Derrick Hodge: Raw, Unabashed Honesty

DanMichael Reyes By

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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 Vernell 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.
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