By Howard Reich
Anyone who has heard Laurence Hobgood already knows that he's one of the most accomplished jazz pianists working today.
But the melodic urgency, tonal sheen and improvisational creativity of his art have reached an apex with "Honor Thy Fathers," a trio album that won't be released until early next year but will be briefly available this weekend at the Green Mill Jazz Club. That's where Hobgood, who thrived in Chicago from 1988 to 2006, will play music from a recording that says a great deal about where he stands in his art and his life.
As its title suggests, "Honor Thy Fathers" represents Hobgood's homage to those who have mentored him, from his father and grandfather (pictured with the infant in 1960) to his "musical fathers," among them piano giants Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Nat King Cole. Notwithstanding the achievements of Hobgood's earlier recordings and his long tenure as pianist-arranger with singer Kurt Elling, "Honor Thy Fathers" casts Hobgood's pianism in its most favorable light yet.
To hear Hobgood seamlessly exchanging ideas with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Kendrick Scott is to savor more fully than ever the flow of his ideas, the unpredictability with which he develops them, the luster of his keyboard touch and the assuredness and subtlety of his work as bandleader (Hobgood will be joined by drummer Jared Schonig and bassist Matt Clohesy for the Green Mill engagement).
In essence, Hobgood has been busily going about the "pianistic business of rediscovering myself after the break-up with Kurt Elling," he says, referencing their split at the end of 2013. The abrupt parting ended what had been a remarkably productive partnership, at least in their early years together, when Elling was producing technically brilliant, innovative vocals.
By leading his own trio in "Honor Thy Fathers," Hobgood found himself "getting back in touch with my voice and how I might apply that to myself, as opposed to applying it to someone else's work, and the inherent nature of everything I've learned from all these great jazz fathers, and how it informs that process. It's just been a very deep experience.” In essence, Hobgood now steps into the spotlight he long has deserved. When Elling spoke with me in December of 2013 about the end of his collaboration with Hobgood, he was forthright — and correct — in acknowledging how much Hobgood had done for him.
"It's been a massive contribution," Elling said, "and I'm proud of the work that we've done together, and I'm proud of Laurence for what he's brought to the table."
Now the table is Hobgood's, and he's making the most of it. For starters, it's clear that Hobgood has been practicing, his seemingly effortless virtuosity evident throughout the recording. Hobgood credits the sleekness of this pianism to the nature of his early musical training and how he has been building on it in the last couple of years.
"I was the fortunate beneficiary … of really good classical instruction, meaning I was taught to finish," says Hobgood, who's based in New York. "There's a difference between playing a piece and preparing it for performance — the whole polishing of the piece. I draw more benefit from doing that kind of work, really trying to get a piece so that it sounds performance ready.”
That's certainly how Hobgood's pianism emerges in "Honor Thy Fathers," perhaps because he has been practicing Chopin waltzes, Beethoven sonatas and Bach preludes and fugues (from the "Well-Tempered Clavier"). But the fully finished quality of Hobgood's playing on "Honor Thy Fathers" is counterbalanced by its rush of ideas and sense of spontaneity — the best of two worlds, in effect.
Then, too, Hobgood always has been concerned with the arc of a melody line and the completion of a musical gesture. Poetic phrasing radiates from the opening track of the album, Hobgood's "Sanctuary" (an ode to his father) and serves as the undertow of his more ebullient pianism on "Straighten Up and Fly Right" (a tribute to Cole), his fast-flying notes and buoyantly swung rhythms in "Give Me the Simple Life" (a salute to Peterson) and his impressionistic palette and bejeweled tone in "The Waltz" (evoking Evans).
To Hobgood, it's the melodic line that matters most. To this day, he says, he's fascinated by "what I call song-based melody … that still puts improvisation at the forefront of what's going on. I don't mean to say anything about any particular style or anything, but there's a lot of very mathematical music happening these days that has gone away from songlike melody.
"I guess one of my things is that it's impossible to take the math out of music — musical pattern is inherently mathematical. But why do we need to remove melody in order to explore that is something I don't get.
"I like to listen to music, and I like to play music that there's a chance you might come away from it with something stuck in your head that you're humming the next day."
Even if you can't hum what you hear amid Hobgood's avalanche of notes, it's quite likely that you'll be thinking about it after the last chord has sounded.