Jazz/hip-hop fusion that creates a hypnotic, minimal groove, with some thrilling variety.
Derrick Hodge is a bass player with a killer resume in today's jazz -- thrilling sounds that defy category -- particularly his work with pianist Robert Glasper and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. He is equally versed in jazz (whatever that remains in today's exciting mish-mash world of genre-blending) and hip-hop. He has quietly contributed to some dazzling work.
Live Today is his debut as a leader and composer, and it's on the premiere jazz label to boot, Blue Note. What might we expect?
Whatever you expect, you're going to get something else as well, because Live Today is a wild blend of different styles and grooves, even if there is a beautiful and hypnotic consistency in the sounds that Hodge puts out here. Some tracks sound like mellow hip-hop from the likes of Common or Me'Shell Ndegeocello; there is a song that grooves like a slice of Chick Corea fusion; there is a lightly strummed love song sung by Alan Hampton; and there are cinematic soundscapes that suggest the best of late-era Miles Davis, back when bass player Marcus Miller was usefully calling the shots.
Hodge comes by the array of sounds honestly. He was raised in Philadelphia, started on guitar and electric bass, then he developed his upright technique on his own, following up with serious education in jazz and classical music at Temple University. His interest in composition is not new. This is a debut that has a very clear idea of what it is about, despite the variety.
There is a core sound here that bridges the recording, with the leader playing both electric and acoustic bass on many tracks, often adding his own synth and keyboard playing to create a unified and warm bed of sounds. He uses one of two drummers on most songs—Chris Dave, his partner in the Robert Glasper groups, or Mark Colenburg, who plays with an orchestral approach that fills up space with a mix of hip-hop jaggedness and jazz-fusion precision.
The third tune on the record is a great example. "Message of Hope" features only Hodge, Colenburg and Travis Sayles playing organ and keys, but the sound is as wide as a big band even as it is unified and warm. That song is followed by another trio, "Boro March", for Colenburg, Hodge, and trumpeter Keyon Harrold—but this limited set of sounds (with Hodges laying in an array of synthesizers) gets big because the muted trumpet lines are layered by overdubbing into ghostly choruses that engage in a call-and-response with both percussion and keyboards. This song has the darting melodic invention of a Chick Corea composition but the sea of percussive layers you would hear on a Ndgeocello production.
This basic sound is then exploited in explorations that go in every direction. "Dances with Ancestors" brings in jazz pianist Aaron Parks (from the Blanchard group that Hodge anchored) and Marcus Strickland on soprano saxophone to create a tune that sounds more like "jazz"—with improvised licks by Harrold, Strickland, and Parks weaving through a multi-directional groove that could be the logical successor to Miles's In a Silent Way, four decades later.
"Live Today" features the Glasper trio playing beneath Common, rapping in his most optimistic and idealistic mode. The recording's title comes from this song, as Common calls it out to you: "We live today, live today—today I'm known, today I'm born, new ways I'm going, new ways I'm growin', new ways I'm flowin', a form unknown from the corner is one stone colorin' life with more than one tone". The music burbles like a river behind the vocal, and you just want to ride it forward, believing in this sound.
The largest contrast on Live Today is the love song Hodge wrote to feature Alan Hampton on vocals and acoustic guitar. (Hampton is worth his own feature—a singer-songwriter, it would seem, who actually started as a jazz bass player with roots and sideman credits with folks like Gretchen Parlato and Terence Blanchard...you see the connection.) "Holding Onto You" is simply a killer, tender plea of love that seems like it should be on a hip, Brooklyn-produced indie-pop record. Hodge wrote a lovely string quartet part that comes up under the chorus. Honestly, it's a sing-along moment. But it fits the whole mood of the record because of its impressionist harmonies and its gentle sense of propulsion from below. (A close second might be "Doxology", a traditional hymn that Hodge plays on acoustic bass and then hands over to Sayles on B3 in a gospel mode—a really amazing track that takes you to church in all the right ways.)
Not that Live Today is entirely successful, as enjoyable as it may be. For my taste, there are too many tracks that seem like karaoke back-up in search of a strong lead statement. "Still the One" begins as a lovely ballad with a lovely set of piano chords and a loping groove...and it just keeps doing that for minute after minute, waiting for something to happen. When the vocals come in, background-style, with "You're still the one for me"—it's not enough for this listener. "Solitude" (an original, not the Ellington song) is a pretty pop ballad with the string quartet weighing in quietly, Hodge playing a Jaco-esque line on electric bass, Parks playing a lovely single-note acoustic piano line...but it's just a cycle of some pretty chords going around in a circle, not much more. "Rubberband" is even less—a groove, a lick, faded up and faded back down after a while.
The larger question about a record like Live Today is where it fits into the development of this new sound that blends hip-hop and other contemporary pop forms with jazz. Jazz, to its eternal credit, is voracious about combining with pop music forms of all kinds, but not every combination ends up making sense. If any musician is going to show us the future of this hybrid, it ought to be Derrick Hodge, who has grown up in the middle of it all and has apprenticed with people who have been at the forefront.
Live Today is a substantial first effort, one that suggests a young man with both a clear vision and a vast horizon of influences, talents, and styles. But—is he ready to lead us out to that horizon? On the evidence of this first recording, I'd say you should have your saddle handy.