Daily Archives: January 22, 2011

THE INSPIRING CHRIS HODGKINS

Meet the versatile and creative Cardiff, Wales-born trumpeter Chris Hodgkins.  

His music answers questions: how to make art new without abandoning the tradition; how to have one’s own voice while honoring your ancestors and colleagues. 

I first heard about Chris through the magic of Google Alerts — because someone had compared him to Ruby Braff, which is my idea of an accolade.  Then I found out that he and his musical friends had created three compact discs, PRESENT CONTINUNOUS, FUTURE CONTINUOUS, and BOSWELL’S LONDON JOURNAL:

Just so know what the musicians look like should you encounter them on the street: to the left is bassist Alison Rayner; to the right of Chris is guitarist Max Brittain.  Click here to hear Alison Rayner’s QUEER BIRD, from PRESENT CONTINUOUS:

http://www.chrishodgkins.co.uk/album1.asp

And here’s Alison’s SWEET WILLIAM, from FUTURE CONTINUOUS:

http://www.chrishodgkins.co.uk/album2.asp

Click here to hear THE MACHINE, from BOSWELL’S LONDON JOURNAL (where alto saxophonist Diane McLoughlin joins Chris, Alison, and Max):

http://www.chrishodgkins.co.uk/album3.asp

You’ll hear that his music is, on one hand, rooted in a Mainstream tradition: I hear Braff, Lyttelton, Buck Clayton, echoes of Horace Silver and Blue Note recordings of the Sixties, of Henry Mancini and occasionally Strayhorn . . . in a streamlined instrumentation (a trio of trumpet, guitar, and bass on two CDs, enlarged into a quartet on the third by the addition of tenor sax).  Chris himself is a singular player; his tone ranging from the silken to the edgy, his lines winding and floating over the ringing lines of Brittain’s guitar, the deep pulse of Rayner’s string bass, and on BOSWELL’S LONDON JOURNAL they all get along nicely with the lemony alto saxophone of McLoughlin.  By the way, Chris loves the assortment of sounds and timbres that mutes give to his horn (as well as playing open) so the three discs never sounded like more of the same.   

I get a bit nervous when confronted with CDs that are all “original” compositions — whisper this: many musicians, stalwart and true, do their best composing on the bandstand, not on manuscript paper (but don’t say it too loudly) so that I was delighted to see some Kern and McHugh, Lyttelton, an Ellington blues, YOU’RE A LUCKY GUY and IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN.  Moving a little beyond the “songbook” tradition, I noted that Chris delights in a wide variety of composers and songs: Neil Sedaka’s BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO, lines by Conte Candoli, Sahib Shihab, Thad Jones, Harry Edison.  And then there are the originals — varied and lively, in many different moods and tempos.  (How could you do anything but admire a man who titles a song SWINGING AT THE COPPER BEECH?  And if you don’t get the in-joke, I’ll explain.)

BOSWELL’S LONDON JOURNAL is a real pleasure — and I am not speaking as a still-active professor of English, but as a jazz listener.  I admire Chris’s awareness of his emotional and spiritual roots in the literary / cultural past, and his joyful audacity.  The first track on the CD, THE MACHINE, describes a stagecoach ride taken by Boswell.  Chris’s original lines fall somewhere in between the twelve-bar blues and OLE MISS, and the sound of the band perplexed me — light, airy, yet serious — until I recalled its analogue: Buck Clayton’s Big Four for HRS in 1946: trumpet, clarinet, electric guitar, and bass (Scoville Brown, Tiny Grimes, and Sid Weiss, if I recall correctly).  What follows is not exactly program music: had I lost the liner notes explaining what each composition referred to, I would have still enjoyed the music — but knowing the artistic structure underneath made this a much-more-than-usually pleasing musical travelogue, veering here and there from updated Thirties rhythm ballads to hints of Horace Silver and Hank Mobley as well as very hip film soundtracks and Sixties pop of the highest order (AUCHINLECK).  I don’t know if I would have guessed the subtext of the winding, pensive REPENT IN LEISURE (referring to Boswell’s having caught gonorrhea), but the historical / musical connection works for me.  It is great fun to listen to the music on this disc — full of feeling, subtlety, and charm — whether reading the notes at the same time or as an after-commentary.

Chris Hodgkins is a fine trumpet player, small-group leader, and composer; he has good taste in his musical friends and in the music he chooses to play.  As a professor of mine used to say over thirty years ago, “I commend him to you.”

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THREE ARIAS, THREE MOODS at THE EAR INN (Jan. 16, 2011)

Despairing.

Optimistic.

Sly.

If you thought that arias were sung only in opera houses and on PBS; if you thought that Puccini and Mozart had cornered the market on passionate vocal expression . . . then I would ask you to consider the three performances below.

Recorded at my favorite Sunday-night hangout of all time, The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City), these three vocal – dramatic expressions are emotionally powerful.  They capture two singers: Tamar Korn and Jerron Paxton, alongside Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Neal Miner, bass; Mark Lopeman, tenor sax and clarinet, and Pete Martinez, clarinet (far left) — on the final number, clarinetist Bob Curtis can be seen and heard even more to the left. 

The three songs couldn’t be more familiar landmarks of twentieth-century American popular song, but listen to what these singers and players make of them! 

I had heard Tamar perform BODY AND SOUL once before (with the Cangelosi Cards at the Shambhala Meditation Center, on Feb. 27, 2010 — you can see that performance on this blog) but I do not think I have ever heard her or anyone else sing this song with such despairing power and intensity.  And, yes, I know it has been sung beautifully and strongly by Louis, Billie, Frank, and many others.  But listen — listen! — to Tamar and the band here, the musicians giving her their full love and support, as she stretches notes in some phrases, stating some plainly.  And her second chorus, where she suggests by her singing that some things are too deep for mere words: 

I am not alone in having some awkward feelings about this song: its somewhat syntactically-tortured lyrics; its inescapably masochistic air (much more self-immolating than UNTIL THE REAL THING COMES ALONG); it is more a song of voluntary indeiture than of simple fidelity.  And Tamar enters so wholly into the spirit of it that I hear her moving closer and closer to the flame, to the brink, in the manner of Piaf.  But a strange thing happens here.  You realize that as much as Tamar is apparently performing open-heart surgery in front of the crowd, saying, sobbing, “You want my heart?  Here!  Here it is!  Take it!” she is simultaneously the artist in full control, creating a dramatic (but not melodramatic) statement about love and art and passion.  In appearing to throw herself into the song, she is also the artist knowing how to create that spectacle which is so unsettling, so seismic.  And the gentlemen of the ensemble evoke Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Ed Hall, Charlie Christian, and Oscar Pettiford in the most singular ways!  Perhaps they’ve all been prisoners of love, too?

After that performance, I felt utterly satisfied and drained: in some way, I thought, “That’s it for me!  I don’t have to hear anything else tonight, tomorrow, next week . . . ”  But it was early — perhaps twenty minutes before the EarRegulars would call it a night — and they conferred on another song that Tamar might sing with them.  It took some time — choices were suggested and rejected — and since I am a born meddler and enjoy the friendly tolerance of everyone in that band, I leaned forward and said, “Sorry to intrude!  But what about WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS”?  And — my goodness! — Tamar and the Regulars thought it a good idea, and they took it up at a brisk tempo, everyone playing around with the written harmony to spark it up a bit (what I’ve heard called “the Crosby changes”) which you’ll notice.  Here, the mood was properly restorative, hopeful.  Yes, you sold my heart to the junkman, but I can always barter something and get it back in decent shape.  The clouds will soon roll by.  Your troubles can, in fact, be wrapped up in dreams and made to disappear.  Hokey Depression-era thoughts, not supported by evidence?  Perhaps.  But if I woke up in a gloomy mood every morning, which I fortunately do not, I would want to play this video — more than once — until I felt better.  See if it works for you, too:

The heroic Jerron Paxton had come in to The Ear Inn between the first and second sets, and I had hopes that he would sing.  When he shows up at a club, music happens!  And for the final performance of the night, he and the EarRegulars settled on a rocking SOME OF THESE DAYS, that anthem of “You left me and won’t you be sorry!” but sung with a grin rather than finger-waggling or real rancor.  Jerron is a sly poet, singing some phrases, elongating others, speaking some . . . and he gets his message across when he seems to be most casually leaning against the wall, just floating along: a true improvising dramatist:

Thank you, gentlemen and lady, for your passionate candor, your eloquence.