Wait For It... Here Comes Mr. Hobgood
"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."