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Wait For It... Here Comes Mr. Hobgood

R.J. DeLuke By

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Over the years, I built up a guilt feeling about having fun at the piano. What I realized at this one time was that I could do what I wanted and that everything was gonna be fine.
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."

So things look great for the 41-year-old Hobgood and company, but he's got other irons in the fire. He hopes to record his third CD for NAIM, a British audiophile recording outfit, with his trio Union, that has his longtime colleague Paul Wertigo on drums and Brian Torff on bass. That's the label that also has Hobgood's own solo recording Left to My Own Devices, which features Elling on a few tracks. It's not being distributed currently in the US, but "I'm really proud of it. It's some of the best work I've ever done," he said.

It is a sparkling set of songs from the standard book, some originals, and some lesser known tunes. The duet with Elling on "Goin' Back to Joe's," from the Nat Cole book, is real treat. Elsewhere, Hobgood's technique and style is exceptional. He reconstructs "Pannonica." "Witchcraft" is taken at an uncommon dirge tempo, allowing him to explore the nuance of the melody and chords that usually go ripping past in up-tempo versions usually employed. He's cool and uncluttered at times, complex at others. But he seems to be always examining the music.

So it appears to all be coming together for the Chicago-based Hobgood, a self-described "professor's brat"—the son of a theatrical arts professor, Burnet Hobgood, who moved around heading theater programs at different colleges before settling at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From crashing the keyboard as a toddler, through playing country music in Texas saloons, to joining an unofficial improvisational music lab in the Windy City, Hobgood has moved along, growing both as a musician and a person.

Listen to him now and you can hear it. The touch. The ideas. The fantastic chops. His name belongs on the annual jazz poll lists. The cat can play.

Hobgood took time out to chat on a recent May morning, the day after an excursion to Wrigley Field with Elling and a friend to take in a Chicago Cubs game. (The Cubbies took it on the chin). He was born in North Carolina and raised in Texas, after some time in Ithaca, NY. The piano, he said, "is just something I was drawn to" and while he started lessons at age 6, "I had actually been playing even before that. I would try to go over to the piano when I was a toddler. As soon as I could sit up without falling over, they put me up on the bench and I'd slap at the keys."

When the family moved to Dallas, where his father took over the theater program at SMU, the family got a piano and he started lessons with someone on the faculty.

"I had always shown a really strong improvisational bent. I used to drive my teachers crazy, taking the little Bach preludes they'd given me and sort of messing around with them. They didn't like that," he recalls with a wry fondness.

As a kid he was "a little too intense... I didn't know how to just relax," but while socially unskilled, music was constant. In Texas he got his first opportunity to make money in music, as a teenager, playing for more than three years in the country western circuit with the Kingsmen. "I was this young kid with this Fender Rhodes down there and I was playing with all these older guys. It was kind of weird but it's kind of cool," he said. Besides, he told himself, "if it's going to be working at Arby's or doing this, I'd rather be playing music than washing dishes."

The band was run by Bill Craig, who Hobgood says "would play bass then jump to trumpet. When he was playing bass, he didn't know how to play... Somehow, his time was good," and Hobgood would play the right bass notes on piano with Craig's wrong ones, and "it sounded OK."

When the family moved to the Champaign-Urban area, he didn't have much interest in continuing to play, but his father knew music was his strongest talent and got him into jazz-oriented lessons. In school, Hobgood didn't apply himself to the regular subjects, "but I still went to my music lesson every week and I was starting to figure stuff out. I cared about the music, I just wasn't ready to be serious about it yet." Once enrolled at the university, he started taking lessons with a faculty member who would have a huge impact on his playing : Ian Hobson.

"He was able to teach a technical discipline," Hobgood said. "Fortune has to smile on you and you have to be exposed to somebody that has that kind of information. It's not information you're just going to get anywhere and you're not going to think of it yourself. Somebody has to show it to you." It was pure technique.

"There's no way I would have developed into the kind of technical player that I've developed into, even with the early start," without Hobson's training, he said. "I realized that all the other teachers I ever had, as well meaning as they ever were, taught me how to play pieces. And he was teaching me how to play the piano. Physically, how to use the wrist, both horizontally and vertically, how to access muscle memory. He taught a right technique."

He made Hobgood practice slowly and make two movements for every note. "You center the wrist with the next note you're about to play, then play the note. You're constantly centering the center of the wrist with the note you're playing. He had me do this excruciatingly slow, but I actually did it." The regimen gradually sped up, over time, "until finally I was playing this thing full tilt and I couldn't make a mistake."

His muscles had memorized the pattern, "almost robotic. And that was the beginning of the technical study that he offered and I just ate it up. I figured out ways to apply it to jazz playing," he said.
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