Kurt Elling & Laurence Hobgood––in their own words…
Kurt Elling and Laurence Hobgood have been making a lot of noise lately. The piano-vocal team has been collaborating since 1995 with the release of Elling’s first album, Close Your Eyes. This year, after nine nominations, Elling took home a Grammy for Dedicated To You, a live album recorded at the Jazz at Lincoln Center and featuring the music of Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane.
Kurt Elling’s rich baritone voice spans four octaves and displays an astonishing technical facility and emotional depth. Elling has an awesome command of rhythm, texture, phrasing, and dynamics, often sounding more like a virtuoso jazz musician than a mere singer. His repertoire ranges from his own compositions to modern interpretations of standards, both of which can be the springboard for free form improvisation, scatting, spoken word and poetry. As composer and lyricist, Elling has written scores of his own compositions and set lyrics to the songs and improvised solos of many jazz masters. In addition to the compositional work he has done with collaborator-in-chief Laurence Hobgood, Elling has collaborated in the creation of new pieces with John Clayton, Fred Hersch, Bob Mintzer, Charlie Hunter and Orbert Davis, among others.
In addition to his Grammy accolades, Elling has spent the past ten consecutive years at the top of the DownBeat Critics poll and has topped the JazzTimes Readers’ poll five times.
Pianist Hobgood received his own Grammy nomination in 2001 for his arranging on Flirting With Twilight, Elling’s fifth Blue Note release. In addition to working with Elling, Hobgood has enjoyed a multi-faceted and dynamic career, and has performed both with Elling and with his own trio at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Birdland, Chicago’s Symphony Center, Ravinia, as well as most of the world’s most prestigious jazz festivals, including Montreaux, North Sea, Monterey, Spoleto USA, Newport, Umbria, Montreal, JVC Festivals in Paris and Japan and many others.
He has played and/or recorded with Jon Hendricks, Larry Coryell, Lee Konitz, Stefon Harris, Peter Erskine, Marc Johnson, Joe Lovano, Benny Maupin, Paul Wertico, Kurt Rosenwinkle, Ernie Watts, Clark Terry, Bobby Watson, Mark Murphy, Clark Terry, Bob Mintzer, Von Freeman, Paul McCandless, Buddy Guy, Gary Burton and Eddie Daniels, to name a few. Hobgood has five CDs under his own name, including the 2009 release When The Heart Dances, a duet recording with iconic bassist Charlie Haden.
In November 2009 Elling and Hobgood performed at the White House as part of the Obama Administration’s first state dinner.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: This has been a banner year for awards and accolades. You won a Billie Holiday award from a group in Paris, a 2010 Night Life Award, an eleventh DownBeat Critics Poll award, the Jazz Journalists Award and the Grammy. What does that all mean to you?
Kurt Elling: [laughs] I’m happy it’s coming through, but I tend to focus as much on the challenges, the creative challenges at the time. We’re making a new studio record with John Patitucci and Terreon Gully, guitarist John McLean and Kobie Watkins. If I stop to think about the awards I view them as markers––that everything is going according to plan. If you think of how few male jazz singers there are under the age of seventy at this point who are really pushing the boundaries, then I have to sort of quietly think that there isn’t too much competition. I try to put those kind of awards in a context that is appropriate.
I definitely feel I have worked hard, I continue to work hard… Laurence and I are working hard. I think those are indicators that people are listening, which is gratifying, and it is better to win than not, but when it comes to watershed years, or my own internal definition… I mean the Grammy was certainly a big deal, because we’ve been in the running so many times and it hadn’t come through for us. They are all really valuable, but I guess I don’t put too much weight on any part of it.
Laurence Hobgood: I did an interview a couple of weeks ago for a Tanglewood gig, and the interviewer asked me, “So, people are starting to compare you to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. What do you think about that?” And I said “Really?! That’s the first I’ve heard of it!” [laughs] And it’s interesting since Duke and Billy were both pianists and composers––Billy obviously more of a lyricist that Duke was––my first question was, “Who’s who?”
Because I’m the pianist so that means I’m more of the pencil-on-paper composer and arranger, so that would make me Duke... but then, I would think that Kurt’s Duke. So in the act of being too literal I probably didn’t accept the compliment gracefully at all. It’s not natural to me––I always have to think about everything.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Have there been any opportunities as a result of the Grammy Award?
Elling: Well, being able to change my CD from Grammy-nominee to Grammy-winner is the heaviest thing I can think of! [laughs]
Hobgood: It ranges from little things like on our recent tour there were a couple of stops where everyone in the band had a suite. There may not be a direct corollary, but you have to think that the general perception of Kurt and of our band has been elevated. Beyond that, I’m not really on the booking end––I’m in the artistic huddle. There’s definitely an increased sense of respect. I think this was mitigated a little by the fact that people knew that eventually we were going to win. I know that sounds pompous, but I don’t mean it that way. Clearly, we weren’t going to stop trying, and we don’t make music with winning Grammys as the objective.
But the fact that we had that many nominations means that people weren’t shocked. Even we didn’t know when Kurt won that the Academy gives Grammy awards to producers and mixing engineers. So it goes layers deep. Everyone knows that Kurt’s won a Grammy, but very few people know that I won one too. So we actually have two Grammy winners in the band. Does it really matter? It matters to me because it’s something that can’t be taken away from you. So in the future no matter how obscure we remain or no matter how much I screw something up, that’s permanent. I grew up watching the Grammys as a little kid, and it means something––it’s a marker.
Elling: It’s not like you wake up the very next day, you’re an Oscar winner and now you get to work with Robert Duvall or something. Cats in jazz tend to make their own decisions about with whom they want to make music, and that isn’t really dependent on Grammy’s or any other awards, as fine as they might be. It’s dependent on their up-close estimation as to whether another musician is an appropriate choice for the project that they have in mind, and is that the quality player for that to come through. The award stuff is something that I tend to think musicians look at as, Yeah man, killin’––you got that, now let’s play this stuff. I tend to think it changes the perceptions more of promoters and people who work in marketing.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Speaking of working with Robert Duvall, a lot of people may not know that Kurt hosted the pre-televised portion of the Grammy Awards and that in the past you have been involved with theater production. Any thoughts of adding acting to your repertoire?
Elling:I have been actively writing either a screenplay or a stage play, I don’t know which it will become. It’s a piece that’s in Chicago, that will involve real blowing, utilizing jazz music in the way Broadway does to fill out characters. But my desire is to have real improvisation with high quality jazz musicians so that the notes aren’t the same every night. It’s a true jazz musical, a dramatic piece that features jazz music as an integral part of it, not just for the sake of the story but also for the sake of the music itself.
That’s been a long time coming, and I’ve been thinking of it and writing bits and pieces over the last year or so. But it’s quite difficult to be on the road for 200 nights a year and be able to clear your head to be able to sit down and write lyrics and piecemeal things together. The road is so much about survival––physically, physiologically, mentally, emotionally––especially for a singer. When you are the instrument, it’s a big enough challenge to focus on getting through and playing the best music you can for the audience on a given night, let alone taking on this whole other bite of stuff. I try, and I’m lining up business and creative collaborators for that. Of course Laurence will be a big part of that as well, and I hope he’ll be on stage with me as well when that goes down. But it’s a work in a progress.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So if you complete the project to your satisfaction, your ultimate aim would to be not just to get it produced, but to actually star in it?
Elling: Oh yeah, I mean that would be the real pay-off. The writing is so much harder than the performing. The performing is physically difficult, and it’s definitely a mental challenge to be on top of your game on a given evening, but at that point, you’ve gotten all of the “chore work,” the lonely pull-it-through-yourself work, and now you get to show it to people and interact with the audience and the other musicians. That’s all pleasure.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: There’s an ongoing discussion as to what really constitutes jazz singing. For example, there are people who believe scatting is a necessary component of jazz singing. Do you subscribe to that?
Elling: I don’t think you have to scat as such, but you definitely have to have a very strong notion of spontaneous interplay; you have to have a dedication to some version of improvisational freshness on a given evening. Whether that means that you phrase it differently or that you are full-on scatting, or that you are improvising little filigrees on the ends of things, there has to be a real dedication to that. You can’t just always sing the same thing at the same point. Secondarily, and just as importantly, that activity, if one claims to be a jazz singer, has to be backed up by a deep love for, and a deep respect for, and a deep immersion for the history of the great jazz singers and the great jazz artists that have come before, so that you are not just pretending to reinvent the wheel––you are building on the history of the music.
It’s a specific history of music. It means that you are building on––we can name specific examples––Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Andy Bey, Anita O’Day, the people who are, and have always been, considered jazz people. And those are obviously just the singers. If you want to dive more deeply, as I think one should, then one is also going to be talking about Trane and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Bird and Louis Armstrong. And so you see the history of the music and one’s dedication to the perpetuation of a certain creative line or past of music, or road of musical expression is going to be based upon one’s dedication to that history. That will be the second half of what one brings to bear.
So I think it’s always pretty clear. Just as it’s very clear if an instrumentalist or singer has done their homework. And you can tell if they know what’s in a specific chord, you can tell if they can play the changes or not, and you can tell if they’ve dived into the history or not.
Hobgood: I agree; it’s not a fine line at all. I think there is a big difference between someone who sings jazz, and someone who is a jazz singer. I think there are very, very few actual jazz singers. Being a jazz musician means approaching what you are doing with a compositional mentality. And in turn it doesn’t do any good to have a compositional viewpoint if you don’t have actual information behind it. There are people out there who try to just wing it, and that’s whether they are trying to reshape a main melody or scatting, or their version of improvising, but it’s all superficial. They haven’t really dug deeply enough into the music mostly because, and this is sort of becoming a cliché out of my mouth, but people dwell in their comfort zones.
You can spend ten hours a day working, which from external observation appears like you’re working like crazy, but if you are spending the whole time working within your comfort zone, you aren’t going to be learning much. Jazz musicians learn how to challenge themselves by basically being honest with themselves about things that they are not completely, innately and intuitively good at. I don’t know why more of them don’t move out of their comfort zones. Let me put it this way: For a real jazz musician, staying in your comfort zone is uncomfortable. Perhaps strangely, what actually makes us comfortable is feeling like something is missing, feeling like there is something more to know. And it may be hard to figure it out, it may be difficult to find out what it is, but we know it’s out there. It’s like having an itch: you’ve got to figure it out. Jazz singers obviously reshape a lot of lines, and they do it in a way that sits and lays beautifully on the free-flowing ideas that the other musicians are playing.
In Kurt’s case, it’s also important to remember the way that he has just worked on his voice. The microphone is an amazing invention, but it allows a lot of people to present a feeling of projection that they haven’t really earned. I’ve worked with a lot of singers, and I’ve heard a lot of singers, and in Kurt’s case, just in a pure technical aspect of what he’s done with his voice, he stands so much apart from the other male jazz singers, it’s almost like there aren’t any––they’ve all retreated. I don’t mean to disrespect anybody by saying that, because I know there are some out there. Sachal Vasandani is doing some interesting things, Kevin Mahogany is there, and he certainly has a powerful instrument. But in terms of really shaping the music and evolving it and changing it, as a male jazz singer, especially of the younger generation, I’m just not aware of anybody who is really making headway, making noise.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about The Gate.
Elling: The Gate is our next studio record. We are trying to decide what the final sequence of the compositions will be. I am very happy with the results. I think it’s an obvious step forward for us and it’s an obvious step forward, specifically down the road we were going down when we did Nightmoves, which was in its way another step down the road from everything else we’ve done: Close Your Eyes, our very first record, a step down the road from Messenger, it all seems to be a very clear advance for me. And the inclusion of John Patitucci and Terreon, as I mentioned––man, they really helped us make a new sound on this record. Having Bob Mintzer on again was a real treat. He’s such a great musician. I should mention as well that we are featuring Chicago guitarist John McLean all over this record. I was waiting for the right recording to come along and ask John to play, and this is it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Your last studio release, Nightmoves, seemed to be your most introspective. How does that compare with your new disc?
Hobgood: The one thing I would say is this one is more stylistically consistent. Nightmoves was a good record. It had more conceptual variety built in to it. I mean just look at the tracks, it’s the same record where you have the title track, “Nightmoves,” you have “The Sleepers,” and you also have “Body and Soul.” I’m not saying it didn’t sit together, but it didn’t have the same kind of consistent whole, in a biological sense, that this record does.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Does the disc have a theme or concept?
Elling: It doesn’t have a theme to it; it has a vibe––a mood. But I have to say, when one uses the word introspective to describe one’s work, it implies that sometimes one is not introspective when working! [laughs] I feel like every choice I make is based on introspection; it is something I am aware of and something that I have worked on, at least in my mind. I think of Nightmoves as, again, a step down the road that began with Close Your Eyes, and whenever we start down a path I think, Okay, what I’m trying to do in this studio record is present a certain field of play or a certain agreement that I think is coherent, that goes in as many directions that can hold together. Most of the moves are based on intuition.
I just intuitively feel, Well, this goes with this, and I can explain it intellectually, and I can trace certain strands of things intellectually, and now that we have a little bit of a history under our belts, then one can trace the lineage of certain kinds of ideas as they develop––as we streamline certain things, as I become a better singer and player, as I hope that happens, and I believe I can hear that throughout all of our recordings. It’s just steps down the road. The Gate will be this incarnation of the project: Here’s a bunch of stuff that Kurt and Laurence wrote in collaboration with some great musicians, and this is the way we sound right now.
Hobgood: It’s not a concept album in the usual sense, but I think it is a concept album in the deeper sense of the word. The concept is the way that we are playing together and the vibe that we are trying to create. I think it is possible for master musicians who have really evolved through their own internal process and through the process they have been through with all the groups they have played with before––I think it is possible for them to arrive in a place where they can play with great intensity and great mindfulness without having it seem like they are trying.
It seems like other musicians aren’t trying because they aren’t! It is this place you can get to, where you are comfortable enough in your own skin that you can relax and relinquish the need to control, and you end up becoming responsive and reactive without being passive. It’s like being in a conversation and knowing just exactly the right thing to say. And saying no more and no less than what needs to be said. That’s basically what we did. I love the fact that our producer, Don Was, sat both at the sessions, and then met us in L.A. to finish the record and to mix it. The first thing he said was, “The thing I love about this record is nobody is trying.” The sound is so full. I feel like what we’ve done on this record is very elegant, very patient and meaningful.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It must take a while for this kind of musical communication to evolve, and yet you are working with new musicians. Is that success just a matter of chemistry?
Hobgood: It’s choosing the right musicians. Patitucci, obviously, we had started developing a relationship with him socially, out of what we know from our end is healthy, mutual respect. I have spoken with him several times since we finished the record, and he’s nuts about it, with every aspect of it. From the concept to specific things like the bass sound, when we were both recording and of course more intense for us mixing, when he’s not there. We need to make him sound great, and bass players are very picky about the way they sound. You definitely don’t want John Patitucci saying, “Yeah, it’s a great album but I’m not crazy about the bass sound,” or “It’s not loud enough.” He just loves it. Now as far as Terreon is concerned, that was a brilliant call on Kurt’s part. I didn’t know as much about him as Kurt did. Even Patitucci was blown away by him, and Patitucci plays with Brian Blade all the time.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So they had never worked together?
Hobgood: No, not at all. And the other two people in the picture are Kobie Watkins and John McLean, which we already knew them. We just picked the right people to work with. I think one of the real heavy stories is Don Was. This is really the first time we’ve worked with a new producer where we are just like, Wow! He sat in the room with us when we were tracking; he wasn’t out in the booth. When we were playing he was in the room with us with his earphones on. He was just organically a part of the process. His perception of where we were at, and his subtle direction of where it was best to go to get even better, was just really amazing.
Elling: Yeah, working with Don Was––no small thing! He approached me a couple of years ago, having just come across a couple of our earlier records, and he was just so entranced with it, and he was such a lovely person in describing it––his attraction to what our project is. He really wanted to hook up with us. And I was happy to do it. He is a supremely creative, loving and persuasive collaborator in the music. And it isn’t that he said: “Hey, sing this way” or, “Let’s do this, “Here are the compositions you are going to be doing.” We didn’t really turn our project over to Don.
I think what his real contribution was in really helping us play our best––to think our most creatively, and to take the kinds of chances that were in our heads. We’d be in the studio and I’d say, “I’m kind of hearing something” and he’d say, “Play it,” and I would be, “I’m not sure it’s going to work,” and he’s like “C’mon now, get in there!” And even if it was not the right idea, you could tell he was like, All right, that was cool. Maybe try another like that and see if it can go again. And I have definitely had supportive production partners before, but there’s just so much love coming out of him about the music and the musicians, you become more and more confident, and more and more secure in your own creative mission in the studio. It is really rewarding and it has been the most relaxed, most pleasant and wonderful time that we’ve had in the studio, and I think Laurence would agree with me––and we’ve had plenty of times in the studio!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: In the past, hasn’t Don Was been more of a rock producer?
Hobgood: He’s done a lot more jazz… and world, alternative, he’s done everything. The list of records he’s been involved with, there’s hundreds of them. What you are talking about is what he’s most known for, which is probably his producing for the Stones. Listen, I’ve got to tell you, this guy loves music, more than almost anybody I’ve ever seen. When we were mixing, we could be listening to a fifteen-second segment of something for the twentieth time, and he’s sitting over there with headphones on, his eyes closed, into it, just loving it. Even I don’t find myself that absorbed to just fifteen seconds of something, for one detail to get it right. I don’t have trouble maintaining focus, but I’m not sitting there having an eargasm.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Will there be covers or is The Gate entirely original material?
Elling: On this recording I’ve written some lyrics and things again––for a Joe Zawinul thing; I sort of modified a couple of lyrics on a Herbie Hancock thing; the bassist Marc Johnson––I wrote a vocalese over one of his licks from past years; there’s a Don Grolnick composition for which I wrote a lyric. And the covers that we do––I wouldn’t call them pop tunes, I would call them more recent-vintage compositions of excellence, by people like King Crimson and Stevie Wonder, and people of quality… the Beatles. I feel like what we are doing is drawing them into our already very contemporary, primarily acoustic jazz playpen, rather than pulling ourselves toward any kind of genre, or non-specific activity. We are just following our intuitions. I am following my intuition, and trying to put things together that interest me, that sound like what we are doing right now. Sorry to be vague.
Hobgood: The whole thing of reworking, whatever you want to call it, pop classics or whatever, has become very vogue, but the amount of imagination and ingenuity that has been deployed is, in some cases, less than impressive. The way I think of it is extending the American Songbook. It’s hard to say that because you are close to it, but I feel like what we have done here in several cases is really going to surprise people. There is a fine line between going too innovative and not enough. I don’t want to mention particular instances, but I can think of some instances where genius musicians have tried to do something clever, say on a Stevie Wonder song, but despite their genius and cleverness, it didn’t really work. I really feel like we succeeded on all levels here.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: As far as taking pop classics and turning them into “jazz” cuts, what needs to be applied to a song that wasn’t there prior to your addressing it?
Hobgood: There are certain criteria. For me, one thing is there needs to be real harmonic potential in the original song. Which is not to say that you couldn’t do something interesting with a one- or two-chord song, but what would make a jazz treatment of something like that interesting is what you did with the ensemble. Somehow applying the open modal ideas as etched out by Coltrane and Wayne and Joe Henderson.
But I’m talking about songs with chord changes. Now as pop music has gotten, if you look over the last decade or two, you still have the occasional really great song that actually has some chord changes to it. Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Peter Gabriel––it’s not that hard to find some instances where a song actually has some sort of harmonic activity, even if it is simple by jazz standards. But that’s what makes it fertile ground for jazz treatment. There are also deeper things. The main area has to do with groove concept. Groove concept and time concept.
One thing you have to remember: pop music is recorded by human beings, but then a producer and his team basically “assemble” the final track, so any real individualism or ingenuity expressed by one of the musicians, by jazz standards, is likely to be lost. So you can see how the industry in general doesn’t view pop music as a desirable vessel for a lot of unpredictability or variety or individual interpretation or inflections in the way the musicians play during the initial tracking.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Except perhaps on the part of the writer or the singer.
Hobgood:Maybe. Maybe not. Point is, the biggest thing that makes a pop tune viable for jazz treatment is the potential for cool things to happen in the more freely expressive and individualistic environment in which the jazz player lives.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are we going to hear any of the new material at the festival?
Elling:Yeah, I don’t know how much time we will have in the set, but we should get to two or three things.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is the studio band going to be the same as the touring band?
Hobgood: No. First of all John Patitucci has got a very full schedule and, as we all know, he plays with Wayne, he plays with a lot of other big heavies, he’s got his own projects. In the case of John, it would be nice at some point if he could at least just do a couple of live gigs with us. I’m making that statement just from a personal point of view. But you know, our regular bassist Harish Raghavan is a great young player and deserves to have a job. And same thing goes for Ulysses Owens, our regular drummer. Now Terreon, that’s another story, because sometimes Ulysses is not available––he works with Christian McBride and he has a large educational commitment. And Terreon has expressed a large enthusiasm for playing with us, so that’s a realistic possibility. McLean was with us in Europe for a few weeks, and he’ll be out with us quite a bit.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What do you have coming up in the near future?
Hobgood: The biggest thing I have coming up is at Tanglewood as a double-bill, and the first half of the double-bill is the Laurence Hobgood Trio, which was Tanglewood’s idea. It’s a beautiful, beautiful venue, and I’m really looking forward to playing a trio set, taking an intermission and then coming out and doing a Kurt set. Talk about having your cake and eating it too! We’re going to Australia at the end of October. We have many, many good friends there and it’s definitely one of our favorite destinations in the world. We’re also playing a weekend at the Mill in December. And the decision has been made not to release this record until February. The record’s done––the master has been delivered, but the powers that be––and I agree with them––don’t want to release the record in the pre-Christmas madness of the fall. Things have a tendency to get lost and overlooked during that time, and Concord wants to really get behind this. We just think there’s going to be a much higher chance of visibility with a February release. And as jaded and skeptical as I’ve become, I have to believe that this record is really going to have an impact. I think it’s got something that is a new level for us.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Where do you want your career to go in the next few years?
Elling: Well, I’d like to get this dramatic work going. I’ll need to tour behind this record when it comes out. And we have some other special projects. I’m trying to find some way to plausibly do a handful of larger-venue shows that are related to the Sinatra heritage. But that’s a very tricky business, because so many cats have done it––tapped in to that legacy. Some of them have done so honorably, with a genuine creative intent, and a lot of them have tried to cash in on the old man’s fame. I would like to be a part of the former group, that’s why I’m limiting the venues. And I want to really plan out what it could be.
I’m not going to go for some of the more famous material, and I’m not going to do it in the big band setting––more of a large band setting in which Laurence and I have worked. In the past it’s been done pretty successfully, like on Flirting with Twilight, where we have three horns and a rhythm section. Maybe we’ll throw a guitar in there. But we really want to take it our own way. As it happens, if my Wikipedia information is up to date, this is the fiftieth anniversary of Frank’s first trip to Paris. There are a couple of recordings that came out of that, when he went to Paris and then to Australia. And I have been on a kick recently on how to reach out to the world again. We went through a bunch of years where we were, as they say in Latin, incurvatus in se––we were turned in on ourselves. We were only concerned with our own little part of the globe. Now, with Obama being in the White House, we can turn to the stuff that we need to have happen, and the cooperation that we need––cooperation on climate problems and the financial issues we are facing, stuff that’s happening in the Congo, obviously our relationship with the diverse Islamic world, the mess that we really are in.
All I can really do is sing, so I have to turn to the music about that. I was really happy to do a thing, which is our second sort of special project that I’m working on––we did a long weekend at Jazz at Lincoln Center with the French virtuoso accordionist, Richard Galliano. It was called “Passion World,” and it featured all of our new arrangements of selected beautiful things from around the world. I did a piece from Brahms Lieder in German, I wrote some new lyrics for a Galliano composition in English, I did some chanson, I did something from Cuba––a bunch of languages, but as far as I’m concerned, beautiful pieces and material.
Chicago Jazz Magazine:What prompted your move to New York a couple years back?
Elling: It’s funny, but when people ask where I’m from I always say, “I’m living in New York right now, but I’m from Chicago.” . . . I guess I had played just about every room I could play here in Chicago, and even though Chicago has a great influx and standard of great new players, I pretty much played with the cats I knew of that I wanted to play with, and have taken advantage of all the opportunities I could have here in town.
And I just felt like I didn’t want to live my whole life and not spread around a little bit and not be in New York for some period of time, whether it was one year, or five years, or whatever indeterminate number of years that might be. I just want to have every experience that life has to offer. So we rented out our place here for a couple years. We’re taking one year or one quarter at a time if you will. Our little girl is at a good school now, and that took some doing. And she’s got her little friends there. She’ll be five in October. It goes fast. We obviously have so many friends here in Chicago whose company and time spent with them we really treasure. And nothing about our move, I take it, has been misinterpreted by anyone, in terms of any Chicago diss or anything. You just have to live your life and explore and find what possibilities are out there. And I appreciate our friends hanging on and understanding.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Any surprises in New York you weren’t expecting?
Elling: I’m not sure about surprises. We’ve made a bunch of new friends here. I’ve gotten to play in a bunch of different situations that I wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise, just from being physically present. If you want to be on someone’s record, even in New York they are still on jazz budgets, and a lot of people can’t afford airfares, so just to drop by a session and say, “Hey, I’m doing this thing,” even if it is just to drop in and listen and say hi to the cats.
Hobgood: Unlike Kurt, I’m not really from Chicago, and even though I think of it as my hometown I don’t have that feeling of roots. I have always wanted to spend some time living in New York. I dig the idea of living in a variety of places during the course of my life. Eventually I’d like to live a few years out West and I’d like to spend some time living in Europe.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did the two of you meet?
Hobgood: Well, there are two answers to that. The very first time we met, which Kurt doesn’t remember, was at a gig at the Hyatt Regency. I was playing with some people that he played with on weekends, but he and I had never met. And we stopped by to say hi to them and join them for a cheap meal in the employee cafeteria, which is where they went when they were on their break. It was one of those, awkward is not the right word, but it was one of those situations where nobody knew we didn’t know each other, and nobody introduced us. And I distinctly remember––and I’m not making this up––is that there were several times where, as a reaction to something somebody else said, Kurt and I looked at each other and kind of went, Oh, is that so? or, Uh, okay.
And then a couple of weeks after that I was playing in the regular Monday night band with Ed Petersen at the Mill, and at one point Ed made an announcement that somebody was going to sit in with us, which in and of itself was strange, because nobody ever sat in with us. Then he made a further announcement that the person was a singer, which was even more unbelievable. Then the guy comes walking up to the stage, and I was like, Wait, that’s the guy I met the other week at the Hyatt with John and Georgia, and it was Kurt.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So at the time you met Kurt at the Hyatt, you didn’t know he was a singer?
Hobgood: I had no idea.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What have you read recently that’s worth checking out?
Elling: I’m actually just finishing up Terry Teachout’s biography on Pops, which I think is really a rewarding read. So many things resonate with me as classic jazz prose, classic experiences––I mean the musician just wanting to play music and not wanting to worry about the business. Struggling for so long, trying to keep your chops up, trying to define yourself by your own likes. There were five or six things in that book that I just pounced on. If Pops had to live through it, then I’m in the right river. It’s nice to have verification like that every once in a while, even of the difficult stuff.
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