"Jazz with strings" is a phrase that sometimes invokes a heart-sink feeling amongst reviewers. Happily this is not one of those occasions. Laurence Hobgood has released a half dozen records under his own name but many more for vocalist Kurt Elling with whom he's been musical director, co-producer and accompanist for over twenty years. During that time Elling was a nominee for his three Blue Note releases and both Hobgood and Elling were named 1995 Chicagoans of the year in the Arts by the Chicago Tribune. Hobgood is a true virtuoso who began formal training on the piano from the age of six. In addition to his jazz trio, his other accompanists here, the string quartet ETHEL, are no strangers to popular, jazz and contemporary music and have recorded or performed with the likes of Ornette Coleman, Sheryl Crow and Roger Daltrey to name just a few.
The linear string introduction to "Wichita Lineman" seems singularly appropriate given the melancholic nature of the song. The relaxed trio approach to the melody backed by the string quartet is a masterpiece in understatement, but as the piece evolves it transmutes into a florid exposition of the tune. As with other numbers on the album, Hobgood's playing oscillates seamlessly between rubato and strict tempo on tunes like Paul McCartney's timeless "Blackbird," but, crucially, always integrates feelings of space and serenity. Crosby Stills and Nash's "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" reflects the multi-layered original but also incorporates a spectacular solo and a joyous ensemble rendition of the most famous later section of the tune. Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind" is given an sumptuous, bluesy treatment, the string quartet providing an almost choir-like backing, first played arco then with delicate pizzicato, returning to bowing and finally ending with a memorably plangent piano coda. From its initial statement of the familiar melody to "We Shall Overcome," the piece morphs into a dreamy string-powered reverie.
Cole Porter's "All Of You" is defined by the jazziness of the strings working in counterpoint with the piano, resulting in a sublime version of this elegant standard. On Sting's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," the ensemble weaves its way through the song combining Hobgood's dexterous playing with the neo-classical string arrangement and yet the number still properly swings. The choice of such well-known numbers is presumably a deliberate ploy on Hobgood's part in order to reinvent them in an entirely new and dynamic context. This tactic works satisfyingly well as do his imaginative deconstructions of the songs. Hobgood has produced here an exceptional debut album for the ever-burgeoning Ubuntu Music label, which augurs very well indeed both for the pianist and the record company.
Witchita Lineman; Blackbird; Georgia On MyMind; Suite: Judy Blue Eyes; We Shall Overcome; All Of
You; Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.
Laurence Hobgood: piano; Matthew Clohesy: bass; Jared Schonig: drums. Plus ETHEL: Ralph Farris:
viola; Dorothy Lawson: cello; Kip Jones: violin; Corin Lee: violin.