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."