The acoustic or “stand up” bass, with its beautiful look and limber ability to power a band from below, is one of the icons of “jazz”. But it is equally true that bass players are the most anonymous musicians in the genre. Even the most famous, such as Ron Carter, seem more known for supporting other musicians than for leading their own bands.
John Hébert, born and raised in New Orleans but a respected New York bassist for decades, fits that description. He has released a half-dozen recordings as a leader but is better known as a sideman, particularly for pianist Andrew Hill. His new recording comes from a 2013 concert in Lugano, Switzerland—part of a tour for which he had put together a band based on one the best ensembles ever fronted by his inspiration, Charles Mingus.
Mingus is the acoustic bassist who comes closest to being a brand name in jazz. A contemporary of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, he also blazed an innovative trail that went beyond bebop and into the daring 1960s. His bands experimented in extended composition, free playing outside traditional bebop harmony, rhythms, and concepts from other musical cultures, and eventually with a dash of electronics. And his last great quintet, with pianist Don Pullen, trumpeter Jack Walrath, George Adams on tenor saxophone, and Dannie Richmond’s drums, made a few records in the 1970s that Hébert knows very well.
The band for this concert is modeled on that Mingus band, making it a somewhat unusual group. The brass voice is Taylor Ho Bynum, whose tart cornet style is arguably in the puckish style of Walrath. Tim Berne, who is an alto saxophonist, doesn’t play with the weight of Adams, but he is similar in being capable of both fiery lyricism and flights of gripping intensity. Ches Smith is a drummer and percussionist who might be said to have Richmond’s wit and willingness to go in any direction, as long as it grooves. And—perhaps the oddball choice here—Hébert chose Fred Hersch for the piano chair. I don’t think of the brilliantly lyrical Hersch as a typical colleague of the rest of the band, but he is a magical refraction of Pullen. Pullen played the piano with innovative technique and a voice that swirled and sang in equal measure.
Two songs that made it to the recording are from the repertoire of that Mingus band: “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica”. The former begins with a ruminative duet between the leader and Smith on which Hébert moves around his instrument with thrilling adventure. The band settles into this lovely ballad with a certain nonchalance. Ho Bynum and Berne share the theme like two lovers, whispering on a walk through the edges of the city, handing matters over to Hersch for an improvisation that is both immensely beautiful and never saccharine. As a result, we get Ho Bynum’s cornet at its most gentle and flute-like on a performance that is less “free” than it is open in feeling.
“Rockefeller” similarly begins with a lengthy introduction that features Smith, melodic as he skitters across his toms. But then it breaks into Mingus’s ironically sunny theme, allowing Berne to play a bopping solo that often refers to the melody. Ho Bynum takes a wild ride along the edge of tonality but never quite falls off. Hersch solos in a craggy, Monk-ish mode, pulling the band back to tradition a bit. It’s a natural connection to his introduction to Hébert’s herky-jerky original “Frivilocity”.
The Hébert originals on this program seem less Mingus-inspired than the band itself. Mingus compositions often combined Ellingtonian lyricism with a surging pulse. Hébert also uses some Ellington elements, such as the muted-brass opening to “Constrictor”, but his melodies share a bit more with the New Jazz sound of the last ten years: angular and with more complex underlying rhythms. “Constrictor” moves from pulseless freedom to a polyrhythmic version of swinging waltz-time. Berne’s alto ranges from Ornette Coleman’s sing-song feeling to the cry of Julius Hemphill. Then Hersch, Hébert, and Smith play a collective trio improvisation so airy that the wind blows through it.
By contrast, “Love What?” is a slow-pulsing dirge that creeps with a sense of suspense and mystery. It sounds more like something informed by the midwest-avant scene of the Art Ensemble of Chicago than by Mingus—but maybe that is a way of saying that it inherits its Mingus feeling one generation removed. Every player is listening, responding, goading, reaching to connect.
The stand-out original is “The Blank-Faced Man”, which moves from a drum solo into a driven eighth-note pattern that finds the rhythm section setting up a playful groove. Piano, saxophone, and brass scamper above the fray. This jaunty section flattens out into ballad tempo with free playing, at which point a delicate section of (improvised? it’s gloriously hard to tell) counterpoint takes over. Each portion of this performance is strangely beautiful. Still, maybe it’s the landscape at the center that is the best, particularly because Fred Hersch—a player we are so used to hearing in tonal situations, gets to use his melodic and textural talents in a fresh way. Hébert, perhaps, is doing the most Mingus thing he can here: taking great players and putting them in collision with their comfort. The result has a bracing freshness.
The greatest weakness of Sounds of Love as a recording (as opposed to a concert experience) is that so many of the tracks begin with quiet, simmering introductions that bring us—at considerable length—to the main action of each performance. That might have been arresting in concert, watching the musicians interact and feeling the tension in the concert hall. Listening at home, the experience is closer to a tease and a repeated one. In addition, Ho Bynum’s cornet and Hersch’s piano are sometimes sonically distant, low in a mix where their presence was utterly essential. Still, you hear what this band is up to and wish you had been there.
The Mingus quintet that was the model for this band was one of the jazz groups that balanced “new thing” free playing with a tradition of improvisation within advanced, often complex harmonic structures. It was a band that didn’t abandon form (that is, swing rhythms, written melodies, and sets of harmonies or “chord changes”) but achieved the daring of letting them slip away and then snatching them back. Miles Davis’s second quintet played this way, as did bands led by folks like Andrew Hill, Eric Dolphy (a Mingus collaborator just before his death), and only a few others before the new century. The 1980s and 1990s heard a return to more traditional bebop playing alongside other kinds of innovations, all the while allowing the jazz press to discuss some sort of competition among classic jazz, fusion forms, and free forms.
Hébert is a member of the generation that doesn’t care a whit or those distinctions, and so this embrace of Pullen/Adams/Walrath/Richmond/Mingus is one we think: more of that please, as we haven’t quite heard it this explicitly from other bandleaders. The band’s sweet-and-sour combinations of sounds and personalities are both of the moment and reaching back a half-century to remind of a treasure.