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Wait For It... Here Comes Mr. Hobgood

By Published: March 13, 2004
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."

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