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Wait For It... Here Comes Mr. Hobgood

By Published: March 13, 2004
"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.

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