Composer and bassist Charles Mingus’s legendary status is undeniable. Tributes to his genius tend to come up short because there isn’t a way to improve what he has already wrought. One element of Mingus’s vision that tends to get overlooked was his ability to create singular ensembles of strong, individual performers to play his music, ensembles that have gone down in history as some of the greatest of all time.
Bassist John Hébert has long been influenced by Mingus’s music. It was Mingus’s 1975 Atlantic recording, Changes One, that etched the clarity of the legend’s vision and tone into Hébert’s mind. Using the music and ensemble fluidity of the album as a direct inspiration, Hébert assembled an incredible band to play with the spirit of Mingus as a beacon for a number of performances from 2011 to 2013. The recording, Sounds of Love, presents the ensemble in their element, in a thrillingly dynamic live performance.
Having set roots in New York in the mid-1990s, Hébert became one of the most in demand bassists of his generation, upholding duties in bands led by Andrew Hill, Paul Bley, Mary Halvorson, and Uri Caine. Hébert continues to participate in a longstanding musical relationship with piano great Fred Hersch and has found himself in academia as a professor at Western Michigan University.
Assembling cohesive lineups of musicians is an art form that Mingus mastered. For this band, Hébert wanted to put together a shocking combination of musicians that would make the music come to life. Fred Hersch was a natural selection for the piano chair, as he had even studied with Mingus’s longtime pianist, Jaki Byard. The singular saxophonist and composer Tim Berne is a key fixture on New York’s Downtown scene where Hébert immersed himself and Berne makes a rare appearance as a sideman on Sounds of Love. Trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum proves a fitting foil to Berne and Hébert’s Halvorson rhythm section partner, drummer Ches Smith, proves once again that he can handle any musical challenge.
The musicians hadn’t played with each other before the first rehearsal. Their contrasting sounds were what Hébert wanted to make the music come together and still stand apart. It was a true balance of personalities and styles that would have made Mingus proud.
Hébert did not intend for the group to be a repertory band. They did develop arrangements of a handful of Mingus pieces, mostly from the Changes recording. Other pieces were written by the leader as vehicles for improvisation, with more than slight nods to the Mingus’s style, as he was obviously on Hebert’s mind.
The first performance of the group was in 2011 and, based on the strength of the ensemble, Hébert was able to take them on a short tour of Europe in 2013. The Sounds of Love recording comes from a live performance at Jazz in Bess in Lugano, Switzerland on March 27, 2013.
The recording begins with Ho Bynum’s vehement trumpet and Hersch’s pointillistic piano leading into Hébert’s “Constrictor,” an ominous waltz that sets the mood of noirish mystery as it builds to dynamic heights with Berne’s solo. Smith’s drums introduce the leader’s “Blank Faced Man,” a loose, subtle piece that shows the ensemble’s interplay. A fantastic solo bass feature from Hébert leads into Mingus’s “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” the ensemble keeping their intensity at simmer, allowing Mingus’s melody to sing.
Hébert’s “Love What?” was written in response to Mingus’s “What Love?” The piece pushes and pulls, the ensemble staying dramatically malleable before ramping up the energy in an off-kilter groove. The rhythmic structure of Mingus’s bluesy “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” makes the piece incredibly exciting to solo over and the ensemble takes full advantage, as the band members sing and shout. The recording concludes with the leader’s “Frivolocity,” a piece that contorts and twists over a bassline that was loosely based on Mingus’s “Sue’s Changes.”
Perhaps the best method to honor Charles Mingus’s work isn’t through imitation. John Hébert looked to the legend’s ability to match musical personalities in service to the music as inspiration for his band on Sounds of Love, though with plenty of Mingus DNA in their output.
2. The Blank-Faced Man
3. Duke Ellington's Sound of Love
4. Love What?
5. Remember Rockefeller at Attica
John Hébert - bass
Taylor Ho Bynum - cornet
Tim Berne - alto saxophone
Fred Hersch - piano
Ches Smith - drums & percussion