April 22, 2017 | Howard Reich
For two decades, pianist Laurence Hobgood was best known as accompanist and primary arranger for singer Kurt Elling.
When the two abruptly parted company in 2013, one wondered how Hobgood would go about forging a musical identity of his own.
Singers, after all, stand front and center and, by definition, bask in the spotlight. But how do those who toil just outside it make themselves heard and seen?
Hobgood — like Elling, a former Chicagoan living in New York — addressed the question boldly with "Honor Thy Fathers," one of the best recordings of 2016. Here the luster of Hobgood's tone, fluidity of his technique and originality of his jazz- trio conception could be savored without distraction.
Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club, the pianist made another striking move with the world premiere of tesseterra, a project for trio and string quartet. By arranging what he called "iconic tunes" for this instrumentation, Hobgood took a rather large gamble. For what could be worse than hearing classic pop songs of various eras subjected to jazz-meets-the-classics cliches?
Hobgood, however, is too savvy an arranger to ask string players to sustain easy-listening chords, while his trio riffs freely. Instead, he has crafted deeply considered arrangements, no two alike, each providing multiple twists and turns. To hear this music played by Hobgood's trio and a Chicago string contingent was to realize how much the pianist has developed during the past 20-plus years.
The caliber and finesse of his writing were instantly apparent in his version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind," which opened the evening's first set. After a bit of dialogue between piano and strings, Hobgood offered all-over-the-keyboard virtuosity. But this really was the curtain raiser for what was yet to come, including a pizzicato section for strings and two piano cadenzas that re-harmonized the tune while conveying the flavor of the original.
It was all so beautifully structured and thoughtfully paced that when the final notes arrived, there was no question that Hobgood had made a major statement.
Like most of Cole Porter's greatest hits, "All of You" has inspired profound recordings from Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and generations of jazz instrumentalists. Hobgood's version was distinct, opening with a musical conversation among piano, two violins and drums, the texture inexorably thickening as rhythmic energy intensified. Rather than arrive at a big finish, however, Hobgood's final pages eased up and slowed down, the last notes drifting into the ether.
So it went, each song re-envisioned via alternate themes, unexpected chord choices and an unmistakable storytelling arc. All of this was meticulously scored. Yes, there were solos from Hobgood and passages of improvisation for bassist Ben Rolston and drummer Stephen Boegehold, but only within a carefully constructed musical architecture. Very little was left to chance.
You had to admire the subtlety of Hobgood's reworking of Lennon and McCartney's "Blackbird"; the austere eloquence of Hobgood's arrangement of "We Shall Overcome," with its church-piano flourishes; and the nearly orchestral rush of sound that drove his account of Stephen Stills' "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."
In all of this music, Hobgood merged accessibility and sophistication, intertwining jazz, pop and classical idioms. The packed house at the Green Mill embraced the endeavor, judging by the crescendo of ovations it received.
If Hobgood can continue developing this music in concert and on recordings, it's easy to imagine him finding a wide audience for songs everyone knows but no one has heard in quite this way.