My Favorite Chicago Jazz Cats: Laurence Hobgood

My Favorite Chicago Jazz Cats: Laurence Hobgood

Laurence Hobgood is one of those talented musicians who can compose, play the piano with ease and be innovative and makes it look easy. Some cats play piano like it hurts, Laurence plays with intensity but you never seem him strain.

I first heard about Laurence Hobgood 20 years ago with the debut of vocalist Kurt Elling’s first CD, “Close Your Eyes”. The piano playing on Kurt’s CDs from 1995 until 2013 was all done and arranged with Laurence.

But as I learned about Laurence, I found out he had his own group “Union” (which predated his work with Kurt but that was the basis for Kurt’s first band and Laurence simultaneously kept Union going while working with Kurt), and later even did some solo work and its some of most beautiful piano jazz anywhere or anytime. Laurence has a range of playing and arranging that is nothing short of extraordinary.

Like many jazz cats he’s classically trained and in his solo work and playing with Union is almost like chamber music at times. A strong classical influence with a hint of jazz and improvisation.

But when Laurence worked with Kurt it was jazz all over the place, straight standards, new work that pushed jazz to its limits, spoken word, you name it. And it was all done really well, never sloppy, arrangements were tight, band was on point, from the late 1990’s until mid 2000’s they were the best jazz band in town. Especially Wednesday nights at the Green Mill, that was their time (9 P.M), those shows were legendary.

Laurence is one of those artists and arrangers that if you see his name on a production you know it’s exceptional, thoughtful and soulful yet has that classical influence. But it’s not stiff or sleepy, it swings (but oh so subtly), and is melodic but has structure. Trust me that’s not easy to do nor often seen or heard.
Laurence and Kurt had a great run as jazz collaborators, every CD they released (11 total), were nominated for a Grammy, finally winning one in 2010 (“Dedicated To You”), for their work recreating Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane songs. Talk about a tough subject with high expectations and they nailed it.

As much as I enjoyed seeing Kurt Elling many times, there was always the thought of, I wonder what Laurence is going to do? Same with each CD that came out, you wondered how Laurence would interpret a certain jazz standard (or even pop song, they once covered Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit “Steppin’ Out”), and what songs he would take on next.

Kurt Elling often did “vocalese” (adding vocals to previously recorded instrumental work), and Laurence never disappointed in backing up Kurt’s creativity. As much as Kurt was the headliner, many of us knew Laurence was a big part of the show too.

I remember seeing Laurence do a solo gig at the Chicago Jazz Fest about 10 years ago and this was when the fest was still in Grant Park and the daytime gigs were at the side stages. This was at Jackson stage facing west and backing up to Lake Shore Drive. There were people everywhere, in seats, in the picnic area, sitting on the curb and standing in the back. The organizers under estimated Laurence’s fans and people were polite but it was packed and Laurence didn’t disappoint but after his gig was over you felt bad for the next jazz cat because people cleared out and the side stage returned to normal.

That is Laurence and his music, subtle yet strong, structured with a little improvisation and some mellow intensity. Its jazz that’s not to be missed.

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