If youʼve taken in a New York jazz gig in the last few years, thereʼs a good
chance John Hebertʼs mighty bass sound was bouncing from the
bandstand. Ubiquity is a form of success, and the number of established
leaders and impressive newcomers who have placed Hebert in their rhythm
section is growing; the guy seems to be everywhere. Which makes sense:
the Louisiana native boasts the kind of skills that breed agility. One night
heʼs working a classic club like the Village Vanguard with pianist Fred
Hersch, the next heʼs at an experimental art space like Roulette, supporting
guitarist Mary Halvorson. Versatility is a key Hebert credential; the 38-yearold
purposefully approaches his artistry from a few different angles.
Heʼs also an impressive bandleader. 2009ʼs Byzantine Monkey (Firehouse
12) found him marshalling a cohort of like-minded associates through
progressive pieces that featured Tony Malaby and Michael Attias – their
horns creating a memorable blend. The disc, which partly alluded to
Hebertʼs Cajun ancestry, contains some of his initial writing for reeds. A bit
of the musicʼs personality was even inspired by Airtoʼs Seeds On The
Ground, a program where color is just as captivating as melody. DownBeat
proclaimed the bassistʼs debut as a disc that displayed “a sonic vision of its
More textural daring can be found on 2010ʼs Spiritual Lover (Clean Feed).
For this date Hebert organized a trio of pianist Benoit Delbecq and
drummer Gerald Cleaver, sculpting a set of pliable themes that spoke to the
French keyboardistʼs diverse sonic palette. One moment itʼs a trad piano
group stressing lyricism, the next itʼs an electronic ensemble threading
dissonance into beauty.
This kind of pluralism suits Hebert just fine. The bassist has been open to
all sorts of sounds since switching from guitar in the late ʻ80s. He grew up
with an abiding respect for a variety of musical perspectives, and
encountered a series of teachers who encouraged him to get the big
While playing with the jazz band in his Baton Rough high school, director
Lee Fortier urged Hebert to drop the six-string when the groupʼs bass chair
opened up. “Lee was a real cat,” recalls Hebert, “tinted glasses, soul patch,
the whole thing. He was a trumpet player, and didnʼt mince words. The shift
from guitar was hard at first, and he got tough on me a couple times. He
even had me running home crying at one point. But along the way he gave
me some sweet talk and some logic, and said that there werenʼt that many
bassists around, and it would really work for me. He was right. It wasnʼt
long before I thought the bass was cool.”
Hebert was playing electric, and momentarily fell under the sway of Jaco
Pastorius, the instrumentʼs kingpin during that era. One of the first jazz
discs he bought was Jacoʼs Word of Mouth. But when he bumped into an
old Kay upright at school, something resonated. “I had no technique, and
only knew one position, but the vibration against my body felt great. That
was the hook.” After a year of lessons, he began gigging with bands that
played standards. He also fell in with a bunch of pals who would drive to
New Orleans to see local ensembles such as Astral Project, a group filled
with players who had a more modern vision of improvisation.
As a college student on a full scholarship ride to Loyola University, Hebert
connected with another mentor, bassist Bill Huntington, who encouraged
him to work on his sound. “Bill had lots of wood, lots of sustain, lots of
clarity. Those qualities became important to me, too. He was a great
model.” By the time he hit New Jerseyʼs William Paterson College in ʼ93, he
was sure jazz was going to be a big part of his future. In New Orleans he
was playing standards gigs in hotel lobbies – in the large, that was the only
work available. But he was drawn to developing a more original kind of
lyricism. “I wasnʼt good at it yet, but I knew I wanted to work towards it. It
was definitely what I was hearing at the time.”
William Paterson is just a jump away from New York, and at the end of the
day Hebert hit the cityʼs clubs as if they were second classrooms. Visiones,
Zinno, and the Vanguard were all on the list. Those first-hand experiences,
as well as sharing ideas with other students, generated lots of excitement.
He spent lots of time absorbing the art. “God, I remember seeing Dave
Holland up close at Bradleyʼs, Charlie Haden and Kenny Barron, too. Itʼs
great to see your heroes in action. We were sponges - it was a time to
discover new stuff. Back at the apartment, friends brought records over
every night. My palette started widening.”
A record heʼd heard earlier in New Orleans began to resonate again: Keith
Jarrettʼs Changes, with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Peacockʼs
singing approach to the bass stimulated Hebert. “I could almost visualize
his lines. I didnʼt know it was ʻfreeʼ per se, but it was definitely beautiful. It
spoke to me.”
It was around this time that Hebert began working with other musicians
who shared his views. Drummer Matt Wilson, pianist Russ Lossing, and
saxophonists Joel Frahm and Tony Malaby were all part of his burgeoning
community. The New York scene was in flux (as it often is) and a new
group of improvisers were starting to reshape the jazz lingo.
“Finding like-minded players is crucial,” he says. “It would be a nightmare if
you never found the pals you wanted to work with. It helps you on a
friendship level, too. Itʼs a team support system around here. Hooking up
with Russ was important. Talk about mutual fellowship. I think it was around
1995; he recognized a sound in me and I did the same with him.”
The pair has collaborated several times, even cutting a duet disc, Line Up.
“Thereʼs something about the way John interacts with me,” says Lossing.
“He knows what Iʼm going to do before I do it. We have a telepathic thing
happening. He has a willingness to be a part of the music without taking
over. On the other hand, he has the courage and ability to step on it when it
needs to be stepped on, to play the right note at the right time. Heʼll be
there for you.”
In 2001 Hebert was hired by revered pianist Andrew Hill. Many ideas were
clarified by the work the bassist did with the veteran bandleader. From the
start, at a gig in Philly, everything aligned. “Right at the downbeat I knew it
was the real deal,” he recalls, “music-making at a high level. I was so lucky
to have that time with him.” Hebert cut the gorgeous Time Lines with the
leader, who passed away in 2007. Hebert has also worked with Lee Konitz,
Paul Motian, Kenny Wheeler, and Paul Bley.
“A stamp of approval from someone with historical impact is nice,” muses
the bassist. “Playing with Andrew codified what I was hearing in music.
Prior to that relationship I was in a bit of limbo about what I was doing. I
knew I wasnʼt the straight-ahead cat, but I wasnʼt playing a whole lot of
improvisational music, either. I was a bit lost, and Andrewʼs music totally
opened my mind.”
Hill isnʼt the only well established pianist thatʼs invited Hebert to the
bandstand. Fred Hersch has also used his services. The remarkable Whirl
is their first recorded work together. “John has a very springy time feel,”
says Hersch, “itʼs easy to play with him. Having a bassist with that kind of
forward motion and great wood sound is attractive to me. He doesnʼt
strong-arm the music. He shows up to play; heʼs down for whatever
happens. I give John a lot of space and he always comes up with
something interesting.”
Those who have seen Mary Halvorsonʼs radiant trio know that Hebert is
crucial to the groupʼs concept. The acclaimed guitarist spent a fair amount
of time considering what players would comprise her rhythm section,
because a band that intimate is defined by all its participants. She knew the
bassistʼs work with Hill, but was sold after catching a duo gig Hebert did
with violist Mat Maneri. Together theyʼve made Dragonʼs Head and Saturn
“John feels like the gravity of my band,” she says. “The upright bass is one
of my favorite instruments. And to me he exemplifies the best feel and
sound. Heʼs capable of laying down a solid foundation, but being free at the
same time - really fluid. He understands my music, and adds his own ideas
to it, takes the songs in other directions than those I might think of, which I
really appreciate.”
In the fall of 2010 the bassist premiered a new ensemble, John Hebertʼs
Rambling Confessions. Itʼs a vocal group that features singer Jen Shyu
along with Bennie Wallace, Andy Milne, and Billy Drummond. It was an
idea that bubbled up after Hebert had spent lots of time enjoying Carmen
McRae. “We do standards, but we do them our own way,” he says. “Not
exactly chinga-chinga-ching. The human voice is heavy, and I want to
explore it a bit.”
Along with co-conspiritor Lucian Ban, heʼs also reworked the music of
Romanian composer and violinist George Enesco. Enesco Reimagined
was released in the autumn of 2010. Variety is becoming an Hebert
signature trait. Connecting the dots between his interests is becoming more
natural to the bassist. Heʼs in the middle of forging an artistic perspective,
and the process is similar to the unity thatʼs necessary to have a group of
instrumentalists make their collective statement.
“Jazz is a conversation,” he says. “You always have to think about how
things are blending. Horn players do that naturally, but rhythm sections
need to concentrate on that. Itʼs one thing to concentrate on playing
changes, but what about just concentrating on a whole note? Let me hear
your tone. That simple stuff is key, and I always try to keep it in mind.”
I listen to the masters. Billy Hart – the way he tunes his bass drum. Fredʼs
touch - the way he comps is exquisite. Andrew too, how he addressed that
instrument was incredible. Theyʼre all intent listeners, and have a direct
relationship to whatʼs going outside of them. They always want to know:
ʻwhatʼs needed?ʼ Thatʼs what Iʼd like to figure out as I progress.”
Sound advice from a musician that Hill deemed “the best bassist you never
heard of.” “That was a great compliment,” says Hebert.
With project after project in the works, one thingʼs certain: a lot more
listeners will be hearing about John Hebert in the years to come.