Pianist Laurence Hobgood returned to the downtown Los Angeles venue Blue Whale on Nov. 9 with a new West Coast band and a trail of gossip flowing behind him.
In the December issue of DownBeat, an article on Kurt Elling points out that the singer would go on tour soon with a band that does not include Hobgood, his longtime pianist and arranger. Elling, who was voted the top male vocalist in the 2013 DownBeat Readers Poll, has worked with Hobgood for nearly 20 years. On his website, Hobgood posted a link to Howard Reich’s “My Kind of Jazz” column in the Nov. 6 edition of the Chicago Tribune, which confirmed that Elling and Hobgood would be taking an indefinite break.
This news has reverberated like a divorce announcement, with many jazz fans mourning a future without the inimitable collaborations that helped Elling and Hobgood win numerous accolades, including Grammy awards for the 2009 album Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings The Music Of Coltrane & Hartman (Concord).
While Hobgood might have some slight trepidation about his next career moves, the Blue Whale gig was far from the first time his name had topped a marquee. The pianist has released recordings under his own name for the last few years, including a collaboration with poet Robert Pinsky titled PoemJazz and a live quartet recording with tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts.
Watts was not on the bandstand for this particular gig. Instead, Hobgood surrounded himself with a younger group of Los Angeles-based musicians, including trumpeter Jonathan Dane and tenor saxophonist Greg Johnson (who provided authoritative blasts), along with bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Dan Schnelle. The latter two are regulars on the Blue Whale stage, and they provided the supple rhythmic spark for an impressive set of Hobgood originals.
The pianist opened with “The Gilded Cage,” tackling the intro alone, pensively ascending and descending through echoing tremolos before Robaire and Schnelle burst in with explosive energy. The horns followed shortly thereafter. Hobgood asserted his leadership by taking the first solo, a sprightly hard-bop sprint, punctuated by fistfuls of lower-register keys. Johnson drove a breathless honk in response while Dane took a more economical approach. Schnelle, relishing the pace, pummeled a true Saturday night, prime-time drum solo, the kind of bashing that can get the neighbors lodging a formal complaint and the audience hollering for more.
“Rip Van Winkle” coasted on a bossa nova groove, the horns sighing their way through the gentle melody. Hobgood again took the first solo, dropping blues-laden lines over the horns’ reassurance. Robaire maintained a Horace Silver-indebted root-fifth bass riff for the horns to solo over in languid satisfaction.
“O-Wakare,” a tune written in response to Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake, had an appropriately somber tone. While the first tunes of the set were carefully managed displays of tight arranging and succinct solo opportunities, this composition opened things up, embracing the undulating ballad’s spacious design. Hobgood engaged in a solo exploration, letting his notes float before Johnson brought the melody, hovering in close proximity to the piano’s conservative accompaniment. Robaire grabbed the spotlight with a silken solo that hushed the room, embracing his carefully crafted melodic phrases over Schnelle’s patient brushwork.
The ensemble closed with the funky, odd-metered “Septitude.” Robaire brought some heat interacting with Schnelle on their showy intro. The horns jumped in quickly, taking turns juicing the vibrant mood with passionate jaunts. A series of hits and fluttering horn lines at the end of the tune put the band to the test and everyone delivered with a smile.
Earlier in the evening, Hobgood had indicated that not only was this the first time the ensemble had played publicly, but they had only had one rehearsal. In lesser hands, that kind of statement can be a convenient excuse for sloppy musicianship, but during this gig, it was nearly impossible to tell that the band had only learned the charts 24 hours earlier.
Hobgood obviously embraced his leadership role, playfully interacting with the audience and providing insight between each composition. Whatever he ends up doing next with his pen and piano, it will no doubt be swinging. And he’ll have plenty of fans anxiously awaiting to hear his future projects, which include another collaboration with Pinsky.
—Sean J. O’Connell