beautiful thing.” That’s why he calls EHQ, even with all its diverse experience and his own extensive work in jazz, a chamber music group.
“I’ve found that different kinds of groups have different kinds of time,” Mills said, echoing Nathanson. “This is a little more classical in that way than it is jazz. It’s difficult to put a title on it, but just that in classical chamber music the time is created by the collective listening to each other. I think that’s the way a lot of string quartets play. It’s not one person is laying it down and everyone else just riding on top. Everyone is listening and every split second you can adjust by just a minimal amount, but there’s a certain trust that has to happen.”
Kiah explains how the process works on EHQ’s arrangement of a chorale from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. “It’s a very loose way of interpreting the time freely. In that case, Roy was leading the freedom of it to make it interesting. Instead of playing along, he’s like a car speeding up, slowing down, speeding up, slowing down. It’s not that radical, but it makes it new.”
The Bach arrangement shares space in the quartet’s repertoire with covers of blues standards (“Goodnight Irene”), 60s pop (The Beatles’ “Blackbird”), free jazz (Ornette Coleman’s “Circle with a Hole in the Middle”) and originals by Mills, Kiah and Nathanson. And—paradox again—despite the disparate material, EHQ has a consistent ensemble sound, but one that is created by four strong individual voices.
“That’s the trust and the love that we have for each other, because otherwise we would be screaming at each other—I mean musically—and we don’t do that.” Mills said. On the covers as well as the original material, each of them approaches the music as a composer but manages to do it without stepping on the toes of the other players.
“Maybe because of our unique instrumentation,” Mills continued, “or maybe because of our four unique personalities or four composers, there is a certain trust we have. It’s not like we’re comparing what we hear each other do to what we think it needs to go like. Whatever people play, we accept that that is what it is, and that is beautiful.”
“We all have an idea of how we want our pieces to go but we’re also very open-minded. If we’re playing and it goes a different direction, all of us are listening to it from a compositional perspective. Things might end up being unique, because we let it go into that place instead of trying to make it conform to a predetermined concept.”
The upcoming Bargemusic performance is worlds away from EHQ’s formative shows at Qathra, a Ditmas Park coffee shop where music is an occasional complement to the main business of serving sandwiches. The informality gave the group a certain freedom that was useful as the four players worked their way toward a genuine collaboration. Now they are looking forward to the very different atmosphere that prevails at one of the city’s iconic venues for innovative performance.
“The formality of it is good, because it lends itself a little more to listening carefully in the moment and being sensitive,” Mills said. “The noise floor goes down to zero, everybody’s listening in the audience. That’s good for the music.”
Endangered Heart Quartet performs at Bargemusic on Friday, July 27 at 8pm. Tickets are available online.