A dream Johnny Hodges tribute project by Owen Broder…
Owen Broder – Hodges : Front and Center, Vol. 1 – Outside In Music # OIM 2224L – Vinyl – 2022 – *****
(Owen Broder – alto and baritone saxophone; – Riley Mulherkar – trumpet; Carmen Staaf – piano; – Barry Stephenson – bass; Bryan Carter – drums)
It was several years ago that I first heard that saxophonist, Owen Broder, was working on a Johnny Hodges tribute project. To say I was excited is an understatement. Johnny Hodges has always been my favorite alto saxophonist. His inimitable sensual vibrato on the alto sax, and his slurring of notes, is so soulful, and immediately recognizable.
Hodges held down the lead alto chair for Duke Ellington’s orchestra for four decades, (with a brief stop from 1951-1955 to lead small groupings, largely with Ellington alumni), and was reportedly the best paid musician by Duke.
Johnny’s playing on ballads was ecstatic, and only Benny Carter came close as a balladeer during Hodges’ lifetime.
Around the time of 60th anniversary of the two small iconic group albums that Hodges and Ellington made in 1959 (Side By Side and Back to Back), the basis for a contemporary update of this period in Johnny’s career, was explored by Owen Broder.
Now just a few years later, I can happily say that the wait was more than worth it. Owen’s quintet is comprised of trumpeter, Riley Mulherkar (from the popular brass group, The Westerlies); pianist Carmen Staaf; bassist, Barry Stephenson, and drummer, Bryan Carter. Owen plays baritone sax on two tracks, largely honoring the brilliant album that Hodges made with Gerry Mulligan.
The nine tracks are from the Ellington repertoire, as well as from Hodges’ own albums as a leader. The arrangements were done by Broder, and honor the Hodges’ feel, as well as add some nice contemporary touches. What stands out is Owen’s ability to channel Johnny’s timbre and tone, no easy task.
This album has superb acoustics, the instruments are well blended, the interplay between Owen and Riley is warm and winning. The rhythm section of Staaf, Stephenson, and Carter fit right in, with each given many spots to shine.
This is Broder’s second release as a leader. Relocating from the East Coast, Owen now teaches jazz theory and arranging at Portland State University, in the Jazz Studies program led by George Colligan.
It is easy to award five stars to this release. There is a brightness and sophistication to each of the nine tracks, along with a healthy dose of fun and humor. Beginning with “Royal Garden Blues,” all the way to “You Need to Rock,” you only crave more of the Hodges magic. Luckily there will be a Vol. 2, next year.
Johnny Hodges had the nickname, “Rabbit”, with its origin never fully tracked down. The “rabbit stew” from Broder’s quintet will bring a smile to the face of sweet swing, and jazz blues fans. Owen includes a few tracks relating to trumpet star, Clark Terry, (“Viscount” and “Digits”), who had an active period playing with Hodges, during Clark’s tenure with Duke.
Owen’s baritone sax tracks show a mellow (for the baritone) side bringing a strong affinity for Gerry Mulligan on “18 Carrots for Rabbit,” as well as an achingly beautiful rendition of the ballad, “Ballade For the Very Sad and Very Tired Lotus Eaters.”
Pianist Carmen Staaf shows a deft touch and some brilliant blues playing throughout the album. Barry Stephenson shines on several bass solos, and drummer, Bryan Carter’s tasty brush work shows up on the Ellington staple, “Take the A Train.” The group has fun with this track, with the theme not fully stated till the end of the song.
Riley and Owen make a great front line, with counterpoint, and a simpatico blend that warms the heart.
“Rabbit” fans should flock to this vinyl release, it’s that special. For me, the wait for Vol. 2, begins now.
Royal Garden Blues
18 Carrots for Rabbit
I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
Ballade for the Very Sad and Very Tired Lotus Eaters
Take the A Train
Just a Memory
You Need to Rock
More information available through the artist’s website: