It’s not exactly a surprise to find pianist Laurence Hobgood commanding the stage at the Green Mill (Lawrence and Broadway), as he’ll do Friday and Saturday nights. Throughout the 90s and much of this decade, Hobgood showcased his muscular improvisations and sharply etched arrangements at the club on a weekly basis. And Hobgood has continued to appear there, two to four times a year, since relocating to New York several years back.
The surprise this weekend comes from not seeing vocalist Kurt Elling on stage with him.
As the bandleader and musical director for sundry Elling projects dating back almost two decades, Hobgood seen his name inextricably intertwined with that of the widely lauded singer. No surprise there, either: Elling is the first to credit Hobgood’s vital part in the collaborations that have earned him plaudits as the leading male vocalist in jazz.
But Hobgood led his own band before he met Elling in the early 90s and continues to work on separate projects of his own. And this weekend, Chicago listeners have the rare chance to hear his music, front and center, as the pianist leads his own quartet in a program of originals, interspersed with lesser-known gems from other modern jazz composers (including McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, and Don Grolnick).
I consider Hobgood one of the greatly undersung pianists in modern music. His ferocious technique allows him to build towering edifices of improvisation, and his fertile imagination imparts a propulsive intensity to his solos: they move with purpose from idea to idea without hurrying past any of them. Drawing on classical studies – in theater as well as music (his father taught and directed drama) – Hobgood can control a performance with unbreachable authority. But he can also caress a melody in a tender whisper; sometimes he does all this within the same solo.
The fact that he garners less attention that he deserves probably has much to do with his back-line role in Elling’s band, which maintains a punishing tour schedule of its own. But projects like this quartet could (and certainly should) focus new attention on Hobgood as a leader in his own right.
He brings with him two New York players, bassist Matthew Rybicki and drummer Jared Schonig; both are unknown to me, and, I suspect, to most midwestern listeners. They thus offer another drawing card for those eager to hear “new” players (at least to us) for the first time. “This trio is starting to ‘find itself’ in a cool way,” Hobgood told me earlier in the week. “We’ve rehearsed quite a bit, and they’ve worked really hard on my music.”
The powerful Chicago saxist John Wojciechowski (a mainstay of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra) will front the band in Chicago, the starting point for a small midwest tour that continues through April 10. (See below.)
After Chicago, in a scheduling coup, sax legend Ernie Watts will meet up with the trio for the rest of their midwest dates. The popular and influential Watts – who lent his solos to Hobgood’s arrangements on the GRAMMY®-winning Elling album Dedicated To You – is best known for his work with Charlie Haden’s highly romanticized Quartet West. But he has deep roots in more adventurous music as well; remember, this is a guy who played with Frank Zappa (and in fact assumed the “title role” on the classic album The Grand Wazoo).
Watts’ involvement is as unexpected as it is serendipitous. Hobgood had originally planned to feature the versatile and superb tenor man Joel Frahm in this band, but Frahm had to beg off because of another engagement. After trying to find a replacement but running into more scheduling conflicts, Hobgood recounts, “A little voice was saying, ‘Just try him [Watts]; can’t hurt to ask’; so I called Ernie, and lo and behold, he said yes. Only hitch was, he had a previous commitment for this weekend.”
Still, as Hobgood pointed out, “Of all the places we’re going, the Mill was the best place” to sacrifice working with Watts. “That’s because of Wojo,” he said, referring to Wojciechowski, adding that he doesn’t know of any saxists in the other cities “playing on that level. . . . Wojo’s a bad boy.”
The Hobgood Quartet, with John Wojciechowski, plays tonight at 9 and Saturday, from 8 till midnight, at the Green Mill. With Ernie Watts, the quartet moves on to Urbana, April 4 (The Iron Post); St. Louis, April 5 (Jazz At The Bistro); and then Louisville (April 7), Indianapolis (April 9), and Cleveland (April 10). Click here for complete details at Hobgood’s web site.