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Wait For It... Here Comes Mr. Hobgood

By Published: March 13, 2004
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.

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