Jazz and strings can make strange bedfellows; there are numerous examples of albums where the strings feel surplus to requirements, or arranged by somebody who had never previously worked with jazz musicians. More recently, KoJ reviewed Medeski Martin and Wood’s Omnisphere, a collaboration with ‘new music collective’ Alarm Will Sound, which sounded somewhat disjointed – a strange mix of styles that didn’t work well as a whole.
If anyone is going to make it work, you’d probably bet on Laurence Hobgood, who worked as a pianist and arranger for Kurt Elling for over twenty years. He describes the music as “third stream nouveau”; in other words, an updated version of the “third stream” experiments by the likes of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Jimmy Giuffre in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But whilst the Modern Jazz Quartet, to my ears at least, sounded a little too stiff, the arrangements here are quite dazzling. He’s chosen to work with ETHEL, a string quartet comprised of Ralph Farris on viola, Kip Jones on violin, Dorothy Lawson on cello and Corin Lee on violin, an amazing ensemble that seem to be on the same wavelength as Hobgood.
Listen to Hobgood discuss the project here:
Hobgood is joined by his own trio, Matthew Clohesy on bass and Jared Schonig on drums. The tunes selected are primarily popular songs that are well-suited to further exploration, including Wichita Lineman, Blackbird and Georgia On My Mind, although an arrangement of Chopin’s Waltz in C♯Minor is also available as a bonus track.
The opening track, Wichita Lineman, is utterly beguiling, with Hobgood giving the melody an almost ‘big screen’ treatment; it’s worth mentioning from the outset that his own playing is superb, and that the engineering on this album is absolutely top-notch, too.
Here's a clip of Wichita Lineman, live - and without strings - but enough to give you a flavour:
Blackbird is barely recognisable from the lengthy intro, but when Hobgood does come in, there are echoes of Brad Mehldau’s interpretation, but that’s no bad thing.
My favourite track is Suite: Judy Blue Eyes; the complex shifts of the Stills original are ripe for further examination, and the stirring climax is fantastic. We Shall Overcome also works well, a seamless blending of jazz trio and strings.
And Tesseterra? It’s an amalgam of terra, which is Latin for earth, and tessitura, which means texture in Italian, but musically can refer to an instrument’s most pleasing musical texture. Hobgood has given us pleasing musical textures in abundance here, and his new album is highly recommended.