I sat down for a meal with string bassist / bandleader / singer Jen Hodge last year in New York City, and I was pleased to encounter a person I could admire as much as the music she’s been making: candid, friendly, playful, intelligent. And her new CD reflects all these qualities. Since it doesn’t have liner notes, I offer — unsolicited — a few paragraphs.
First, facts: the Jen Hodge All Stars are Jen, string bass, vocals; Chris Davis, trumpet; Connor Stewart, clarinet, tenor saxophone (whom I also met and admired); Josh Roberts, guitar; Marti Elias, drums. You’ll note the absence of trombone and piano — for the true traditionalists — but you won’t miss them. In fact, this instrumentation gives the disc a remarkable lighter-than-air quality. The band soars and rocks. Here’s a taste. Admire their dynamics, too:
As soloists, each of the players is superb and sometimes superbly quirky: their imaginations are not hemmed in by constricting notions of appropriate styles, regions, or dates. No one quotes from Ornette (at least I didn’t notice it if it happened) but everyone on the disc knows that the music didn’t stop when Lil and Louis separated. The soloists fly with a fervent lightness, and they couldn’t be better as ensemble players.
A particular pleasure of this disc is that its members tend to burst into song, at widely spaced intervals, individually or in combination — a very touching duet on SMOKE RINGS for one. On SHOUT, SISTER, SHOUT, Jen is aided and abetted by the hilariously expert “Jen’s Male Chorus,” whose identities you will learn after purchasing the music; other vocals are by Arnt Arnzen, Bonnie Northgraves, and Jack Ray — he of the Milk Crate Bandits. HEY LET’S DRINK A BEER is given over to Jen and Bonnie, who suggest vocally they are Fifties carhops at the drive-in, on roller skates — perilously cute but they also know judo.
One could divide the CD’s repertoire into the Familiar and the New, the Familiar being DARDANELLA; BLAME IT ON THE BLUES; IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT; SHOUT, SISTER, SHOUT; SMOKE RINGS, VIPER’S DREAM; HELL’S BELLS; STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY; ROCK BOTTOM; ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM. But that designation of “The Familiar” would not be so accurate. The JAZZ LIVES audience could hum or even sing perhaps seven of those songs, but I would be hard put to do the first eight bars of Fletcher Allen’s VIPER’S DREAM, Art Kassel’s HELL’S BELLS, or Tiny Parham’s ROCK BOTTOM.
Incidentally, I am not revealing too much by writing that Jen has a Platonic crush on Tiny Parham, which comes out with her recording a Parham song or two on each of her CDs. It was not possible in this universe for Jen to ask Tiny to the Junior Prom, so these bouquets must suffice.
Here’s the hilariously quirky HELL’S BELLS, flying along in sixth gear:
And “The Familiar” songs are never handled routinely: each performance has a pleasing surprise at its center. On my first listening, I was now and again happily caught off balance: I thought I knew how a band would end — let us say — IF I COULD BE WITH YOU — but the arrangement here was not predictable, although it was not so “innovative” to violate the mood of the song. ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM has traces of the Braff-Barnes Quartet versions, with a brief and delightful excursion into Jo Jones’ solo patterns of his later decades. STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, worn threadbare through repetition, is lively and fresh here. The “New” material sometimes hints at familiar chord shapes: MY DADDY ROCKS ME, THEM THERE EYES, but the originals are cleverly enticing.
All I know is that I’ve played this disc several times straight through “with pleasure” undiminished. And I know I am not alone in this. I delight in hearing evidence that the Youngbloods are swinging so hard, with such taste, and individuality . . . and I delight in the particulars of their music.
Here is Jen’s Facebook page.
You may purchase this music in every imaginable form (except bright blue flexible celluloid 7″ discs and cassette tapes) here which also happens to be Jen’s website). And I hope you will.
May your happiness increase!