As if Duke Performances does not have enough superb quality performance venues for its annual line-up of world-class artists, it has chosen to inaugurate a new intimate setting at the 21C Museum Hotel in Downtown Durham. To say this is a brilliant move is not an exaggeration; it gives a relatively small audience (~125 to 150 persons per show) a chance to appreciate the talents and nuances of performers “up close and personal.” Sunday night’s opening performance by the Billy Hart Quartet was no exception. While drummer Hart has perhaps not gained the jazz star status of some of his contemporaries, he has continued to push the boundaries of Bebop and Avant-garde jazz for over five decades.

In addition to Hart, the quartet was comprised of The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and double bassist Ben Street; they have been together for more than ten years.

The opening work was Hart’s composition “Duchess,” a clearly Bebop inspired melodic piece reinforced by the drummer’s insertion of intricate rhythmic patterns over a wide dynamic range. It was also impressive that the sound system allowed all the instruments – acoustic piano, acoustic bass, saxophone as well as the drums – to be heard equally at the same volume; this is quite an unusual and most welcome setup. This set the stage for the rest of their (single) one-hour show.

All the remaining four pieces were generally of the Avant-garde persuasion including Iverson’s “Chamber Music,” a quiet reflective ballad that displayed his pianistic skills and mastery of a wide range of styles including traditional Classical music. This piece included the only time during the show that Hart used brushes most subtly, rather than sticks.

Possibly the highlight of the evening was a tribute to the legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins that featured the skillfully adroit Turner on an upbeat tune “Nigeria.” While the piece began with a freewheeling bass solo by Street, it developed into an up-tempo expression of the style and contents of Rollins’ unique contributions to the genre of jazz over many decades. Also featured was an impressive extended drum solo by the leader that demonstrated his ability to infuse the structure and melody of the tune rather than merely show off his astounding technique as a drummer.

Avant-garde jazz can be quite difficult to follow at times for numerous reasons. For instance, there is often no discernable meter or pulse let alone a stated melody, that others and I have referred to as “choreographed chaos.” (One critic has referred to this as “…turning melodic somersaults.”) However, like all art, it is a musical reflection of what surrounds us at any particular time; it is also derivative. Indeed this was made clear in the band’s enthusiastically demanded encore – a straight-ahead, rhythmically swinging bebop-ish (unnamed) tune that ironically (or not!) was the most comprehensible piece of the evening. The audience, of all ages, was appropriately enthralled throughout.