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Laurence Hobgood's tesseterra
When Jazz Meets Classical

by Robin Kidson



Right from the beginnings of jazz, musicians and composers have been drawn to the intriguing possibilities of jazz being brought together in some way with traditional classical music. Straight classical composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky and Ravel used jazz elements in their work and sometimes wrote specifically for jazz ensembles – Stravinsky, for example, wrote his Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman; and Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto was commissioned by Benny Goodman. Composers such as George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein were equally comfortable in both classical and jazz settings and were adept at blurring the boundaries between the two worlds. Gunther Scholler and A B SpellmanFrom the jazz point of view, the likes of Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton and George Russell all experimented with classical music forms; and many musicians have performed jazz versions of classical music pieces – Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain being one of the more obvious examples.  

Whilst producing some wonderful music, many of these jazz-classical collaborations often ended up with one of the forms predominating over the other. However, in the late fifties and early sixties, a more complete fusion was attempted by Gunther Schuller in music which he labelled “Third Stream”. Other composers jumped into the stream but the music never really caught on.


Gunther Schuller receiving the NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy in 2008, alongside poet and critic A. B. Spellman.






For a taste of what it sounded like, here is a relatively recent live performance of Schuller’s 1957 Third Stream composition, Transformation.





Jazz and classical worlds have continued to mix. Indeed, most of the musical and cultural barriers between the two forms fell long ago. Even so, whenever the two meet, there is still that sense of one or the other taking precedence. Which brings us to a recent release on the excellent Ubuntu label from American pianist, Laurence Hobgood. The album is called tesseterra and features a conventional jazz trio (Hobgood - piano, Jared Schonig - drums and Matthew Clohesy - bass) playing alongside the ETHEL string quartet (Ralph Farris - viola, Dorothy Lawson - cello and Kip Jones and Corin Lee - violins).

The word tesseterra is Hobgood’s invention. It is an amalgam of terra, the Latin for 'earth', and tessitura, meaning 'texture' in Italian but it is also a technical musical term for the range of a voice or instrument. The publicity notes for the album suggest two possible meanings for the Laurence Hobgoodcomposite word: “the sonic fabric of the world” or “the world’s most pleasing musical textures”. In a nod to Gunther Schuller, Hobgood also calls the music of tesseterra, “third stream nouveau”.

Hobgood is no stranger to hybridising jazz with other art forms. In 2012, for example, he released the album, POEMJAZZ, with the poet Robert Pinsky (who has written some of the liner notes for tesseterra). However, Hobgood is probably best known for his association with singer, Kurt Elling, for whom he acted as music director, accompanist, composer/arranger and record producer for almost 20 years. In 2009, Hobgood won a Grammy for his work as producer on Elling’s Dedicated To You album. He has also collaborated with a host of other musicians including Charlie Haden, Ernie Watts, Larry Coryell and Regina Carter.


Laurence Hobgood


On tesseterra, Hobgood gives seven modern standards a classical-jazz fusion treatment. There is a fundamental difference between classical music and jazz which any synthesis of the two forms has to take into account. In classical music, the creative emphasis is on the composition and the composer; the performer is expected to perform the composition as it was written. There is room for individual interpretation but only within very strict constraints. So, at the highest professional level, to the untrained ear, one performance of, say, Beethoven’s Fifth sounds very much like another. Jazz, on the other hand, is a performer’s art. The essential creative act is the performance with the composition acting as a secondary element which the performer interprets in any way he or she wishes using the skills of improvisation.

Jazz has long used a sort of library of standard compositions – mainly from popular commercial music – on which to hang creative improvisations often making on the way completely new works of art far removed from the original. So, for example, John Coltrane took the rather sugary My Favourite Things and turned it into something original and utterly compelling. By doing so, he also incidentally threw a new light on the original, showing what a clever piece of music My Favourite Things is.



Listen to the John Coltrane recording.





On tesseterra, Laurence Hobgood successfully weaves written arrangements for the string quartet with improvisations from the piano trio. To the listener, it is often difficult to work out where improvisation ends and written orchestration starts, but it doesn’t really matter since all the pieces are thoroughly enjoyable pieces of music in their own right.

Many of the “standards” which Hobgood utilises come from a more contemporary pop or rock scene than the traditional repertoire of The Great American Songbook. The first track, for example, is a treatment of the Jimmy Webb song, Wichita Lineman. Hobgood turns this into an extended 12 minute symphony full of different moods and styles from easy listening to a foot-tapping, gentle swing driven by some crisp drumming from Jared Schonig. Hobgood shows what a virtuosic pianist he is and takes a solo which grows increasingly adventurous and imaginative. The string quartet’s interventions never sound like a classical add-on but are integral to the whole feel of the piece. However, the arrangement is unmistakably a jazz one – as Hobgood says in the sleeve notes, tesseterra “is, at its heart, a jazz trio album. It just so happens that this particular jazz music has assimilated harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements from classical music and modern popular and spiritual song”.

Like Coltrane with My Favourite Things, Hobgood’s treatment of Wichita Lineman should be enough to convince anyone of the considerable virtues of Jimmy Webb’s original tune.  


Here is Laurence Hobgood with his trio (minus the strings) playing Wichita Lineman live at Pizza Express in 2018.




The second track is Paul McCartney’s lovely song, Blackbird. This is well on its way into the jazz standard repertoire with Brad Mehldau, Ramsey Lewis, Jaco Pastorius and Bobby McFerrin all performing versions. Hobgood begins his interpretation with the string quartet playing an extended piece of something akin to Béla Bartók. When the jazz trio comes in, the contrast with what has gone before is striking. Hobgood plays appealingly with the tune, never seeming to render it straight, always teasing the listener with an approximation. Georgia on My Mind is a more traditional standard but I doubt it has ever been played in the way Laurence Hobgood plays it. The string quartet takes the first few minutes in a Vaughan Williams pastoral style before the mood changes with some evocative blues from the trio. Hobgood’s piano hits a groove and takes off into a note-filled, liquid improvisation. The weaving Laurence Hobgood Trioin and out between the trio and the quartet is particularly effective.


Laurence Hobgood Trio


It is back to contemporary rock with the fourth track, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes by Stephen Stills. As with Blackbird, Hobgood comes at the tune obliquely and there are sudden changes in mood and style with some fast jazz driven by Clohesy’s eloquent bass, interludes of drum-led rock, and absorbing interplay between piano and string quartet. Hobgood’s version of We Shall Overcome is a good example of how a jazz interpretation of a standard can both reveal new subtleties in a familiar tune but also change the piece into something else entirely. The musicians play the tune in different and intriguing ways: sometimes it sounds like a dirge suggesting our need to overcome is only half-hearted. This is countered by some intense and passionate playing – yes, we do really want to overcome! Then there are some highly effective, slightly discordant passages suggesting that we may never actually overcome and even if we did, it may not be what we expected.

All of You is the old Cole Porter standard and Hobgood takes it almost conventionally although there is once again that oblique approach to the tune and sudden changes in mood. Clohesy takes an extended and absorbing solo, and an interlude of call and response between the various instruments is particularly striking. The final track is Sting’s Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic where a relatively simple tune is given a quite complex arrangement with sudden shifts of gear, mood and tempo. A whole set of different styles are successfully integrated: modern classical, rock, and, yes, jazz.


Listen to Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic from the album.




With tesseterra, Laurence Hobgood has managed that rather rare beast, a successful integration of classical and jazz styles of music. But there is something more important: in an introductory video to the album, (below) Hobgood quotes Duke Ellington saying that there are only two categories of music, good and bad. In the end, these are the only two categories that matter; and tesseterra is undoubtedly good music.





tesseterra was released on 26th April - click here for details and to listen to samples. Click here for more information about Laurence Hobgood on his website.

Laurence Hobgood Tesseterra album



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