Photo by Mitchell Haddad
“Shit!” In the recording booth, John Heard grips the Bitch by her shiny brown neck and scratches his white beard. “I’m not getting the subtleties here. It’s becomin’ a hang-up now.”
At 65, the bassist is one of L.A. jazz’s unsung veterans, documented on over 400 releases from the likes of Count Basie, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, Cal Tjader, Art Pepper, Lionel Hampton, George Duke and Toshiko Akiyoshi. The self-taught Heard describes himself as “just an old, rowdy, punk-ass motherfucker,” and in his deep rasp of a voice and hard-swinging pizzicato you can hear his rough hometown, Pittsburgh.
Perhaps Heard has been hamstrung by his deference to his fellow musicians, his reluctance to take solos (Count Basie once commanded one on a song he had written especially for Heard and was flatly refused) and — believe it or not — his natural shyness. “John Heard puts himself down to the extent that it’s ridiculous,” bassist Don Thompson once told jazz critic Gene Lees. “He’s one of the best bass players I’ve ever heard. The only person who doesn’t know it is John!” Heard’s one date as a bandleader took place in 1983 for the tiny L.A.-based ITJ label and wound up going the route of so many independent jazz projects: The distribution fizzled, the label went belly up, and Heard has the master tapes stashed in his Toluca Lake garage. Not long after that, on his 50th birthday, he walked away from music to pursue his first love: painting.
On a recent sweltering three-day weekend, Heard and “the Bitch” — his nickname for his 174-year-old Tyrolean bass — came out of retirement to record his first album as a leader in 21 years, this time backed by two producers with serious music-biz cash & carry, Stewart Levine and Bernie Grundman. He assembled a new group with pianist Danny Grissett and drummer Lorca Hart, up-and-coming college boys young enough to be his grandchildren. “I picked them because of their open-mindedness, and their ability to get that pocket, that pulse, that drive I call ‘the Oneness,’” says Heard. “When you’re relyin’ on one guy, you’re not as inspired. A real leader of a band lets you express yourself — that’s what Ahmad did for me.”
The new disc, also featuring saxist Herman Riley and trumpeter Nolan Shaheed and slated for early 2005 release on Straight Ahead Records, amounts to a concept album of American jazz composers, with two Horace Silver songs, “Doodlin’” and “Soulsville” (which the 75-year-old pianist, who lives in the Palisades, heard and loved); Sonny Rollins’ “Valse Hot”; Wayne Shorter’s “Lester Left Town”; Randy Weston’s “Little Niles”; and Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty.” Grissett’s peppery, quirky arrangements don’t encase the songs in amber but shoot a bit of that elusive contagiousness called “swingin’” into their veins. It is a true live jazz session, with no overdubs or techno-frippery; if a take isn’t completed, the music halts and simply starts again from the beginning.
“I’d like to see John stretch a little bit on this one,” says Grissett, directing from his piano bench. “He hasn’t done any solos yet.”
During his sabbatical from music, Heard tore up the ends of his fingers doing sculptures. “I couldn’t have played if I’d wanted to,” he says. “It took a long time getting back into it” — four years in various pickup bands at the Van Nuys jazz club Charlie O’s, to be exact. Now, as Heard listens impassively to the playback, heels up on the wheels of his chair, clasping his glasses in one hand, he squeezes his eyes shut and grimaces. “Did my hand break? I’m lousy on this one.” He goes back to his booth with the others and plucks the solo again. He tries three times. “Punctuation,” he mumbles, “punctuation.” The band files back into the control room. “I don’t know how much more of these I have in me,” Heard kvetches. This time, his bass comes through, heavy on the top and the bottom, shivering the speakers with its rich, woody tone.
Heard listens and nods his head, and an impish smile slowly creeps across his face. “Yeah, that’s it, that’s it. The Oneness!”
John Heard, Danny Grissett and Lorca Hart play Vibrato on Friday and Saturday, June 4 and 5.