By Howard Reich
That's when his newest recording, "Honor Thy Fathers," will be released, but Chicago listeners who crowded the Green Mill Jazz Club on Friday night heard a sneak preview of the music (and snapped up advance copies that Hobgood brought along for the occasion).
That Hobgood should offer an early view of the project at the Mill seemed thoroughly appropriate, for he was based in Chicago from 1988 to 2006 and presented some of his most important work in the great old room. It was at the Mill that Hobgood and singer Kurt Elling forged their partnership, both eventually moving to New York, then splitting up abruptly at the end of 2013.
So Hobgood's weekend engagement leading his new trio represented a meaningful return for him.
"Man, it's nice to be home," he told the audience, to high-decibel response. "This will always be my jazz home."
Sure sounded like it during his first set, Hobgood bringing considerable ardor to music from "Honor Thy Fathers." If the album, with drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist John Patitucci, represents Hobgood's trio work at its most polished and controlled, the concert performance with drummer Jared Schonig and bassist Matt Clohesy leaned toward viscerally exciting, rhythmically propulsive music-making.
Or perhaps the electricity of the occasion and Hobgood's eagerness to perform in a valued setting explained the intensity of the proceedings. Whatever the reason, Hobgood and friends clearly came to make a point and did so emphatically.
Though the evening began with a hush in the album's closing tune, Hobgood's "Shirakumo No Michi (White Cloud Way)," his delicately stated introductory passages soon gave way to full-throttle playing. Drummer Schonig and bassist Clohesy sounded as fiercely committed to this music as Hobgood, the three musicians showing a sonic cohesiveness that belied the freshness of the venture. Together they conjured power without noise, energy without haste, drama without overstatement.
As its title implies, "Honor They Fathers" represents Hobgood's salute to those who have influenced him, either through love (his father) or music (his teachers and jazz heroes). The aforementioned "Shirakumo" emerged as Hobgood's homage to master composer Wayne Shorter, while Hobgood's "Triptych" stood as a complex, oft-profound tribute to the late University of Illinois music professor Salvatore Martirano. The perpetual inventiveness of Hobgood's right-hand lines in this work and the profusion of its musical incidents made this one of the more substantial performances of the evening.
Hobgood's arrangement of the chestnut "Poinciana" was cut from the album, but you didn't have to hear his commentary to realize he was tipping his hat to a piano giant who similarly launched his international career in Chicago, Ahmad Jamal. Somehow Hobgood captured the rhythmically airborne quality of Jamal's classic recording (and uncounted subsequent performances) without attempting to mimic Jamal's other musical signatures. Instead, Hobgood produced exquisitely detailed right-hand filigree, backed by the muscular sound and rhythmic tension of Schonig's drums.
You have to admire a pianist who's willing to take on "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" at this late date. The tune may not be a masterpiece, but singer Doris Day turned the melody into something radiant with her hit recording long ago. Hobgood's ultra-slow version (perhaps for a future "Honor Thy Mothers" album?) made a lullaby of the piece, his legato lines answered by a soulful solo from bassist Clohesy.
The most important takeaway from this occasion, though, was not so much the persuasiveness of Hobgood's pianism or the musicality of his arrangements, which are well-known, but the alacrity of this trio. Just as "Honor Thy Fathers" can be considered Hobgood's strongest recording to date, this band may provide his best musical forum yet, opening a major new chapter in his career.
We'll see next year.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.