May 27, 2024

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Then comes John Scofield’s electric guitar, run through filters that add a sharp metallic tang

First comes the beat: Jack DeJohnette whips up an elliptical funk rhythm, combining a metronomic ride cymbal with a hiccupping kick and snare. Larry Grenadier locates the center of this slanted pulse and adds a stark, suggestive bass part. John Medeski fills in the midrange with a droning Hammond organ and a distorted Fender Rhodes. Then comes John Scofield’s electric guitar, run through filters that add a sharp metallic tang.

https://bluesjazzscenes.comThis collegial throwdown is unfolding about a week into the new year, at an out-of-the-way studio in New York’s Hudson Valley, where each musician resides—hence Hudson, the name of the group. From the control booth, where recording engineer Scott Petito keeps a watchful eye on the levels, a window offers a view of Scofield, DeJohnette and Medeski, who share space in a single room. Grenadier plucks away in an adjoining booth, off to one side. Nobody is making eye contact, but everybody’s deeply dialed in.

What they’re creating is a top-to-bottom group improvisation—a jam, if we’re being plainspoken about it—with the morphing shape of an amoeba. But over the course of a discursive and open-ended 23 minutes, a kind of structural integrity emerges, rooted in the loopy clarity of DeJohnette’s groove. When the musicians have finished the take, they file into the control room to hear playback. DeJohnette is in his undershirt now, while Scofield, with his white goatee, plaid red flannel shirt and suspenders, resembles a Midwestern wheat farmer.

This is the fifth and final day in the studio for Hudson, which partly explains the laidback air among the players, who together embody the rare instance when the term “supergroup” feels less like marketing copy than it does like understatement. They listen carefully to the full take, initially with the intention of finding an excerpt that could work on the album.

“The part where we start to deconstruct it to the end is five minutes,” offers DeJohnette.

“That’s the best part,” Medeski agrees, eyeing the waveform on the computer monitor.

But there’s something about the entire arc of the track—the way it curves back around as if completing a circuit—that makes any edit feel like a shame. Someone raises the possibility of releasing the jam as a digital extra, or even a 12-inch vinyl single. It might happen yet.

For now, though, the priority is Hudson’s self-titled debut album, on Motéma, and its marquee tour, with one string of dates this summer and another in the fall. The band has recorded more than enough material, and takes this moment to listen to rough mixes over the studio speakers.

First up is a hauntingly beautiful cover of “Woodstock,” the era-defining Joni Mitchell tune. Medeski’s modal voicings are a callback to Mitchell’s piano part, and Grenadier and DeJohnette strike a mysterious, floating equilibrium. This was a first take, from a few days back. “That was a long time ago,” Scofield quips. “We were different people then.”

Medeski picks up a Magic 8-Ball from a nearby side table. Giving it a vigorous shake, he poses his question: “Do we have a record?”

After a moment, the cosmic answer rolls into view: “Most Likely.”

DeJohnette is the world’s greatest jazz drummer in active circulation: a master of flowing abstraction as well as grounded rhythm, at his best blurring distinctions between the two. On the cusp of 75, he’s the senior member of Hudson, and first among equals in the band. He also has the longest claim to residence in the Valley: He built a rustic-modern cabin in the Catskills with his wife, Lydia, in the mid-1970s, a few years after ending his momentous run with Miles Davis. “Jack was one of the first jazz musicians I know of who moved up here,” says Grenadier, who followed suit with his wife, singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin, in the early 2000s. “There was this movement, where people who’d come to New York City for the musical scene were looking for an environment that was more susceptible to introspection. They were looking for places to chill.”The World’s Greatest Drummer

Grenadier lives in Kingston, New York’s original capital, in a hardy Victorian on a steep hillside. Scofield lives in Katonah, a prosperous Westchester County burg, having relocated from Greenwich Village in 1992. Medeski resides in Accord, a tiny hamlet in the Shawangunk Mountains; he moved there after a stint near DeJohnette in Woodstock, where he moved in 2003. “The Hudson Valley has a certain energy,” Medeski reflects. “We all live in different parts of it. But I think living here has a certain feeling. That’s a certain unifying factor about this band.”

The members of Hudson had various points of individual contact before they all converged at the Woodstock Jazz Festival in 2014. Scofield and DeJohnette crossed paths a handful of times in the 1990s, and toured widely more than a decade ago (with organist Larry Goldings) in the powerhouse Trio Beyond. Scofield and Medeski, meanwhile, have logged countless miles on the jam-band circuit, with the confab most recently billed as Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood. As for Grenadier, he has played various benefit concerts with the others, often at the invitation of DeJohnette, who maintains a high level of civic and sociopolitical engagement in the region.

There’s a well-documented link between the Hudson Valley and a generational call of peace and love. As Joni puts it in the chorus of “Woodstock,” with an Edenic sincerity only youth can confer:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

DeJohnette, who brought his rippling original “Song for World Forgiveness” to the Hudson sessions, has long upheld the nobler legacies of the ’60s, from nature conservation to the antiwar movement. It was his idea to stock the album with songs of similar association—like the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Wait Until Tomorrow,” which the band turns into a Meters-esque strut, and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” remade with a Jamaican reggae lilt.

Medeski was coming off “The Last Waltz 40 Tour,” an all-star anniversary tribute to the Band, when he learned that DeJohnette wanted to record “Up on Cripple Creek.” Recalling that news, he chuckles: “We were playing ‘Cripple Creek’ every night on tour. The timing, for me, was kind of amazing.” (On Hudson, his rollicking pianism evokes the more sanctified side of Dr. John.)

There’s another Woodstockian evocation on the album, one less stated than implied: of Miles Davis and the plugged-in music he made during that era. The sessions for Bitches Brew, on which DeJohnette played, began the day after the Woodstock festival ended.

Later, of course, Davis’ band was sharing bills at the Fillmore with Laura Nyro, the Grateful Dead and Crazy Horse.

Scofield, who devoured Davis’ music as a fan before joining his comeback band in the early 1980s, readily places Bitches Brew and its offshoots in that continuum: “It did somehow feel a part of hippiedom.” The guitarist, who had tickets to Woodstock as a high school student (though he didn’t make it, owing to some gnarly turnpike traffic), summons Miles on the album with a soul-jazz burner, “Tony Then Jack.” (The title refers of course to a succession in Davis’ drum chair, from Tony Williams to DeJohnette.)

“We were going to be playing some Dylan, and the Band,” says Scofield, “but I also had these jazz tunes. I said, ‘Man, I’m not going to make a record with Larry Grenadier and Jack DeJohnette and not swing. That would be crazy.’” (His other original in that vein is a flamenco-tinged number called “El Swing.”)

The spirit of Miles materializes more clearly on the album’s title track, a 12-minute jam that Scofield instigated with a simple rhythmic idea on a low string of his guitar. “It just laid down a pattern for us to build on,” DeJohnette says.

“Collective improvisation, in our case, is the ability to improvise in a way that establishes the form—the melody, the harmony and the rhythm—in real time,” he adds. “Most of my life has been spent doing that, playing arrangements but also making spontaneous composition right on the spot. So we wanted to explore different aspects of that together, and develop them.”

Hudson at Newport 2017, from left: John Medeski, Larry Grenadier, Jack DeJohnette and John Scofield (photo: Marek Lazarski) 

What’s in a Song?

Scofield won two Grammy Awards this year—Best Jazz Instrumental Album and Best Improvised Jazz Solo—for his work on Country for Old Men, which features jazz reinventions of tunes by the likes of Hank Williams and Dolly Parton. His experience with that album, which involved thinking deeply about how an electric guitar can emulate the human voice, has some bearing on Hudson. “I love the vocal versions of these songs, same as on my country record,” he says. “I started out like that. Wasn’t like I wanted to be a shredder. I just liked the songs. Then I got into jazz and it maybe took a backseat. But I also always loved the jazz element of the great players, like Louis Armstrong and Miles and Lester Young, when those guys would play a melody. The great thing in jazz is, it’s not just soloing; it’s the way these guys play songs.”

Scofield’s sensitivity as a frontman, so to speak, comes to the fore especially on “Woodstock” and Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which he plays with a purity of line in rolling waltz time. “You can hear the words when he plays them,” DeJohnette says. “He really carries the melodic intention and the emotional expression of the melody, of the meanings of the songs.”

At the same time, Hudson troubles the water in “Hard Rain,” venturing gradually into augmented harmony and even freeform rhythm. The song was written in the early ’60s as a broadside railing against the military-industrial complex, and it has become an anthem of resistance for jazz musicians of a certain age. Perhaps you’ve heard it played recently by another guitarist, Bill Frisell.

Listening to a playback of “Hard Rain” in the studio, the members of Hudson laugh appreciatively at Medeski’s horror-movie dissonances on organ. “Nuclear winter, man!” cries Scofield. “It’s coming.” But as the track floats further into echoing abstraction, before a restatement of the melody, the room turns quiet again. “Sun Ra,” murmurs DeJohnette softly, as if to himself, with a contented smile.

There’s cause to take particular interest in this brief, expressionistic moment on the album—a corollary of sorts to the unstructured jams that didn’t make the cut. “To me, that’s what’s so great about playing with these guys,” Grenadier says. “There’s a thematic idea about the material, but it’s so much more than that, because once we start playing, anything can happen at any moment, and the listening is on such a high level. Really, we could almost play free all night and we’d get to a lot of the same places. The repertoire is interesting but it’s almost secondary.”

Songs do matter on Hudson—there’s even a vocal number, “Dirty Ground,” which DeJohnette wrote with Bruce Hornsby. Its lyrics evoke the resilience of New Orleans residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and DeJohnette does the singing himself, in a light, soulful rasp. The album closes with “Great Spirit Peace Chant,” a Native American offering and spiritual send-off. “It’s a musical vibration put out to the environment, planting some seeds for that to manifest,” DeJohnette explains. “So that we can expand our consciousness, get past this level of divisiveness and chaos. Move to one of peaceful empathy and looking out for one another.”

That communal ideal has a direct musical analog in Hudson—and for all the care and attention put into the studio album, it seems likely that the band will only deepen its bond as it takes to the road. “Who knows?” Medeski says. “Maybe this is the beginning of something that could have a several-record lifespan, which would be great. We’ll do some of this music live; it’ll change and open up. In terms of the free stuff, that’s a whole universe to explore.”

For this among other reasons, Hudson has the potential to reach across multiple constituencies—the jam-band crowd that follows Medeski Martin & Wood; jazz-literate baby-boomers; even, to some degree, fans of the avant-garde. There’s a certain straddling in the band’s mission, and for the moment any tensions inherent in that act are productive. “Jack at heart is kind of a free player, even though he’s so swinging and can do everything,” Grenadier observes. “His spirit is so free, and he’s willing to step to that edge in a heartbeat. Same with the Johns. There’s never a hesitancy to take that next step.” He frames the meld of musical personalities in the group as a function of that spirit: “It could only be with these guys.”

DeJohnette, who has learned a thing or two about group chemistry over the last half-century, expresses a similar idea, but in his own terms. “That’s the thing that comes across when we’re playing the music, no matter what vehicle or genre we’re in,” he says. “There’s a trust. Everybody’s got everybody’s back. So that gives us a lot of freedom.”

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