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Derrick Hodge: Raw, Unabashed Honesty

Versatility is a trait that any young musician wishes to attain in his/her career. While the ability to seamlessly flow in and out of any musical situation or genre can be attained by spending countless hours in the shed and listening to an array of records, a unique musical environment helps immensely in shaping a young musician's ear. Derrick Hodge has no hesitation in stating that he is a product of his musical environment, having been raised outside Philadelphia in Willingboro, NJ, a place he describes as a hotbed of talent.

Growing up, he lived in the same vicinity as notable gospel musicians like bassist Thaddeus Tribbett, music producer Tye Tribbett, and Justin Timberlake's musical director and bassist, Adam Blackstone. As a child, Hodge played guitar before eventually switching to electric bass so he could play in his elementary school's orchestra. By the time he was in high school, he was playing both electric and contrabass. At the urging of his high school professor, Hodge continued his formal studies at Temple University.

Since his days at Temple, Hodge has enjoyed a career playing gospel, R&B, hip- hop, jazz, and at times a mélange of all four genres. He has played, toured, and recorded with artists like Jill Scott, Maxwell, Musiq Soulchild, Mos Def, Common, Q-Tip, Terence Blanchard, Stefon Harris, Mulgrew Miller, Gretchen Parlato, Bilal, Kenneth Whalum III, and most notably The Robert Glasper Experiment, which won a Grammy Award this past year for Black Radio (Blue Note, 2012).

On Live Today (Blue Note, 2013), Hodge coalesces all of his experiences to create a category-defying record on which he is credited as a composer, arranger, bassist, percussionist, and keyboardist. While Hodge says that Live Today serves as "snapshots of how [he] felt as an artist at a given moment on a given day," it also serves as a unique microcosm of his career—one in which he has shown flexibility and a willingness to adapt any musical situation while remaining honest and true to his voice.

All About Jazz: Congratulations on the new record and the newborn, this must be an exciting time for you. What's the baby's name?

Derrick Hodge: Josephine Hodge, she's my first child. It's a year of birth, new beginnings, and for exploration. I'm so excited.

AAJ: Talking about birth and new beginnings, I'd hate to flip the switch and talk about the complete opposite, but I know that you were very close to the late Mulgrew Miller who passed away earlier this year. Is there anything you'd like to say about Mr. Miller before we start?

DH: Yes, I'm glad you asked. First of all, let me just speak about him as a man. Mulgrew came into my life at a time where the whole world—musically, was just awe for me. Jazz was new for me and so many things were new. I pretty much got into the music through the school system in college and all that stuff, so I'm kind of a newbie when it comes to that. Someone by the name of "Bootsie" Barnes from Philly referred me to [Mulgrew Miller]. "Bootsie" put in a good word for me and Mulgrew drove an hour and a half to come see me play at this small club and I was shocked that he came just to check me out and show support. My brother Jonathan was playing drums and I couldn't believe it man, he said to me, "Wanna come to the house and play a few tunes?" [Laughs] And I did that. I think three days later, I showed up with a suit on and put some cologne on because I knew his wife was there so I wanted to impress the family. It was so funny man; it was such a big moment for me. He was like, "Cool man, I have a show coming up, would you like to play with me?" And I said, "Sure." My first week with him was at The Vanguard.

AAJ: First week with Mulgrew Miller at The Vanguard? Wow.

DH: [Laughs] Yeah, a full week just thrown in the fire. My first week there and my heroes came out: Russell Malone, Ron Carter, and Stanley Clarke came out that week. There was a lot going on, but I will never forget Mulgrew's disposition from the day I met him, to the day I showed up at his house just naive and green with a suit and cologne on to please his family, to the last time I hit the stage with him. His disposition and his attitude towards me never changed. And that speaks to the spirit he has; I've learned so much about—not just how to carry myself as a musician and a leader, but just as a man and how to treat people, and how to give your best musically on and off the bandstand without expecting anything in return but just doing it because every day is a chance to create a legacy. Not in just what you play but in every way, in giving other people opportunities, and trusting them no matter what.

Although I was green, Mulgrew still treated me like one of the cats. I had so much to learn, I'm still learning to this day, and will continue for the rest of my life. But Mulgrew, the way he treated me, he showed me respect and trusted that I would figure things out. I owe so much to him. My approach to being in the moment and really going hard on this album and really pushing that out there is really in the spirit of people like Mulgrew Miller and Terence Blanchard. I used to hear a lot on how they spoke about Art Blakey and how it was being a platform and try to be honest and play what feels good to you, but also being a platform for others to keep the music going. And really, that's kind of the glue with this concept of that record.

I started talking about that online on Facebook here and there about Mulgrew over a month ago; then unfortunately this happened. I can honestly say that I shed a lot of tears at the funeral, but I can say his spirit—every time that I think of him, there's nothing but joy. I was blessed to meet someone like that who only comes once in this lifetime. We were very fortunate, me, Karriem Riggins, and Robert Glasper because we got close to Mulgrew.

AAJ: Growing up, you were also close to Thaddeus and Tye Tribbett.

DH: First of all I was very fortunate to grow up in a hotbed of talent being from Willingboro, New Jersey. And yeah, I'm a product of gospel and R&B. My introduction to music was my mom putting on the radio every night and saying "You like to play the guitar? Listen to music." This happened every night; she came in the room and turned Power 99 on. I was always a radio baby and I happened to grow up—two streets over from me was Thaddeus and his brother Tye. I'll never forget when I was like in fifth grade, Tye came to the school and played on this bass drum with two mallets and did a 10-minute concert that blew my mind. I remembered his face and he started coming around the church that another family friend told us to start saying that "We should get involved in church and do something positive," and that's what we did and it all happened to be in that same circle.

That's how Thaddeus and I met and in retrospect we did not realize all the things that was going to spring from it. We thought we were isolated from a lot of other things that were going on. We were products of the radio and just checking out whatever people sent our way. Me, Thaddeus, and another one who grew a mile from me, Adam Blackstone, a lot of us were like that and we all happened to play bass as well. But because of that, a lot of people were drawn to that area in Willingboro, New Jersey. And that's how I met James Poyser, when I got on my first gospel record when I was 14 through my church, Bethany Baptist. That's how I met James and all these guys who later would be instrumental in my development and give me opportunities.

AAJ: After your formative years, you went onto Temple.

DH: When I got into school for jazz it was because my high school professor went to Temple, it was that simple. He said, "Go to Temple because I went there," and that's exactly what I did. That changed so much for me because I had great teachers like Terell Stafford, Ed Flannagan, and Ben Schachter that really, really schooled me. It put me in touch with a great teacher like John Clayton. I met him through Terell Stafford and Terrell was kind enough not to just say, "You have a lot of promise." He threw me in the fire; I think my first official record was with him when he did New Beginnings (MAXJAZZ, 2003) and Mulgrew happened to be on that album. That was my only thing with jazz at the time, other than that I was still doing other music. It was a hotbed of talent in Philly at the time. Musiq Soulchild was doing records along with all these different Philly artists and I was already involved in that. But because jazz was so new to me, I really approached it like, "Ah! This is a whole new world!"

AAJ: You almost didn't finish your studies at Temple since you were already touring. How did you come to the decision to come back and finish your undergraduate studies?

DH: That decision came down—I was touring with Jill Scott at the time and I had a conversation with her and I said that I wanted to finish and she encouraged me all the way. At the time everybody was like "What are you doing? You're making money and you're young?" But that was something that I wanted to do and that final year ended up changing everything. That's when I really got serious with jazz. Up until that point, I was developing skills but I still didn't know what I wanted to do. But it wasn't until that senior year when I went back to school where Christian McBride happened to come in and through him I got into that Aspen Snowmass Summer Academy thing. It was more of a situation where things came my way to help dictate my path for me—I was more a product of that more than anything. At that point, I was just as impressed with classical as I was with anything, that's the thing that I've done from day one. Playing electric bass in a classical orchestra.

AAJ: I was talking to a friend of mine who is now at Berklee and I asked him how does playing electric bass in a classical orchestra work out. He told me that it was a matter of his high school not having the budget for anything else. Was this a similar case for you growing up?

DH: [Laughs] Playing electric in orchestra was completely a situation of school budget. But every year they would take school field trips and that's how I would go every year and sit in the balcony and listen to the Philadelphia Orchestra rehearse. I think that birthed my desire for composition that made me want to go that route. That impact of hearing an orchestra, I can't even say how big of an impact that had on me.

AAJ: Live Today is a tour de force on your part where you're credited as a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger. The title track, "Live Today," dropped in 2011. Was the reason for the two-year wait because of all the particular components and details you wanted to put into it or was it simply a matter of your busy schedule?

DH: Well that one in 2011 was not supposed to be out, that was a leak gone wrong but right at the same time. To be so upset about something like that happening then being overwhelmed by the reception that came from it. All the sudden the phone calls and the emails that my manager was receiving [left] us like, "Okay, let's just not get too caught up and let's keep focusing on what needs to happen." Fortunately it wasn't too big of a deal, we just kept it going. But that whole thing was totally a product of a leak; it wasn't even a finished song yet believe it or not.

But as far as the palette of the record—I figured since this is my first album, I owe it to people and to myself to give what I feel is most honest. And what is most exposed to how I'm taking everything in. To try to create a record that kind of speaks maybe to more than one certain type of thing—I'm not saying there would have been anything wrong with that all. I could have done something that would have just focused more on the writing, playing, and paying more respect to the history of the instrument, and that would have been cool. But I felt like people needed to hear some level of risk. If somebody is being kind enough to spend their money to purchase my album or spend hours of their time to come to my show to hear me speak from the heart, I want to give them something that I feel is just raw and that they can say they were a part of.

I feel like this first album is kind of a palette of things that's really honest to how I was taking things in, whatever that may be. A lot of people have a problem on how things are categorized, I really don't care how anyone hears it and they call it whatever they call it. I don't have a problem with that. I'm honored if someone says it's in the tradition of jazz or if it's not in the tradition, I'm just honored that they even say that label of jazz. For me, the history of that music and the people that I associate with that name—it just brings out people who are at the top of artistic game and that represent such a strong piece of American culture. That's why a lot of songs like "Dancing with Ancestors," and the way I wrote certain things and motifs, were coming from a certain type of history of American music. I wanted to pay respect to that. Pay respect to a lot of those heroes who birthed that desire to get that stuff together.

It's really about me being honest about how I feel and paying respect to those who came along the way and helped me. From wherever I go from this point on any other record I ever do, I can say that there are elements of that rawness in this album—no matter where I go—even if the next album more just trying to solo over stuff and go crazy in that direction. Whatever it is, whether people loved or hated this album, I can say that I respect them and myself enough to give them something that was very honest.

AAJ: You speak about honesty and respecting the tradition, but the only song that has a sort of traditional format where the melody is stated then solos take place is "Solitude," where you play the melody on bass then Aaron Parks takes a solo. Is this record more about respecting the spirit of the tradition rather than using its format?

DH: This [record] is more dedicated to the spirit of those that influenced me and I look forward to the eventual questions of "How does this song sound like such and such composer but these songs don't really have that form?" I look forward to those questions because I can say "No, actually if we look at it on paper there are so many things that are derived from how someone developed this theme." AABA, form, development, and recapitulation—that's just surface stuff. There's so much in the history of how people approached music, palettes, and harmony that is so amazing that I wanted to try to document. When I write songs like "Dances with Ancestors," there [are] no real solos on there but I want people to feel the spirit of those who came before me like Terell Stafford. Even modern day people like Stefon Harris or Wayne Shorter.

I really wanted to capture that spirit of those people because I think that's the best way to show respect to them. Not trying to necessarily copy their format or way of doing it because we're all coming from a spirit that evokes. I figured the best way to do it was pay homage to that by just being honest to myself.

AAJ: With the song "Gritty Folk," what Mark Colenburg was playing on drums was reminiscent of how Vernel Fournier played on Ahmad Jamal's rendition of "Poinciana." Did you have that in mind or was this coincidence?

DH: Wow, that spirit might have been evoked from it. That song in particular took me back to the feeling I would get when I was doing shows with Terence Blanchard. We were supposed to do something else but he would just stop, start vibing on something, come stand right in front of me, then point to me and say "You and me."

[Laughs] And the pressure is on you know? And the vibe would just take it wherever it would go. But it would always start from just raw elements and [become] what it is. So I was just trying to capture that in record format, capture some of those elements of sound and make it as empty and bare-boned where whoever hears it, hopefully hears the history of certain things coming out of it.

AAJ: Compositionally, how much of the songs are written with the individual musicians in mind?

DH: This album, Live Today, was all about trying to get snapshots of how I felt of any given day so I didn't write anything too far in advance. But it still takes a focus on what's going to be the overall sound so it doesn't just sound like a demo track. I wanted the nucleus of the sound not to be from me playing everything or all the way raw, so I tried to make the nucleus of the sound of the album be the sound of the players playing it. So it's a marriage of something I might have woken up in the middle of the night feeling, which is "Solitude," and then contouring instrumentation around certain people within that pool of who I knew I wanted to use for the record.

I wanted to keep "Solitude" very simple and Aaron is such a great lyrical soloist and he—like a lot of people on the record—[has] a sense of production and song form which comes out in their solos. I knew Aaron would exude that energy so that's why I said that I would love to have him do something on this as well. But each song (aside from it being raw), the way the instrumentation was built and who I used and didn't use was based on individual personalities from the pool of guys I knew.

AAJ: Songs like "Live Today," "Message of Hope" and "Solitude" seem to have more control, versus tunes like "Dances with Ancestors," "The Real," and "Boro March," where it has more of that sound where you described when Terrence Blanchard would point to you then both of you start vibing on something.

DH: Each piece was different, for example "Dances with Ancestors" was meant to sound like everything was free form, as far as who is doing what. But a lot of things were written, especially the harmony. The harmony is supposed to sound like some voice leading type stuff. But there is specific harmony where everything has to happen in a certain kind of way to make the overall emotion come across. So it's like everyone is reading in certain parts and I had the embellishments mixed up high so it sounds like everything is just kind of happening. Almost like nobody is really reading, [which] was kind of the point.

Some guys on that album are great readers and also on that song is someone who can't read at all. I had to spend 15 minutes to working out the voice leading and working the harmonies. Versus "Live Today," where it worked in the spirit of the players, Robert Glasper and Chris Dave were on that. And it was just like, "Let's just do that in the spirit of how we approached The Experiment." I sat down on the piano and showed Rob the chords, we tracked, and then Common laid his parts. I loved what I was hearing so I went and added a bunch of additional keyboard stuff to it. But the way that song worked was in the spirit of how The Experiment works. I wanted to have that emotion in that, but when it comes to really raw ideas like "Boro March" or "Message of Hope."

Originally I did everything in "Message of Hope" myself and just had the drums rerecorded and then organ rerecorded. So it's written out but I didn't have them look at anything, I already played it, and then went to the studio and said, "Ok Mark, can you redo the drums, and Travis can you redo the organ?" So each one is different, I was just trying to be honest to who will best bring out the emotion of the song other than the instruments I ended up playing myself.

AAJ: You've been film scoring since you moved out to Los Angeles in 2011. How much of your approach to writing for film translated to the record and vice versa?

DH: I'm a producer by nature and I love the beauty of sonic possibilities. Film composing just happens to be one avenue that I think helps to express that just as composing for a string quintet or quartet. It's the same thing; it gives me an opportunity to express in a different type of way. But I think, at the nucleus of it all is just me loving the beauty of sound palettes. I love how being a product of the modern era allows me to approach music in different ways. Because I'm a producer by nature, I love how the process of overdubbing and approaching [songs] by exploiting the possibility of how the studio can give you a palette. If you recorded everything in the moment and let that be, you might just have to live and die with that, and let that be whatever the final story is. I love trying to mix both, putting acoustic elements, but also being honest to me being a product of the radio and produced sound.

I honestly always felt jazz really isn't limited to just raw full takes of whatever these instrumentalist did in the moment, there's a lot of overdubbing that goes on, it just doesn't end up sounding like it because you're not using synths or sounds that sound in that vein. But that process—even if it wasn't exploited that much in jazz, or what people perceive as pure jazz—there's certain elements there. You name your favorite musician, there might be a song or two where they went back laid some synth pads or they let someone do some overdubs.

So what I did was to try to be honest to my process, which is a product of production. You're going to hear certain elements to that same process that I approach film scoring where I just approach with no expectation. This might be something that's just tracked all at once, or I can really go in and exploit plug-ins and create some type of sound. But the unity in relating other avenues that I've written for really isn't anything other than me approaching it with an empty palette. So when I approach this, I'm starting from scratch no matter what. When I approach film scoring, I approach it from scratch. I don't ever turn off any other way of approaching things in order to go all the way in a certain vein.

At the core of what I'm seeing, anything is a possibility. Maybe writing a standard in a certain type of format might work perfectly for something on screen or hearing something with the instrumentation that might sound like an Aaron Copland type thing might work, as it might work something perfectly for my album. But that's just coincidence, I approached it all with no expectation. This may end up sounding all the way acoustic or this may sound like something scored but it's all coincidence, I try to approach it all the way raw and honest and see what happens.

AAJ: It goes without saying that you're a very versatile musician. But I'm wondering, as I look at myself and my peers who are attending various conservatories who are also comfortable in more other genres outside of jazz, would you say that this is just the way musicians nowadays are? That we have to be versed in a lot of genres and put on a lot of different hats?

DH: I think, it's almost by default now. Let's focus solely on jazz—if you're someone right now in high school, the odds of you even knowing about jazz or even being in jazz band is probably not even an option. That budget that was dedicated to that probably doesn't even exist, they're probably putting it to something else now. I'm a product of music in schools and even though I was pretty much ear-trained, I was still a product of music in schools.

A lot of kids now don't even have that option unless they have a family that might be aware of that or their ears were exposed to it where they were like, "Oh I want to do that!" So then the parents are like, "Well, they have an interest, let's get them a teacher," and the teacher puts them on to that. So it's hard to not be honest to just whatever your natural influences are. Because that's really all you have that you can take in. [Music] is not really cultivated, there's nothing staring you in the face that's saying, "You can choose this course in school. Where you can get in marching or orchestra. Even if they don't have upright bass, you can play electric bass!" They don't have that option.

So I think those kids that got exposed to the music no matter what or how, once they're advanced and end up getting into the New Schools or the Berklees, their influences are still their influences. And they receive a lot of information of "Check this out, check that out, and this is what real that his and real that is." Then it becomes a state of confusion because you spend a lot of time working on it and if you're honest with yourself, you kind of lose your sound and what you want to do, or what drew you to the music in the first place. Then you end up leaving school or whatever you end up doing. One way or another you end up finding your voice, or you don't.

But that's reality; I don't think kids now have any other option other than just getting interested in the music somehow. Whatever that is, hoping that they just stick with it and the right people, program, band, or somebody hears them and says, "I want to take a risk on you. Join my band." Those opportunities aren't the same anymore, there's not even IAJE, which I loved. That was a big influence on me—I didn't know anything about jazz other than that. I'm a direct product of that and seeing the benefit of that. When that concept doesn't exist I think people now have no choice but to do what they do and because of that whatever music comes out of that is just going to be what comes of it.

I have these influences on my record because I was exposed to that at a certain point in my life. When I got in Mulgrew's band, he told me, Karriem Riggins, and Rodney Green of how proud of us he was, and he was like, "I hear you guys are doing a lot of other stuff." And I'll never forget he said, "But to do this music, you have to dedicate time and energy to this. It just demands it—the history is so rich, in order to pay justice to it you have to at some point spend time listening to those records. Really learning and really taking in the idiom and really shedding."

That was some of the best advice that I ever received, because it helped me—even to this day—to respect music. Even if I don't create that sound or if I don't write anything on my record that has AABA form, I still respect that and the history of that because I know how much of the art form came from that. If you listen to songs that, form-wise, doesn't have anything to do with that, the sound and the note choices that they're using in one way is coming from the artist that recorded those types of songs. People's advice like that helped me, but a lot of kids now don't even have the opportunity to be in a Mulgrew Miller trio or whatever. So it's tough, so I figured the best I can do is to be honest to what my influences are put that out there so the opportunity presents itself so I can speak about it.

Selected Discography

Derrick Hodge, Live Today (Blue Note, 2013)

Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio (Blue Note, 2012)

Gretchen Parlato, The Lost and Found (Obliqsound, 2011)
Bilal, Alright's Revenge (Plug Research, 2010)

Kenneth Whalum III, To Those Who Believe (Kenneth Whalum, 2010)

Gretchen Parlato, In A Dream (Obliqsound, 2009)

Robert Glasper, Double Booked (Blue Note, 2009)

Terrence Blanchard, Choices (Concord, 2009)

Maxwell, BLACKSummer's Night (Columbia, 2009)

Kendrick Scott, The Source (World Source Music, 2007)

Terrence Blanchard, A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007)

Stefon Harris, African Tarantella: Dances with Duke (Blue Note, 2006)

Terrence Blanchard, Flow (Blue Note, 2005)

Mulgrew Miller, Live At Yoshi's, Volume Two (MAXJAZZ, 2005)

Mulgrew Miller, Live At Yoshi's, Volume One (MAXJAZZ, 2004)

Bootsie Barnes, Boppin' Round The Center (Harvest, 2004)

Terell Stafford, New Beginnings (MAXJAZZ, 2003)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Derrick Hodge

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