DERRICK HODGE LIVES FOR TODAY
August 2 2013
Live Today signals a new journey for bassist and composer Derrick Hodge as he embarks on a solo recording career. The title alludes to his top guiding principle in creating his debut album, a stunning achievement that showcases the profound depth and breadth of his musicality. “This whole album was putting on my composer’s hat, but letting go and making sure that I’m giving people raw examples of how I feel on any given day,” he explains.
Even though Hodge has played with such jazz titans as pianist Mulgrew Miller and trumpeter (and labelmate) Terence Blanchard, as well as R&B stars Jill Scott and Maxwell, the 33-year-old bassist is probably best known for anchoring the Grammy award-winning Robert Glasper Experiment. Similar to how Glasper concocts a distinctive mélange of modern jazz, hip-hop, and R&B, Live Today too integrates those genres and more into something that’s potent and personal. However, it is no Experiment offshoot. Similarities aside, the Live Today asserts a unique sound.
Glasper does contribute on several songs on Live Today, as do the rest of the Experiment members: saxophonist/vocoderist Casey Benjamin, and drummers Chris Dave and Mark Colenburg. Hodge, however, cast a wider net for recruiting musicians. The diverse cast includes rapper Common, singer/guitarist, Alan Hampton, keyboardists James Poyser and Aaron Parks, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and the American String Quartet, among others.
As a bassist, Hodge tucks in his virtuosic prowess to focus more on the overall compositional sound. “I didn’t think so much about the timbre and the sound of the actual instrument that I play when I wrote this music,” he says, “I gravitated toward the band sound and worked within that framework.”
Live Today undoubtedly brims with communal spirit. It opens with the suspenseful “The Real” on which horns lurk through murky textures created by Hodge and turntablist Jahi Sundance. Soon afterward, the song evolves into joyous jazz-funk, buoyed by an infectious zouk gait.
The following track, “Table Jawn,” perfectly illustrates Hodge’s “snapshot” analogy. The metallic rhythms were originally captured on Hodge’s wife’s iPhone. She’d witnessed a humorous discussion among Hodge, Glasper and Dave at their breakfast table, which gave way to an impromptu jam session. “Somebody just grabbed a cup and started playing a beat while another person was trying to finish the argument,” Hodge recalls, “I then picked up a spoon, and we all started playing the beat.” From that rhythmic bed Hodge built a fetching melody around it.
“Message of Hope” also initiated from a voice memo. The sanguine melody came to Hodge while he was driving his car in Los Angeles. When he arrived home, he worked on chords then recorded it with Colenburg and keyboardist/organist Travis Sayles. “I knew the spirit that I felt when the melody came to me – a certain lift and feeling of promise, so I stuck to that emotion and feeling when we later added the other elements.”
The evocative “Boro March” which begins with tumbling martial rhythms that eventually settled into a danceable groove underneath horn riffs, is a meditation on Hodge’s teen years in high school marching band in Willingboro, N.J. “I grew up in the hotbed of various musical styles,” he says, “One way we would get it all out was playing around in the band room. I just took an idea and tried to keep as simple as possible and developed it with a drumline hump in mind.”
The title track provides the most explicit articulation of the album’s overall theme, thanks to Common’s conversational rhymes. After playing on three of Common’s albums – Be, Finding Forever, and The Dreamer/The Believer – it was befitting for Hodge to invite the MC on the album. “I really respect Common as an artist and as a person,” Hodge says, “When we first were conceptualizing this album, I knew from the jump that I wanted Common on it. I'm honored that he agreed to collab with me.”
Alan Hampton, who is himself an accomplished jazz bassist, also contributes guest vocals as well as acoustic guitar to the gorgeous lament “Holding Onto You.” Hodge discovered Hampton’s singing talents while participating in another recording session one day. “He started singing and it was just unbelievable. I had no idea that he was that natural with it,” Hodge says. Afterwards, Hodge penned the song’s melody and lyrics specifically for Hampton, also arranging a beautiful string quartet accompaniment. Hodge also wrote the plaintive ballad “Solitude” with the singer/songwriter concept in mind, but with fretless bass carrying the melody for this instrumental ballad.
“Anthem in 7” places Hodges’ electric bass squarely in the spotlight. He originally recorded it with several band members, but decided to re-record it instead playing most of the instruments himself except for Colenburg’s drumming and Sayles’ organ. “I just wanted something that sounded experimental and spontaneous, with a series of melodies that glue everything together from start to finish” Hodge says. “Still the One” is yet another slinky slow jam, this time showcasing Benjamin’s distinctive vocoder work, gliding across a soundscape, featuring Hodge on all the other instruments: bass, piano, synths, and drums.
“Doxology (I Remember),” a hymnal duet between Hodge and organist Sayles on organ, also reflects Hodge’s childhood – this time relating to church. “Even though, I didn’t grow up all the way in church, I started going very heavily at a certain point as a kid. I remember how hymns had a huge impact on me, and I wanted to acknowledge that” Hodge says. Hodge provides yet another snapshot of his childhood with the transfixing “Rubberband” interlude, which originates from a demo track that he recorded when he was 19. He refurbished the track with Dave and Poyser contributing.
Hodge dedicates “Dances with Ancestors” and “Gritty Folk” to two respective musical heroes. The former with its sliding melody, episodic exposition, and expansive instrumentation, pays homage to vibraphonist Stefon Harris, whom Hodge cites as one of his favorite composers. "He connects the notes on paper with human emotion in a way that I had to pay homage to," says Hodge, "in the spirit of Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter, and many others that came before me." Colenburg’s taut drum rhythm, Hodge’s head-nodding bass, and Harrold’s multi-tracked trumpets on “Gritty Folk” allude to the New Orleans vibe that mentor Blanchard would often create live with his bands. “The core of it isn’t all New Orleans, but it has that feeling,” Hodge explains, “It has a sort of New Orleans push to it.”
In addition to Glasper, Hodge credits Blanchard and Miller with influencing his approach to band leading and being an honest musician. “The common denominator is that they all put me in situations where they said, ‘Be you,’” Hodge explains, “In that same spirit, I put my trust in my decision to work with the musicians on this record and let it be what it is. Once they’re in my band, I don’t try to change them.”
Now residing in Los Angeles, Hodge grew up right outside of Philadelphia in Willingboro, N.J. He started playing electric bass in the elementary school orchestra. When the high school jazz band needed a bassist, they recruited him. On the suggestion of his high-school band teacher, Hodge continued his formal jazz education at Temple University. “That was the beginning of my jazz journey. The first jazz album that I heard was Never Will I Marry by Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley.”
While majoring at Temple University in performance, Hodge played with such Philly greats as tenor saxophonist Bootsie Barnes and trumpeter Terrell Stafford. At the same time, Hodge reaped considerable session work with some of Philly’s finest modern R&B artists such as Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, and Floetry. “So much was happening in Philly at the time. No one really knew that all of these artists were going to blow up so quickly,” Hodge recalls. But that's certainly what happened.
While on tour with Scott in support of her 2000 debut, Who Is Jill Scott?, Hodge arrived at the crossroads and had to decide whether he was going to continue playing with her or finish school. After a heartfelt conversation with Scott, he returned to Temple and continued developing his jazz chops.
Live Today culminates all of Hodge’s experiences working with various jazz and R&B artists, resulting in music that’s at once adventurous yet accessible, and more important extremely personal. “I wanted to be honest and transparent to all of the people who were supporting me and wishing me well,” Hodge says, “I wanted this album to give them real snapshots of how I felt as an artist at a given moment on a given day. Let them be a part of my journey.”