It is now four and a half years since the 18-year partnership between pianist LAURENCE HOBGOOD and vocalist Kurt Elling came to an end. The pianist has several new projects, and will be doing dates with his trio in the UK and Australia in April. He explained the background to Sebastian:
LondonJazz News: Can I clear up one uncertainty (of mine): are you now a Chicagoan or a New Yorker?
Laurence Hobgood: I guess kind of both; I definitely live in New York full time (for one thing I married a born-and-bred Upper Westsider) but Chicago will always be "home" in a sense – I have more close friends there and that's where the Green Mill is. The Mill will always be my true jazz home.
LJN: I so much enjoyed the 2016 album Honor Thy Fathers with John Patitucci and Kendrick Scott. What was the significance of that album for you?
LH: Honor Thy Fathers was significant in many ways; principally that it was my first "full production" opportunity on my own project – meaning a first class studio where I had control of all the elements. I'd been in that position many times but always for someone else's project – and indeed it was in those situations where I'd learned studio/production craft. So I felt totally ready to bring all that experience to bear on my own recording.
Also, getting to play with Patitucci and Kendrick was significant – I'd played with both of them but not together. And at the time, fresh from the break with Kurt Elling, I felt it important to record with players who have "high profiles". And then there's the actual material/concept of the record itself; I was at a real junction point and the idea of paying tribute to the big influences in my life seemed not just appropriate but necessary. (By the way, I have every intention of doing an "Honor Thy Mothers" project at some point.)
LJN: And it seems to have had a good reception?
LH: Definitely -- great print reviews but even more important to me are the many friends who still tell me it's in some form of heavy rotation in their home, car, iPod, etc.
LJN: Now you will be touring with a different trio. Please introduce us to the other members?
LH: In Jared Schonig (drums) and Matt Clohesy (bass) I feel I've really found my sound – they each combine all the attributes my music requires: super broad stylistic versatility, virtuosic/effortless technique and a boundless joyfulness that comes across in their playing.
LJN: And the dominant repertoire is your arrangements of songs?
LH: Short answer: yes.
Longer answer: our repertoire is divided about 60/40 between arrangements of known songs and original material. I've found that the term "arrangement" is, let's just say, incompletely apprehended by most people. It literally means "how are we going to play the song in question" in a nuts & bolts sense. Given that most musical works have at their core a discernible melody, said melody can be thought of as the heart of the composition. But is the first note of the melody going to be the first note we actually play? Usually not – there will likely be some sort of introduction, probably something that establishes the groove that's been chosen. And there can be many other "events" during a performance (in addition to the improvised solo sections) that go beyond the basic melody. The sum total of all those decisions constitutes the arrangement – so you see that even original compositions have to be "arranged" in a way that's separate from conceiving their central melody.
As both an improviser and composer my particular approach is to try to frame an arrangement in what is frequently a pretty scripted way; this is tricky because jazz music always needs to sound spontaneous – it can't come off as overly controlled by its compositional elements. But in the hands of great players deftly conceived arranging can seem so fresh that the lines between exactly what's being improvised and what's pre-figured tend to blur. One of the best ways to describe the result is that my music is much harder to play than it is to listen to – and of course closely related to that is the old maxim of making it look easy.
LJN: Including some songs by Brits?
LH: Definitely. For example we'll play my arrangements of Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic and Blackbird.
LJN: And your own compositions too?
LH: Oh yes, quite a few of those; we'll focus on the original pieces on Honor Thy Fathers but there are several others we've been digging into lately as well.
Laurence Hobgood (centre)
with Matt Clohesy and Jared Schonig
LJN: Does this now feel like a working band?
LH: Absolutely. These two young(-ish) gentlemen are the ideal fit for my music. Jared's parents are music educators in the Los Angeles area; as such he's grown up in a musically enlightened environment – he plays piano and has a good working knowledge of tonal music theory that's rare for drummers. So his interpretive abilities are expansive.
Matt is one of the few bassists I've heard anywhere whose sound is as huge as Patitucci's – or Christian's or Dave Holland's for that matter. His soloing is not just facile – it's interesting. That's a very important thing to me vis-à-vis the trio format – I want frequent bass solos, but for that to work the bassist has to really be able to play exciting ideas in a virtuosic way.
The point really is that they're both advanced musical thinkers who've also taken the time to develop monster technique. It's very special.
LJN: You launched a new project called Tesseterra in Chicago – what’s the story there?
LH: Tesseterra is my new project for trio and string quartet. (I made up this word, tesseterra, by the way, and I'm inclined to italicize it for some reason – it's an amalgam of "tessitura" and "terra", and to me means "the fabric of the world" – meant of course in an aural sense.)
It probably started with the Kurt Elling project that eventually – thankfully – put a Grammy on my shelf; that was the Dedicated To You John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman tribute recorded live at Lincoln Center. That was the project that got me back to writing for string quartet (with rhythm section), which I hadn't done since college.
I love writing for string quartet – mind you I mean real string quartet writing, not glorified string section; intricate, independent scoring tightly coordinated with the rhythm section. As I felt I was sort of coming into my own as an arranger – and particularly focusing on the "expanded songbook" (bringing great modern popular songs into the jazz canon) – it seemed natural to revisit this sound (but sans vocals.) So I've been writing for a little over four years and finally last Fall felt I was ready (repertoire-wise) to get into the studio. I'm very excited with the results: the repertoire ranges from Sting (Every Little Thing...) to Jimmy Webb (Wichita Lineman) to Chopin (Waltz Op. 64 no. 2) to the American folk spiritual We Shall Overcome (which I started writing the day after our most recent Presidential election.) I even wrote an arrangement of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes by Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The trio recorded with the string quartet ETHEL, who played on the aforementioned Grammy-winning project. It was great to reunite with them and I hope to be able to have them tour this project at least a little bit – they're quite busy. I'm guessing we'll end up collaborating with local string quartets – but that's cool, there are a lot of great string quartets out there who I think would really enjoy playing this material since it's both challenging but a lot of fun, too.
As for the album we're still "shopping" this so I'm not sure exactly when it will be released, hopefully by this Fall.
LJN: And there is a quintet with trumpet and sax. Who’s involved?
LH: Well Jared and Matt of course; I'm very proud to say that the tenor sax player is none other than the amazing Ernie Watts. I'm not yet sure who will play trumpet when we go into the studio – Marquis Hill played the longest tour we've done, but that was before he won the Monk competition and blew up, so he hasn't been available. Not sure about the trumpeter yet.
This is also ready to record – I think there are 12 finished pieces for the quintet. I'm constantly writing, either for my groups or, just as likely, one of the singers whose projects I'm writing and/or producing. When you write enough to develop a system that allows you to work with increasing speed (I use Sibelius if anyone's interested) you start viewing repertoire differently.
So it's intentional that tesseterra is all iconic song repertoire, whereas the quintet is all original writing. I wanted to do simultaneous projects that showed both sides of my compositional self; the classic sound of jazz quintet with tenor sax and trumpet is the perfect vessel for realizing my original compositions, whereas the more unique sound of trio + string quartet appeals to my penchant for reimagining standards.
LJN: And you also work with singer Arianna Neikrug?
LH: I met Arianna last year; she had won the Sarah Vaughan vocal competition and part of her prize was making a record for Concord. Chris Dunn (head of A&R at Concord) reached out to me to see if I'd be interested in shepherding the project and, after meeting with Arianna a couple times, I agreed enthusiastically.
She has a great voice and also a great imagination; further, I can say without a doubt that Arianna's the most theoretically informed singer I've ever worked with – she graduated from the Frost School of Music at University of Miami and it's no surprise to me that she learned so much because the dean there, the amazing pianist/composer/arranger Shelly Berg, is a good friend and I'd expect nothing less from any programme he'd be in charge of.
But Arianna has a thinking musician's mind or she wouldn't have retained so much information. She's special, and I think the record we've made, Changes (title of an original song we co-wrote,) is special – hopefully the start of an enduring collaboration. It comes out in May.
By the way Jared and Matt are on Changes, too.
LJN: And does either the UK or Australia bring back memories of previous visits?
LH: Oh yes, many memories. In fact Pizza Express in Dean Street especially so; that's where one night, as we began the second set, I looked out and saw Tony Bennett sitting there not 20 feet from me.
But there were also great nights at the Barbican and Queen Elizabeth Hall when I was still playing with Kurt Elling – I'd love to bring tesseterra into one of those exquisite venues!
And Australia – I love Australia, the people are so amazingly open and friendly! I think I've been down to Oz ten times or so? Been all over the country – lots of great memories, from sailing on Sydney Harbor to some great days in wine country – Barossa, McLaren Vale, Margaret River. Hitting the beach at Byron Bay, gorgeous place! And of course musical memories as well – playing in the main hall at Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony didn't ruin my day at all!
I can't wait to get back to both places and I'm so excited to be bringing the best trio I've ever had – we have so much fun and I can truthfully say that every time we play the audience does, too.
TOUR DATES - UK and FRANCE
Wednesday 4 April 18:30 PizzaExpress Live, London
Thursday 5 April 18:30 PizzaExpress Live, London
Friday 6 April 18:30 Dublin Jazz, Bagots Hutton, Dublin, Ireland
Saturday 7 April 19:30 Cinnamon Club, Altricham
Tuesday 10 April 20:30 Watermill Jazz, Dorking
Friday 13 April 18:30 Duc des Lombards, Paris
LINKS: Review of 2016 CD Honor Thy Fathers
Laurence Hobgood website