The work of vocalist Carmen McRae was the original inspiration behind John Hébert’s most recent quartet. The bassist and composer has long appreciated McRae’s incredible voice and style. But as with so many things, as time passed, the project evolved from a simple repertory ensemble into a showcase for Hébert’s compositions and the creative interplay among four outstanding musicians. The results of the ensemble’s work can be heard on the new recording, Rambling Confessions.
Hébert has been an important member of New York’s jazz community for nearly two decades. His expert bass playing has been a hinge for ensembles from some of the music’s most well-known voices, including Andrew Hill, Fred Hersch, Paul Bley and Lee Konitz. His catholic approach to the instrument and jazz music has made it possible for him to expertly bridge the divide between the worlds of classic jazz and the avant-garde.
For his quartet, Hébert knew that he wanted a female vocalist, though one who would not only sing lyrics to the tunes but would also interact with the ensemble – one who is a true musician. Jen Shyu was the perfect fit, as her flexibility as a vocalist allowed Hébert to treat her voice as another instrument. (Hébert was also curious to hear how she would interpret a standard after working with her on a number of her own eclectic projects.)
The other members of the quartet are equally brilliant. Hébert originally met pianist Andy Milne at Ralph Alessi’s Center for Improvised Music’s program and it was soon suggested by Hébert’s friend and collaborator Benoit Delbecq that Hébert and Milne should play together. Milne has been noted for his experiments with modern composition techniques and electronics alongside standard acoustic jazz instrumentation, but this recording provided a great opportunity to showcase his touch on acoustic piano in a very stripped down setting.
The fantastic drummer Billy Drummond has spent his career alongside many illustrious bandleaders, like Horace Silver, Joe Henderson and Carla Bley. He has also led his own ensembles. His relationship with Hébert began in saxophonist Tony Malaby’s “Reading Band,” which would convene for irregular performances in the City, with the members bringing in standards and original tunes to play without rehearsal.
The compositions and arrangements that Hébert brought to the band were only minimal sketches used with the intention of letting the ensemble develop the material in performance, thereby creating a new interpretation every time they play a piece. Trusting the instincts of these great musicians, Hébert felt that it would be best to record without too much rehearsal and in a quick four-hour session. The results are inspired and brilliant. Hébert’s focus on creating space around the music allowed for the music’s subtleties to come into focus.
The recording begins with an arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” with Shyu’s voice floating at a slow rubato pace as the charging rhythm section whirls below. “Fool” is a piece by one of Hébert’s favorite contemporary musicians, Cat Power, which keeps the groove and feel of the original while adding a new open dimension. The leader’s “When You Love” was an older ballad, originally written for pianist Russ Lossing, that Hébert rearranged for Shyu’s lilting, mostly wordless performance, while “Up Beat Down” subtly churns through a structure of suspended chords and vamps perfect for standout moments from all, but especially highlighting Milne.
The one composition that survived from the group’s McRae inspired inception is Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie,” which is economical but incredibly affecting. “Rodger’s Lodge”, named for the host of the ‘90s dating show, Blind Date, is an ideal late night tune, down-tempo and relaxed. Named for a beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico, “Media Luna” is a sparse yet lovingly written ballad featuring amazing group interplay especially between Hébert and Milne. The conclusion of the recording is “70-80s Remix,” a piece that utilizes many compositional tools that were common throughout the 1970s and 1980s, most notably vamps and grooves.
Interestingly, the group that began as a tribute to one of the greatest jazz vocalists in the past 50 years went on to make a recording that isn’t necessarily a vocal jazz album. The utilization of Shyu’s vocal instrument and the group’s remarkable interplay make Rambling Confessions an excellent addition to John Hébert’s oeuvre and an intriguing example of his leading, composing and arranging skills.
released September 4, 2015
Jen Shyu - voice
Andy Milne - piano
Billy Drummond - drums
John Hébert - bass