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Wait For It... Here Comes Mr. Hobgood

By Published: March 13, 2004

Over the years, I built up a guilt feeling about having fun at the piano. What I realized at this one time was that I could do what I wanted and that everything was gonna be fine.

Laurence Hobgood is one of the finest pianists out there. Period. Why he's not better known is probably a combination of factors in the unstable and schizophrenic world of show business.

But his time is coming.

He may be relatively unheralded, but it's only a question of time before more people realize his artistry. He's got endless chops, good taste and intelligence. He's also got a creative spirit and isn't afraid to take on the difficult project or the road less traveled. On the ivories, he is a monster.

You've probably heard him, all right. He's the musical director for Kurt Elling, the wonderful jazz singer whose star has been on the rise. Those Grammy-nominated CDs you own or have heard? That's Laurence on piano. That obvious, fearless sense of improvisational adventure that Elling is known for? Uh huh. Try following that as a pianist. You probably wouldn't see many volunteers stepping forward for that job. It's a task Hobgood handles so well you don't notice it. The presentations are seamless, on record and live. The two are in sync.

The two are incredible.

And now comes a new Elling record (on Blue Note), one that may finally snatch that Grammy that has been just out of reach. This time, not only is Hobgood holding down the piano chair, but he wrote horn arrangements to go with most of the tunes. There may be limits to what this extraordinary musician can do. But they're way out there and he may never find them.

Flirting With Twilight is set to be released in August. It's a collection of mostly ballads and features Peter Erskine on drums and Marc Johnson on bass, with a horn section of Bob Sheppard, Jeff Clayton on saxophones and Clay Jenkins on trumpet. It was cut in LA earlier this year. Get ready for it.

"I'm very optimistic about this record," said Hobgood. "I think it's gonna really get us to a place that we haven't been before. To me, it's a whole new level for us. Which is not to cast any aspersions to the stuff we've done before or the musicians we've done it with. Just working with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson alone. It was an amazing experience."

"It's typically a ballads record, but with some differences. For instance, we do an arrangement of 'Easy Living' that is not at all a ballad arrangement. But that's a tune that people think of as a ballad. The record's very lush. I'm both proud and embarrassed to say I can't stop listening to it. I listen to it every day," he said recently. "And I'm really proud of it, but it's not just that. I dig it. I dig what we've done."

Considering the consistent high quality of Elling's music, that is high praise indeed.

Hobgood said the record label was considering hiring an arranger, but he spoke up and asked for the task. "Fortunately for me, Kurt supported me on that," he said. "It was an amazing opportunity for me."

Hobgood is unassuming and easygoing, a man who's confident of his abilities and mindful of his special gift, but who still walks shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. He's a talker, who laughs easily and always has a story at the ready. And he readily admits it might not have been his raw ability that got him the arranger's job.

It would have cost Blue Note maybe another $10,000 or more to hire the task out, he said. "They knew they weren't going to pay me that," he chuckles. "So they let us do our thing. They gave us the budget."

Hobgood adds they also used a famous engineer, Al Schmidt, who has done Dianna Krall recordings, among other noted work. He said when he tells others inside the business who did the work, "their jaws just drop. This guy's like a deity. And now I know why. He's amazing. It's one of the other great things about the record. It sounds unbelievable."

The CD is crisply executed, and while it does find Elling negotiating mostly ballads, it is done with the duo's typical adventurous bent. Elling is warm and supple throughout. But on "Lil' Darlin," which some may remember from Basie, while he strolls along with the melody, he still busts into some extraneous lyrics and takes it on a more joyful ride. The singer has his own phrasing and constantly interesting twists. "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "Not While I'm Around" are classics.

Hobgood's arrangements are solid. The horns meld well, adding light swing where appropriate, but providing texture and color in other spots. There are a few solo spots, but generally the horns are used to accent, caress and underline. It's a great match.

Much of that new music will be heard when the group tours this summer, but it won't always have horns.

"It'll be a long time before we bring horns. What'll happen is we'll hire horn players within a given locale or area. That means a lot of extra rehearsal to get the stuff going," he said. Already, he noted, some of the places where gigs are booked have heard advance copies of the music and are specifically asking for the horn arrangements, "so there is already excitement about it. It will be a while before we'll be using horns all the while."

So things look great for the 41-year-old Hobgood and company, but he's got other irons in the fire. He hopes to record his third CD for NAIM, a British audiophile recording outfit, with his trio Union, that has his longtime colleague Paul Wertigo on drums and Brian Torff on bass. That's the label that also has Hobgood's own solo recording Left to My Own Devices, which features Elling on a few tracks. It's not being distributed currently in the US, but "I'm really proud of it. It's some of the best work I've ever done," he said.

It is a sparkling set of songs from the standard book, some originals, and some lesser known tunes. The duet with Elling on "Goin' Back to Joe's," from the Nat Cole book, is real treat. Elsewhere, Hobgood's technique and style is exceptional. He reconstructs "Pannonica." "Witchcraft" is taken at an uncommon dirge tempo, allowing him to explore the nuance of the melody and chords that usually go ripping past in up-tempo versions usually employed. He's cool and uncluttered at times, complex at others. But he seems to be always examining the music.

So it appears to all be coming together for the Chicago-based Hobgood, a self-described "professor's brat"—the son of a theatrical arts professor, Burnet Hobgood, who moved around heading theater programs at different colleges before settling at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From crashing the keyboard as a toddler, through playing country music in Texas saloons, to joining an unofficial improvisational music lab in the Windy City, Hobgood has moved along, growing both as a musician and a person.

Listen to him now and you can hear it. The touch. The ideas. The fantastic chops. His name belongs on the annual jazz poll lists. The cat can play.

Hobgood took time out to chat on a recent May morning, the day after an excursion to Wrigley Field with Elling and a friend to take in a Chicago Cubs game. (The Cubbies took it on the chin). He was born in North Carolina and raised in Texas, after some time in Ithaca, NY. The piano, he said, "is just something I was drawn to" and while he started lessons at age 6, "I had actually been playing even before that. I would try to go over to the piano when I was a toddler. As soon as I could sit up without falling over, they put me up on the bench and I'd slap at the keys."

When the family moved to Dallas, where his father took over the theater program at SMU, the family got a piano and he started lessons with someone on the faculty.

"I had always shown a really strong improvisational bent. I used to drive my teachers crazy, taking the little Bach preludes they'd given me and sort of messing around with them. They didn't like that," he recalls with a wry fondness.

As a kid he was "a little too intense... I didn't know how to just relax," but while socially unskilled, music was constant. In Texas he got his first opportunity to make money in music, as a teenager, playing for more than three years in the country western circuit with the Kingsmen. "I was this young kid with this Fender Rhodes down there and I was playing with all these older guys. It was kind of weird but it's kind of cool," he said. Besides, he told himself, "if it's going to be working at Arby's or doing this, I'd rather be playing music than washing dishes."

The band was run by Bill Craig, who Hobgood says "would play bass then jump to trumpet. When he was playing bass, he didn't know how to play... Somehow, his time was good," and Hobgood would play the right bass notes on piano with Craig's wrong ones, and "it sounded OK."

When the family moved to the Champaign-Urban area, he didn't have much interest in continuing to play, but his father knew music was his strongest talent and got him into jazz-oriented lessons. In school, Hobgood didn't apply himself to the regular subjects, "but I still went to my music lesson every week and I was starting to figure stuff out. I cared about the music, I just wasn't ready to be serious about it yet." Once enrolled at the university, he started taking lessons with a faculty member who would have a huge impact on his playing : Ian Hobson.

"He was able to teach a technical discipline," Hobgood said. "Fortune has to smile on you and you have to be exposed to somebody that has that kind of information. It's not information you're just going to get anywhere and you're not going to think of it yourself. Somebody has to show it to you." It was pure technique.

"There's no way I would have developed into the kind of technical player that I've developed into, even with the early start," without Hobson's training, he said. "I realized that all the other teachers I ever had, as well meaning as they ever were, taught me how to play pieces. And he was teaching me how to play the piano. Physically, how to use the wrist, both horizontally and vertically, how to access muscle memory. He taught a right technique."

He made Hobgood practice slowly and make two movements for every note. "You center the wrist with the next note you're about to play, then play the note. You're constantly centering the center of the wrist with the note you're playing. He had me do this excruciatingly slow, but I actually did it." The regimen gradually sped up, over time, "until finally I was playing this thing full tilt and I couldn't make a mistake."

His muscles had memorized the pattern, "almost robotic. And that was the beginning of the technical study that he offered and I just ate it up. I figured out ways to apply it to jazz playing," he said.

Hobgood had listened to rock music, like Chicago, Supertramp and Genesis, but most of his taste was in jazz, the likes of Oscar Peterson—"he's so ebullient and flashy" and Bill Evans. The music of Miles Davis also had a huge effect. The album My Funny Valentine is probably his favorite, he says, if forced to pick just one. "I fell in love with all the same cats that I'm still in love with, Chick (Corea) and Herbie (Hancock) and McCoy (Tyner) ... Keith Jarrett. It still really remains the focus. That's probably true for a lot of young cats."

Hobgood played with the school's jazz orchestra under famed conductor John Garvey, "a huge influence on me," and informally studied with Sal Martirano, a renowned composer and of avant-garde music and guru to many of the young musicians, "my ultimate mentor," Hobgood said. He called Martirano "a burning, intense genius beyond any normal human conception" who was also "an open-hearted guy." Young musicians would hang out at his house, eat, listen to music, play, and discuss—"an amazing experience," he said.

The true turning point for Hobgood to push him to the next level happened while still in college. It was a revelation, of sorts. An awakening that pushed him into a musical exploration that is still ongoing.

"The thing that got me to actually buckle down and excel is: I was pissed," he said, straightforward. "At myself. I had been coasting on my talent and not really working that hard. I'd go to jam sessions and I knew I could do better. I wanted to do better and it just wasn't happening."

He read a Bill Evans interview, he said, in which the piano legend said it was better to practice one tune for 24 hours than 24 tunes for an hour each. The article described how Evans would break down music, rebuild it, and then restructure it again.

So one day, annoyed with himself, he went into the college practice room. "I never practiced much before that. I was pissed," and on that day "I got into that space where you aren't aware of time passing. I spent about four hours with the music, for its own sake." He decided there were no shortcuts and "got completely drawn into the music." Playing "There Will Never Be Another You," Hobgood started "tearing it apart, I was looking at all the connections between chords, then looking at possibilities I hadn't looked at yet." Then he packed up and left.

"Man, I felt better than I had ever felt in my entire life. And I really didn't know why. And all of a sudden I just stopped dead in my tracks. Literally. Walking down the street. Just stopped and it just hit me like a brick wall that all my life I've had people telling me: 'Wow, you're blessed, you have talent. Isn't that great.' And I said to myself 'Wow, man, maybe the blessing is this deep. So deep that I never have to play another note of music that's something I don't want to play. Ever. If I don't want to play Mozart, I don't have to. If it's jazz, then lets do it.'"

Hobgood realized he had been pushed away from his improvisational side through his years of piano lessons, and pushed into doing the lesson "correctly."

"Over the years, I built up a guilt feeling about having fun at the piano. What I realized at this one time was that I could do what I wanted and that everything was gonna be fine."

He got back to the idea, fostered by his father, "that art is self expression and that when you're playing your expressing yourself."

So he quit school, continued to work with Martirano and even the college jazz band, played gigs around the area with his own trio, got his thing more together, and moved to Chicago. "New York was way too scary and I didn't really like LA," he said.

Chicago proved to be fortuitous. "What we're talking about is multiple layers of serendipity here," he notes. It's where he met and played with the experimental saxophonist Ed Peterson, started a group with Wertico, and met his key collaborator: Elling.

The Peterson band, known among musicians, played Monday nights at Chicago's Green Mill, a club where the likes of Elling and singer Patricia Barber cut their teeth. Hobgood did a good deal of development there too.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because the material in that band was so difficult. Ed was a genius ... He ran it like a lab," said Hobgood. "That book was the hardest book that anyone could ever remember existing. The material was so difficult. Ed made it harder and easier at the same time by his attitude. Which was: 'Hey we're just trying to do this. Sometime shit's going to fall apart and there's going to be train wrecks. Who cares?' When there were subs, it didn't matter. We had guests—or, as we used to say, 'guess' artists—he'd still call the hard tunes."

"Collectively, the bar got raised so high. I came out of that band being able to play stuff that I never would have ... complex chord changes, odd time signatures, stuff that, when I first got into the band and he called that stuff, I was floundering. That band raised the stakes of what all of us were able to expect from ourselves. Sometimes, when 'Monday Night Football' was on, there'd be more people on the stage than there was in the audience. And we just flailed away at it. We loved it, man." He said Elling would come in sometimes, "to dig the carnage."

Hobgood met Wertigo at about the same time, around 1992, playing with him in a quintet, that splintered off into a Trio New. In that trio, "we got known for our wild, free things. The bond with Paul is amazing. Whenever we play together, we just hook up instantly. We are so dialed in to the same level of intensity. We feel time the same way. We just have a very magical thing. It happens whenever we play together," said the pianist.

Then one day, "I was on a society date playing in a hotel lobby downtown. I was a sub. The hotel had a large band for events on the weekend for dancing. I did a smaller hotel gig with an ensemble. One night we're playing and this guy comes in, looking, let's say, totally out of place for the Hyatt Regency lobby. Wearing tattered jeans, trashed out gym shoes. And a real trashy looking, like plaid wool jacket. He had like a 4- or 5-day beard going. Everybody greeted him warmly. I was the only one who didn't know who he was. He looked like he'd been moving furniture all day. It turns out that's precisely what he had been doing. He'd been moving furniture all day long.

"Everybody knew him, but no one introduced him. The hotels had cafeterias where employees can get a cheap meal. You can get a plate of food for, like, a buck. As I was reading this situation and looking at this guy, I was like: 'Well this is just some guy' ... I don't know what his deal is... he didn't seem like a street person. It wasn't like that. But he was a mess. I said, he's probably just some guy they befriended, a grad student or something like that, who's stopping by to avail himself of a cheap meal. Which I think was probably true, actually."

The two went into cafeteria an were still not introduced, Hobgood recounts. "I remember, even sitting there then, this sort of interesting hookup. I remember us looking at each other several times, after one or the other said something, and kind of nodding and going 'Yeah, I know what you mean,' or 'Hmm, interesting.' And that's the first time I actually met Kurt—I didn't meet him."

A few weeks later, Hobgood was playing the Green Mill with the Peterson aggregation, "And Ed gets on the mic and says 'All right. We've got a real special treat for you. We're going to have this young friend sit in. This guy's a singer.' Of course Ed hadn't told us. You've got to understand, NOBODY sat in on this gig. The best horn players in Chicago would come in there to be boggled by Ed. But nobody sat in. I don't remember it ever happening. And so he's saying a singer is going to sit in. And I'm sitting there going 'What?' It was like the Twilight Zone all of a sudden. A singer's gonna sit in? What? Do you owe this guy money, Ed? What's the deal, man?"

"Then Kurt got up and I recognized him as this guy that I had sort of not met several weeks earlier. Of course his thing at that time was still extremely raw. He had the sort of Sinatra swagger crooning part down. He was already doing that," said Hobgood. "Ed was in the weekend society band and that's how he knew Kurt. And he had encouraged Kurt. They'd be on a wedding and Kurt would just be workin' it, you know? And he'd be singing a song and the groom's father would come up and make a request, or somebody would say something to the leader, who was playing guitar, and he would call over to Kurt and say 'We need to do this,? or 'This such thing needs to happen,' and Kurt would just start singing. In the middle of a phrase of Cole Porter, or whatever, he would just start putting his own lyrics and his own lines, and singing a story that he'd be making up.

"And Ed apparently, at one point, took him aside and said, 'Man, you should really work on that. It's easy for you, but you're doing something there that, basically, I've never heard anybody do before. That's really amazing when you do that. You should come in and sit in on my gig sometime and do that.' And so that's what happened."

It was around 1993, and Elling started coming to the Mill on Mondays, Hobgood said. "He didn't really sit in. Ed would ask him to sit in sometimes and Kurt would decline. Many weeks, Ed didn't even ask, cause the energy that night was different, or whatever. Kurt really felt like it was like a best kept secret. Nobody really knew about this amazing thing that was happening every Monday night. These guys are down there just inventing new music all the time by pushing themselves with crazy chord changes and insane tunes. Crazy stuff that Ed wrote or other people wrote. That band didn't play any standards at all. And Kurt would just come down there and that's how we got to be friends."

From there, things happened faster than Hobgood or Elling could have anticipated. Elling had some friends who had some finances, and the idea of a record came up.

"They basically just came to him and said, 'Look. The way we see it, you need to do this thing, a good recording to get your career started, and you don't have the bread to do it and we do. So here. Call it a friendly loan.' So Kurt came to me at one point and said to me, 'Listen, man, here's the deal. I've got this bread with which to make a record, a demo anyway.' He really was proposing our partnership, I guess. He said 'I want you to help me with this.' I was like, 'Cool, man. Fine. Let's do it.' And basically, that's what we did. I got Paul [Wertico] involved and we went into the studio and we did nine tunes and it all happened really fast after that."

Another Chicago pianist, Fred Simon, steered the group to his manager in LA, Bill Traut. Elling phoned him and got a polite brush-off, at first, Hobgood said.

"Bill said 'It's nice to talk to you. I'll listen to your tape and if I like it, I'll be glad to shop it for you for $500 an hour.' A few days later, Bill called back and said, 'I've heard your tape and I take back everything I said before. You've got to understand that when I'm talking to people I don't know, I have to say that. But I'm very excited about you. I think you're going to have a great career. I want to get involved in your career. You don't have to sign anything with me. Let's just get to work and get you a record deal and start building this thing."

Hobgood said Elling came back from an LA meeting very optimistic about a recording. "He said it's not a question whether, but when and with whom. It might take 4-6 months to get the deal the project merited. It ended up taking six weeks."

The pianist said Blue Note Records President Bruce Lundvall was given the tape.

"I still remember Bruce telling us the story: He was on the way to his dentist. He liked to listen to tapes when he was driving someplace. And he literally got to the end of the second cut, pulled over to the side of the road and called Kurt on his cell phone. They wanted to snatch Kurt up right away and they did. All of a sudden we were looking at making records for Blue Note," said Hobgood.

"Then it ended up that they wanted to issue that record we'd made, which was technically a demo. It needed a little more time, so we went back into the studio and did four more cuts and that was Close Your Eyes, that was the first Kurt record."

Three Grammy nominations later, they are still at it, and getting stronger.

It is extremely difficult to follow an adventurous singer like Elling, who loves to improvise and does so with aplomb, seemingly at a moment's notice. But Hobgood is with him, step for step. They're out there on a tight rope sometimes. Without a net. But if there is a rare misstep, each is there to grab the thing and keep it going. Hobgood is a wonderfully sympathetic accompanist and the duo has a special rapport.

"Kurt and my backgrounds are similar, for one thing. His dad was a church musician. He grew up in a family that moved around a lot. They moved around because of his dad's profession. There was always music in the house," said Hobgood. "On the other hand, Kurt and I balance each other well because we're really very different in a lot of ways. The specific strengths we bring to the music are very different. If we were good at the same stuff, it would be less of a potential ballooning effect.

"His ability with words, and his knowledge from his study of philosophy and religion, it's an awesome thing that he's got there. His knowledge of poetry. His knowledge of important prose works. He's just an incredibly brilliant, well-read young guy who's able to funnel all that into this talent that he has. We've always had a very special connection in that particular way. I think it's just natural."

Hobgood acknowledges it hasn't always been perfect, "but we're both people that believe in communication. It hasn't always been a heavenly marriage. With two strong personalities like that, inevitably, you're going to have to feel each other out and figure out where each other's lines that you can cross and can't cross are. And really develop your roles. If there's enough of the right intent and the right loving attitude toward really wanting this thing to work ... it's like any relationship: if you really want it to work then you find ways to make it work.

"It took us a few years. There were times when we were angry at each other and stuff like that. Usually over kind of silly stuff, really, I guess. But we've been on cruise control ever since. This Time It's Love, the third record. Even before that. We really have an amazing amount of mutual respect."

Jazz is the sound of surprise and these two great artists astound each other, as well as audiences around the world.

"He continues to surprise me. I think I continue to surprise him. Because we're both really dedicated to developing not only the whole thing, but our individual abilities ... Yeah, I just heard him sing some new stuff last week that I hadn't heard him do before, at the Green Mill. And I'm sitting there going, 'Yeah, man! Right on!'"

As great as the relationship and the work is, it might take more independent work to bring more public attention to this piano virtuoso. Hobgood said he is working on other projects—like his Union trio—and hopes he can get things moving as successfully as his partnership with Elling. But it isn't easy.

"I hope, at some point, to get a conventional record deal of my own. I'd like to make my own records. I don't want that to ever take me away from working with Kurt. There's no reason why it'd have to, when you can do both."

He said Blue Note was close to signing him, but so far it hasn't materialized. "One time, it was like a lock, I thought, but it always fell through," he said. With the jazz record industry hurting—indeed all types of CD sales are having problems—Hobgood's aware it may take a while. "I'm not chomping at the bit, let's put it that way. Everything is timing, you know?"

Being even-tempered and thoughtful, Hobgood is comfortable and willing to be patient. He's even philosophical.

"At the end of any century, there's a kind of summing up time, where there's a collective social statement that says: This is who we are. And it's based on who we've been. And I feel that's been very true in jazz the last 10 years or so," he said. "You get half a decade or so into the new century, which in this case is also the new millennium, and all of a sudden that statement becomes a question. Because everything is cyclical. Instead of saying: This is who we are, we end up getting back to saying: Who the hell are we?

"It may sound naively optimistic, but I think we have very interesting times coming up and I think that people are gonna swing back to being interested in a music that has a little more depth and a little bit more risk. Things have been pretty conservative and staid for a while. I think it's inevitable that that's going to come around and that more adventurous music is going to be able to have a place again."

Naive? Doubtful. And if good taste ever does come back in vogue, look for Hobgood. His time is indeed coming.


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