Lawrence Hobgood – “When the Heart Dances” NAIM

by | Sep 26, 2009 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Lawrence Hobgood – “When the Heart Dances” NAIM CD112, 1:04:31 ****:

(Lawrence Hobgood, piano; Charlie Haden, bass; Kurt Elling, vocals)

On Lawrence Hobgood’s third album as a leader we find him in a duo setting with consummate bassist Charlie Haden. Haden is a perfect collaborator for Hobgood’s piano excursions. Both are accomplished artists whose considerable technical prowess is kept in check by an unerring discipline and an artistic esthetic that leans heavily towards understatement.

Hobgood is of course best known as the tasteful accompanist and artistic director for singer extraordinaire Kurt Elling.  Elling has such a commanding presence it is easy to overlook the man at the keyboard who provides the foundation for Elling’s vocal flights of fancy. Hobgood’s tasty accompaniments are the glue that makes it all work, night after night.

This latest addition to the Hobgood catalogue is a mostly down-tempo affair consisting of a nice balance of standards and originals.  The album starts off with “Que Sera Sera,” a tune I have never really thought of as a  jazz standard.  It has always conjured up unpleasant memories of a too cheerful Doris Day singing it as though it’s a simple minded children’s song, which in a sense it is.  Like Bill Evans who took ditties like ” Hi Lilly Hi Lilly Hi Lo” and  discovered hidden depths beneath their somewhat vacuous veneer, Hobgood  reconsiders the deeper philosophical implications of the lyric and gives the tune a plaintive re-harmonization, yielding an interpretation that is both intellectually probing and emotionally compelling.

Having established an introspective mood, Hobgood launches into the medium up-tempo title track, one of several originals that pepper the album. “While the Heart Dances” is a smart and sprightly jazz waltz with some nice changes and a gorgeous melody. Hallelujah! A great player who can write a memorable tune!  

Kurt Elling joins the duo on the third track, for a vocal rendition of  the Haden standard, “First Song.” I hadn’t been  aware there was a lyric for this tune, but Elling milks every ounce of meaning from this serviceable if uninspired lyric. Hobgood, leader on this date modestly leaves the solo duties to the composer who turns in a characteristically unhurried and well-constructed improvisation over the austere chord changes.

Sanctuary
, a gospel tinged Hobgood original is one of two solo pieces. It flows and meanders around a gospel theme that brings to mind early Keith Jarrett.  Even though the tune wanders far afield harmonically from its gospel vamp, crossing into European harmonic territory, it constantly returns home to its bluesy roots.

Chickoree, a composition penned by both Hobgood and Haden is an adventurous little ballad that gives both men plenty of blowing room. Hobgood turns in one of his most inventive solos, occasionally flirting with a double time feel.

The album is broken up again with another Elling feature , “Stairway to the Stars”. He sounds absolutely divine on this old chestnut, masterfully drawing out his phrasing through the dreamy refrain.  Another highlight and probably my favorite track on the CD is an original tune entitled “Leatherwood.” It is a contemporary even eighth note composition performed solo.  This harmonically supple tune brings to mind the writing of west coast jazz pianist Alan Pasqua., whose  gorgeous composition “Highway 1” was covered on Ellings’ album, “Nightmoves.” “Leatherwood” is as fine an example of contemporary jazz writing as one is likely to encounter. It’s also a great vehicle for Hobgood ‘s prodigious technique. Here he lets loose with fiery 16th note lines that effortlessly spin their way across his finely wrought harmonic structure.

Special mention should be made of the recording which was presided over by Elling’s personal engineer of many years, Ken Chistianson, who takes full advantage of lovingly-restored Steinway D piano residing at Roy O. Disney Hall at CalArts. Haden’s bass sounds fat and full. It is a very warm live recording, in what the liner notes refer to as “true stereo.”

What most impresses me about Hobgood is how articulate his playing is. Every musical gesture, from his creative single note lines to his energetic two-handed rhythmic passages, is precise and perfect in its execution. His strengths as a creative line player, mastery of voicings, compositional integrity and subtle rhythmic precision serve to make him a standout. In a world where an ever increasing pool of young players try to steal the limelight with cheap bravado and virtuosity, it is comforting to know that players of the of Hobgood ‘s caliber are around keeping the art of jazz piano alive and well.

TrackList: Que Sera Sera, Whenthe Heart Dances, First Song, Sanctuary, Chickoree, Stairway to the Stars, New Orleans, Why Did I Choose You?,  Leatherwood, Daydream, The Cost of Living

— Brian Whistler

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