New Bern, NC – INTRO - Vibraphonist Steve Hobbs of Raleigh has a new CD that seeks to re-inject the South's jazz heritage back into the public perception of jazz. George Olsen has more.
If there's an over-riding theme to how Steve Hobbs chooses tunes to perform, it goes back to his collegiate days.
"Some of my composition teachers at the University of Miami and Berklee School of Music taught me that if you write a good tune it sounds good at any tempo and any rhythm because a good tune is a good tune."
That explains a lot of the song selection on his new CD "Vibes, Straight Up" which just recently ended a several week run topping the chart for Jazz Week magazine. "Vibes, Straight Up" includes some oft-recorded jazz standards including "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "Cherokee," but what really gets your attention are the tracks you might not typically hear in the jazz idiom, such as a slightly salsa-fied "The Old Rugged Cross."
"I think the advantage I have is having been brought up in a strict Catholic background, having sung the strict Catholic liturgy in mass, I totally missed these traditional hymns so for me its easier to change one of these hymns when I haven't had it drilled in my head 3-or-4 million times at a slow time at a Baptist I heard it one time at a Baptist service one Sunday and I really liked it and I hadn't heard it a million times so I think because I wasn't brought up Baptist I don't have it drilled in my head as being done a certain way, I can do it."
But "Vibes, Straight Up" is designed as more than a collection of good tunes. It's an homage to his Southern home and roots and a desire to let those convinced that jazz exists in a New York-only bubble that there is great jazz music and heritage down South.
"You probably noticed a lot of those tunes were about the South or composed by people from the South, but it still has the typical it still has a New York edge to it and that was my I just wanted the people to know I was from the South because a lot of times when I go out of town people's mouths drop when they hear me talk because my southern accent which may not sound strong to you but when you leave the South it's pretty obvious. It's kind of irritating because some people assume all jazz is from New York, but in reality jazz started in the South."
So the South is celebrated on "Vibes, Straight Up" with gospel tunes, songs evoking particular regions like "Shenandoah" and "Stars Fell on Alabama, and compositions by Southern writers whether of the jazz idiom or not.
"There's so much you can do with strong melodies and Hank Williams wrote strong melodies."
Hence, the country tune "Hey Good Lookin'" becomes an improvisational jazz tour de force.
"The way I was playing the vibraphone it sounded a little bit like Thelonious Monk if he played the vibes, that's how I think he would've sounded. It just sounded Monk-ish to me but the way I wrote the chords, they were kind of Thelonious Monk chords so I guess I had to play that way but it was kind of quirkish and very interesting. We took risks but, as far as improv, we went pretty far out on a limb with that tune, I must say."
Speaking of climbing out on a limb pun intended there's another tune on "Vibes, Straight Up" not typically heard in the jazz realm the Woody the Woodpecker Song. You can reason its inclusion on the disc on two levels the first yes, we have woodpeckers down South, and the second its composer Kay Kyser, a North Carolina native. It may have been a cartoon theme song but Kyser's composition actually easily leant Woody Woodpecker to jazz as well as a young Steve Hobbs.
"Woody Woodpecker is a strong melody, and it wasn't hard putting jazz chords to the Woody Woodpecker song because the actual song actually did have jazz chords to it. I just spruced them up a little."
"I don't know if you remember the show but the guy who did the music, they had a trio that would do music for the cartoon a lot of time they would show real cinema footage of the trio playing and when I was a little kid I used to watch this jazz piano player, stand up bassist and drummer and used to watch them play right before the Woody Woodpecker Hour and I was just totally captivated by that type of music. I was probably 4, 5 years old and that is some of the first experience I had with jazz."
And there are more "first experiences" ahead for Steve Hobbs.
"I'm excited about Boise. I've heard good things about that town."
Just before our conversation he'd accepted a gig to play this summer during a jazz festival in Idaho his first performance in the state, meaning he just needs to play the Dakotas to have performed in all the mainland United States.
"Every big city there's jazz. There's a thriving jazz scenes in the Great Lakes, and per capita there's more jazz in every city on the Great Lakes, Portland, Seattle than there is in New York."
And in each of those states he performs in, he'll leave a little Southern jazz heritage behind. "Vibes, Straight Up" is Raleigh resident Steve Hobbs' sixth CD. It's released by Challenge Records. I'm George Olsen.