John Hebert is the answer to the sad trivia question, Who is the last bassist to play with pianist Andrew Hill? That final performance came on Mar. 29th, 2007 at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan in a trio with drummer Eric McPherson; Hill would die just over three weeks later. For the New Orleans-born Hebert, being part of the bass lineage of Hill, a pantheon that has included Richard Davis, Ron Carter, Reggie Workman and even Hebert's teacher from William Paterson University, Rufus Reid, was "a life-altering thing. I didn't want to play any other music but that because it totally built my confidence and made me stronger as a musician. Because he never said, 'Do this, you need to play like this.' It seemed that whatever I was doing was cool and it felt right."
Hebert admits to not being totally immersed in Hill's music before the first call for a gig at the 2001 JazzBaltica Festival. But right away, Hebert describes the experience in lofty terms: "It was liberating to play and being validated in a sense of how I was approaching music or how I was hearing music, hearing the bass and my way of thinking of how it should be played. ...And then more gigs came and he just kept calling and I was like, 'hell yeah, let me do these gigs.'" From 2003 until his death, Hebert was Hill's regular sideman, a description that belies the equal partnership that Hill demanded from his musicians, and recorded on the pianist's critically-acclaimed second return to the Blue Note label, Time Lines (with McPherson, reedplayer Greg Tardy and trumpeter Charles Tolliver).
Though Hebert has been ubiquitous in New York in a number of ensembles since the turn of the century, his time with Hill was instructive in a way musicians can't get from playing solely with their peers. "It was a great sort of school for me to go to," Hebert says. "Having that mentorship, if you want to call it that, doesn't exist as much to me anymore, someone from the generation that can bring you into their language, their world and you sort of grow and develop with them and they sort of help you along in that way." And since that experience, Hebert feels that his performing opportunities are a direct result of people wanting his particular approach to the instrument. Speaking of those that employ him, Hebert says, "I'm hoping they know what I'm going to do. I don't really curb what I'm doing for a particular gig. I'm always trying to be myself and play the way I play, to a certain extent. I still want to make everyone else sound good but I try not to compromise musicianship for that."
Hebert also credits Hill for another important point in his development, the assurance to become a leader. Just released, and being celebrated this month, is the bassist's debut album Byzantine Monkey (Firehouse 12). It features his compositions as played by a group of empathetic musicians of long standing: saxists Michae Attias and Tony Malaby with Adam Kolker on flute and bass clarinet for four of ten tunes, and a pair of drummers, Nasheet Waits and Satoshi Takeishi, who plays percussion on the date. When asked if he would have done a record before his time with Hill, Hebert responds frankly: "I would have been too scared though I was making records as a sideman back then. It felt right. I had been writing music, I had done a few gigs on my own in town... It maybe came out with [Hebert's wife] Lo Jen saying, 'why can't you do your own gigs?' or maybe even Andrew said it, 'You should be leading your own band.' ...Talk about no fear; no one can say shit to you when it's your band. ...It's your music, you know how it's supposed to go."
Hebert, despite his burgeoning pedigree, is still developing himself as a musician. He observes: "I'm always trying to listen back and think what am I doing or how can I change that and try different things out. So that's always a struggle. But I think anyone finding their voice comes from playing, just experience. ...So it's a matter of hooking up the right situation and being with people that you vibrate with and that's going to bring out what you do naturally."