Derrick Hodge: Raw, Unabashed Honesty

DanMichael Reyes By

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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.


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