Grammy winners Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood go separate ways

Howard Reich
9:22 a.m. CST, November 5, 2013


Twenty years ago, an exceptional young pianist and a daring young singer met in Chicago, began collaborating at the Green Mill Jazz Club and launched what would become one of the most enduring partnerships in contemporary jazz.

Pianist Laurence Hobgood and vocalist Kurt Elling each went on to win individual Grammy Awards for their work on the album "Dedicated to You" (2009) and have toured the world together several times over.

But that collaboration has come to a halt, at least for the foreseeable future, according to both musicians.

"Kurt has decided that it's time for (a) break to happen, and I have to say, for what it's worth, I think he's probably right," says Hobgood.

"It's a major event between two collaborators, and there are legitimate frustrations and issues on both sides."

Elling responded to an interview request with an emailed statement: "I'm taking a bit of a break from touring this year and next to focus on writing and new projects. It's my understanding that Laurence has several important ventures of his own to pursue at this point – which is great. I look fwd to reconnecting with him creatively at a mutually satisfying juncture down the road."

Hobgood's virtuosic pianism and lustrous instrumental arrangements set the stage for the brilliant vocals on Elling's early Blue Note albums and for Elling's tamer, less innovative recordings and performances of subsequent years. The pianist expressed regret over the silencing of their music.

"I think what has happened, for me personally, is a great sadness," said Hobgood, who, like Elling, now lives in New York. "I fully realize that I need to do my own thing and, to be fair, in the past I have not been as assertive as I should have been, availing myself of opportunities that one could argue were being handed to me because of being with Kurt.

"And I know that has been a frustration for him, and that's fair.

"But to chuck the whole thing at a time when I just don't think it was necessary, I think it's sad. I'm going to move on and re-dedicate myself to doing the best work I can do for both myself and other fine folks that would like for me to help them sound good."

Would it be accurate to say that Hobgood has served as Elling's primary arranger for the breadth of the singer's career since they met in 1993? Elling declined to answer specific questions about Hobgood's contributions.

"I feel that's correct," said Hobgood. "That's one of the things that was great about our collaboration, that we worked all different ways.

"Sometimes he'd say: 'Hey, I'd like to do something with this song,' and we'd find the key, and I'd go to do the arrangement.

"Other times, the arrangement was so close to being finished in his mind that I was basically taking dictation and filling in what needed to be filled in.

"But let me just say that, in my mind, an arranger is somebody who puts pencil to paper, or, in these days, fingers to (computer) keyboard.

"And if you accept that definition, then I'm the arranger."

Considering the stature of both artists' work, neither will have much difficulty keeping busy.

Elling will be playing a New Year's Eve show at Northlight Theatre, in Skokie, to be followed by an engagement at the Green Mill – without Hobgood.

Hobgood has been touring the country with his own band, featuring saxophonist Ernie Watts, which played the Green Mill last month and will bow at the Blue Whale in Los Angeles on Saturday. While on the West Coast, Hobgood will be producing and playing a record date for the jazz singer Charmaine Clamor.

Hobgood's next recording of his own, "Christmas," which will include some vocals from Elling, will be out later this month. In addition, Hobgood is writing and serving as music director for singer Ariane Reinhart's show at the Metropolitan Room in New York in January.

And a follow-up to Hobgood's critically applauded album "PoemJazz" with Robert Pinsky, United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000, is being prepped for release.

"When we recorded the first 'PoemJazz' record – and I think there's some very magical stuff on there – but Robert and I were really just getting to know each other," says Hobgood, who performed with Pinsky for Poetry Day last month at the Harold Washington Library Center.

"And when we made the second recording … we (had) spent a year-and-a-half playing together and getting to know each other better and really creating a vibe. We both feel it's 10 times better than the first one."

Of the first "PoemJazz," critic Christopher Loudon in JazzTimes magazine referred to Pinsky as "arguably America's greatest living poet" and to the recording as a "tremendous collaboration."

For his part, Pinsky hears "a whole history of music" in Hobgood's pianism, the poet told me. "Classical as well as jazz. His tremendous implicit (musical) vocabulary. Sometimes it's allusions. Sometimes it's just these sneaky little – you get a feeling of whatever it is, Debussy or Duke Ellington.

"So he brings that, and it's original. But to me, in particular, he's thinking about the words. As you know, he's a very intelligent and well-spoken man," added Pinsky, who marveled at Hobgood's ability to wholly improvise accompaniments as Pinsky reads his own poems.

"Laurence often has the words of the poem on the desk of the piano, as though it were sheet music. And his eyes are on the whole space of the poem – he's reading the words as I do them. He's hearing the melodies of the sentences."

Whether we'll ever hear Hobgood and Elling performing together again is a mystery.

Elling, who used to refer to a "40-year tour" that he and Hobgood were pursuing, in his statement clearly left open the possibility of a reunion.

Said Hobgood, "I don't want to rule out that we will ever work together again."

Last month, as Hobgood prepared to bring his quintet to the Green Mill, I wrote that "one of these days, perhaps the music world will recognize the stature and tonal beauty of former Chicagoan Hobgood's pianism," and that this could happen when he "steps out of everyone else's shadow."

That moment begins now.

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