Vicissitudes: John Heard, Leroy Williams, and Grachan Moncur III

On June 25, there’s a tribute to John Heard at The 222 in Healdsburg, California.

John Heard played bass at the highest level. His name is a little less familiar only because he spent most of his career on the West Coast, but there are well over one hundred LPs in the discography, including many led by significant names such as George Duke, Count Basie, George Cables, and Bobby Hutcherson.

Two of those sessions are in my private pantheon. Early on I got the LP Night Rider, a two-piano date with Count Basie and Oscar Peterson accompanied by Heard and Louis Bellson, and I listened to that damn thing over and over. A quote on the internet says that Heard was Basie’s favorite bassist. It’s hard to know if that is true, but Heard is nothing less than perfect in this relaxed and exposed mainstream setting. His inspirations seem to be Ron Carter and Ray Brown, each note lands with sure-footed grace, and at times he leans on the front end of the beat.

Then there’s George Cables’s Phantom of the City with Tony Williams, which for my money is one of the best piano trio records of the era (1985) and certainly one of the best showcases for the compositional brilliance and virtuosic piano style of the leader. How wonderful to hear Tony Williams in this sort of situation as well. In addition to being a musician, John Heard was a fine painter, and the cover painting of Cables is by Heard.

Tonight I listened Bobby Hutcherson’s Color Schemes, an excellent session from the same year as Phantom of the City. The core quartet is Hutcherson, Heard, Mulgrew Miller, and Billy Higgins, with Airto adding percussion touches. The programming is intentionally diverse: latin beats up against swingers, a duo with piano (“Rosemary, Rosemary”) and the overdubbed title piece, featuring at least two Hutchersons and two Airtos. Heard plays the latin beats well, but his voice is more obvious on the swingers, throwing down hard next to the magician Billy Higgins on “Bemsha Swing,” “Whisper Not, ” and a tightly-arranged “Remember.” One of the best tracks is the final ballad, “Never Let Me Go,” with Hutcherson on rhapsodic marimba.

Sad to say goodbye to the great Leroy Williams, a drummer devoted to swing.

The first record Leroy Williams and Barry Harris made together was in 1969, Magnificent! with Ron Carter. For me, this trio album is the beginning of the most profound Barry Harris. A key turned in the lock, and for well over a decade the piano maestro was at his peak as a player.

During that time, Leroy and Barry kept on trying to play the upbeats later than the other. Heavy swing. Leroy is invaluable anywhere, but those tracks with Barry are truly something else. Leroy Williams and Barry Harris together! No doubt about it.

I didn’t know Barry, but I was around him occasionally because we shared the same piano teacher, Sophia Rosoff. At one of those gatherings (around 2005 or so) I got up the nerve to ask him, “Hey Barry, how many trio gigs have you done without Leroy Willams since 1969?”

Barry thought about it for a moment, then replied, “One.”

There is a fair amount of video of Harris and Williams from the late years, all of which is wonderful, but there’s only one track on YouTube from a bit earlier. This uptempo “Oblivion” with Hal Dodson is the real deal.

When I asked Bertha Hope to describe Leroy Williams, she said, “Right dead down the middle. Everything he does surrounds ‘one’ in a beautiful way.”

Leroy Williams has over 100 LPs in the discography, mostly in the ’70s and ’80s. Along with Barry Harris and Bertha Hope, major names include other keepers of the true jazz flame like Charles McPherson, Red Rodney, Pepper Adams, Sonny Stitt, Junior Cook, and Bill Hardman. Not all of that era of straight ahead music survives on LP that well. There’s a variety of factors, including the studios and the basic sonic presentation. However, recently live tapes of two tunes from McPherson, Williams, Michael Weiss, and Tyler Mitchell at Birdland in 1991 have surfaced: “The Song is You” and “Countdown.” Wow! This is truly great. On “The Song Is You” Williams really throws it around behind McPherson. Just gorgeous.

(Uh. Better practice “Countdown” tomorrow…)

The NPR obit of Grachan Moncur III by Nate Chinen offers a good overview. Several years ago, after Bobby Hutcherson passed away, I offered a close listen to Moncur’s sensational debut Evolution. In the last week I’ve been periodically listening to other Moncur albums and haven’t connected with them yet. Besides Evolution, the Moncur-led music I like best are two tunes from the Black Arts Repertory Theatre concert produced by Amiri Baraka on March 28, 1965. It’s Moncur’s quartet with Bobby Hutcherson, Cecil McBee, and Beaver Harris playing “The Intellect” and “Blue Free.”

“The Intellect” is a 24-minute sprawl that begins with a diatonic meditation in G-Flat. Hutcherson imitates windchimes, McBee groans in arco, and the leader’s beautiful slow gutbucket trombone is next door to Roswell Rudd. There’s a palpable Charles Ives influence, yet the track is also something that could have been recorded for a ’70’s ECM record.

Even more to my taste is the comparatively short and sweet “Blue Free,” which boasts one of the greatest Hutcherson wails I’ve heard over insane McBee. The whole track is exceptional: Moncur channels Monk for this riff piece and Harris swings out. The mid-60s was such a fertile time for experimentation. Like the title says, true “blue” and true “free” were allowed to be pressed right up against each other, and Moncur was a key figure in that beautiful mix.