Interview with Bassist Derrick Hodge

Interview with Bassist Derrick Hodge

Derrick Hodge is a celebrated composer and bassist who is equally adept on both electric and upright basses. While he is best known as a member of the Robert Glasper Experiment, he is an accomplished session musician who has worked extensively across jazz, cinematic, and R&B genres. Hodge was born in Philadelphia and first began playing electric guitar before switching to electric bass while still in elementary school. He was introduced to the contrabass in junior high, but had no formal instruction on the instrument when he undertook it. He taught himself the instrument by using his electric techniques and adapted them by watching the other string players in the orchestra. Hodge attended Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music. He not only studied jazz composition and performance, but also took private lessons on both the upright and electric basses from

Vince Fay. He was a member of the Temple University Jazz Band and Small Ensemble under Terell Stafford, but also the Temple University Symphony Orchestra and New Music Chamber Orchestra. While still in school, Hodge began recording with a slew of Philly R&B and Hip-Hop talent, including Jill Scott, Musiq (Soulchild), and Floetry. He joined pianist Mulgrew Miller’s live and recording group in 2003. In 2005 he was the featured bassist on Common’s hit recording “Be”. Time spent understudying with Terence Blanchard was important because in addition to playing and composing, Hodge began studying film composition. He contributed cues to Blanchard’s score for Spike Lee’s film “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”, as well as tunes to the trumpeter/composer’s “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina)” in 2006. That year Hodge also played on Stefon Harris’s celebrated “African Tarantella” album. In 2007, Hodge contributed music, bass, and production to Common’s “Finding Forever” (he also played on two of the rapper’s subsequent albums). In 2008, Hodge joined the Robert Glasper Experiment with Chris Dave and Casey Benjamin. The R.G.E. made their recorded debut with the 2009 album “Double Booked”. That same year Hodge was bandleader and musical director on Maxwell’s “BLACKsummers’night”, played on Blanchard’s “Choices” and Gretchen Parlato’s “In a Dream”. In 2011, Hodge was busy recording and touring with the R.G.E. Later that year they cut the monumental jazz-R&B-pop crossover hit album “Black Radio”, which was released in February of 2012. Hodge signed to Blue Note Records and began to record his solo debut during tour breaks. In early 2013, Black Radio won the Grammy for Best R&B Album. Hodge’s self-produced record “Live Today” arrived in August of this year, with appearances by all members of the R.G.E., as well as Common, James Poyser, Aaron Parks, Marcus Strickland and others.

Tim: Well Derrick, first off, congratulations on your debut leader release!

Derrick: Much appreciated! This year has been great. I feel very fortunate and inspired to share more music with the world.

Tim: Can you tell the readers a little bit about the process of recording the album? Where did you track it, how long did it take, and did you do most of the tracking live?

Derrick: The process was essentially tracking a number of “in the moment” moments. Sounds kind of awkward, but that was by design. I wanted to be very honest with the thoughts and sounds that came to me, so I tried to make sure the recording process reflected that. Most of the songs on “Live Today” were not written in advance of tracking in the studio. I wanted the sound of each song to reflect real emotions in a raw way. So I wrote the framework of each song, some more nuanced than others but still based on in the moment ideas, and did my best to track it as soon as possible. A lot of it was tracked with my good friend Andy Taub at Brooklyn Recording Studios in New York City, and the rest was tracked in my studio. It was a combination of live tracking and overdubbing/layering, more of a hybrid of production processes. Some songs I played all of the instruments and had a few musicians replay parts. Other songs started with a written framework based around the sound of the musicians, and we’d track it and I’d build it from there. With this process, I was able to capture snapshots of how I felt in any given day over time… two and a half years in fact!

Tim: You wrote all the material for the album. Tell me a little bit about your compositional process. Do you compose on your bass? Do you find that you typically start with a bass line, a melody or a chord progression?

Derrick: As far as composing, my process for this album varied. Certain songs were composed all freehand, not heard until performed in the studio with everyone. Other songs, I’d hear maybe the sound of bass playing melody and a certain palette around it, but rarely did I actually create at the bass. Outside of this record, there are definitely times where I’ll compose while playing the actual instrument that I’m known for playing, but I don’t necessarily hear music that way. I may hear something based around a certain individual, or a feeling on a given day. The fun part for me is adapting it for specific instruments based on the arrangement. For example, on the song “Message Of Hope”. the melody was something that came to me while driving. I heard it for voice, but the fun part came when I hit the studio at home and started messing with it on bass and synth instead. Even songs like “Table Jawn” could be adapted for big band instrumentation or something like that, although on the album, the harmonic content is just electric bass. The challenge and fun part came in the instrumentation and sonic choices for each song.

Tim: I also recently read that you have written quite a bit for films. Can you explain some of the challenges and differences in writing for film scores as opposed to writing for a live/recording band project.

Derrick: Whether its a film, singer-songwriter piece, through-composed piece, or a joint that just came from a vibe, I try to pay less attention to narrowing my writing style to a specific genre and more attention to how the spirit of the sound, or visual, is hitting me. It helps minimize the creative walls when working on one specific style of writing because I’m open to using various approaches to writing. Once I limit my mind to how something is “supposed” to sound, I usually hit a wall because I’m dictating how the spirit in the music must come across. Instead, I try to study different styles of music and different ways of creating art, so that when it’s time to create music for film, etc., I can use those tools if needed, but not be limited to a specific process. I’ve been very blessed to have met some compositional masters, and the shocking truth about them is how accepting they are of different ways of creating and thinking about music. It’s really all about whatever it takes to get the emotion across. For example, I’ll put down the pen sometimes in the middle of writing to a scene for string quartet and re-tackle it on acoustic guitar. I can also relate composing to playing an instrument. One spends a lot of time shedding fundamentals of his or her instrument and learning it’s history and tradition in the practice room. However, when it is time to perform, one should put that focus aside and let the sound and spirit of the situation that you’re in guide you, whether you’re reading music or improvising. It helps us be creative, but also helps us make informed musical decisions and choices at the same time.

Tim:  Of course, with compositions that are pretty improv heavy, like the ones on “Live Today”, you also have to find the right musicians to bring the songs to life. Do you find that you write for specific musicians? Or do you just write and then decide who you want to perform the songs after the fact?

Derrick: Glad you asked that. “Live Today”, from an improvisational aspect, was based around raw ideas that I had. On many of the songs, these raw ideas included documenting the sound of specific artists. Each musician on this record is a friend of mine, who I have a lot of respect for creatively. I wanted to approach documenting their sound in a very honest way, so I wrote parts based around the spirit of each of them. The improvising that they added on top of that, was never discussed. On the songs that had multiple guest musicians, I tried to write in a framework that was created just for them. I read that composers like Duke Ellington, and others, did the same so I try to write in that way when it comes to my band. Terence Blanchard used to do that with us when I was in his band as well.

Tim: Can you talk a little bit about the musical connection between yourself and drummer Chris Dave?

Derrick: Chris Dave is one of the creative geniuses of our time. I’ve been a fan of his from the first time I heard him as a teenager with Mint Condition. From the very first week we played together at the 55 Bar in NYC, to this day, he constantly inspires me. His attention to sonic detail, in tuning his drums as well as in the studio, is remarkable. I feel blessed to say that I’m one of the rare few bassists that have spent a lot of time creating music with him.

Tim: This album features a lot of bass. You are covering the melody on many of the tracks as well as the bass line. You managed to layer many bass parts in a very musical way. You seem equally at ease playing foundational bass lines as well as melody on this album. What would your advice be to bassists who are trying to improve their melodic playing?

Derrick: Thank for the kind words. As far as advice, I’d say a great way to improve melodic playing is listen to music that has defined, vocal-like melodies. If you sit down at the bass and learn the melody to a classic Nat King Cole or Beatles song, you’ll be forced to phrase better because it won’t sound right to you unless you adapt your style of melodic playing to mimic the phrasing and nuance of that sound, because it’s so strong. Same goes for anything from Stevie Wonder, to Radiohead, to composers like Maurice Ravel, and Debussy. The great thing about this is that you’ll also be forced to hear the harmony that is married to these melodies. Once you try learning the harmonies, you’ll find that you’ll have to work out different fingerings to create the proper voicings because you’ve now heard the song so much that the harmonic content is a melody in itself. Thats the beauty of it. You’ll be forced to get away from stock bass fingerings to express harmonic content in a song, while your initial intent was to actually learn the melody. For someone to improve their melodic playing, he or she may want to improve how to accurately produce the harmony and voicings in a song as well. In my experience, it goes hand in hand.

Tim: You are playing electric bass, fretless electric bass and upright bass (arco and pizzicato) on this album. How do you balance playing the different axes and specifically the physical differences in technique?

Derrick: I think I was forced to really see the electric bass and the double bass as two unique instruments. When I studied at Temple University, I had to essentially learn the double bass from square one because I was self taught. The double bass became my focus in college, and I spent a lot of time learning the history of the instrument. However, the gigs I had outside of school were primarily on electric bass. So I was forced to do one thing authentically (double bass) while developing my own way of doing another thing authentically (electric bass). That necessity to adapt at a young age helped me tremendously because now it doesn’t feel like a struggle to balance between instruments, as long as I make it a priority to play each instrument in my practice routine. I’ve found no shortcut to putting time in. Because I play physically specific instruments (electric bass included), I have to put the time in, or my muscle memory will fail me. Which is not fun. (Laughter)

Tim: When you play the material from this album live do you utilize a second bass player?

Derrick: No. Just me on electric bass, and sometimes synth bass. I’m open to using a second bass player in the future in some capacity though. I love hearing other bassists!

Tim: What are some of the difficulties or challenges you face being a bass player and a band leader? What are some of the benefits?

Derrick: So far, balancing being a band leader and bassist in a creative situation hasn’t been a glaring challenge. I’m not really sure why though. Maybe because I don’t take it too seriously. I’ve been fortunate to work with band leaders who are likeminded in that way. Ultimately, leading others is empowering them to the best of your ability. I’ve seen some thrown into band leader situations and they get all tight or turn into elitists or jerks over time. It’s actually pretty funny.

Tim: Do you think more bass players should be band leaders? It is easy to get caught up in the sideman hustle and to never really pursue your own musical voice as a leader.

Derrick: Interestingly enough, almost all of my friends who are bassists are also bandleaders, great bandleaders at that! I always encourage it, but my criteria usually isn’t based around the instrument you play. I think great bandleaders are great leaders period. You learn more about a person’s band leading potential while listening to him or her talk to others, and how they treat people and how seriously they take their craft. That doesn’t always mean he or she plays the funkiest or the fastest or is even the best player in his or her own band. It’s a tricky thing. As far as the bassists getting caught up in the sideman hustle, that is a true challenge for most! It’s never too late to get started on your dream. No time better than the present! Pursuing your own musical voice as a leader may have to begin with you behind closed doors. If it requires you buying recording gear, tracking your stuff while on the road, learning how to play other instruments so that you can document rough ideas yourself, and doing this weekly, then I’d say do it. It may be frustrating at times, depressing some days, creatively rewarding other days, but it’s progress and it’s a process. It’s preparation and somehow, doors seem to open for the musicians that, as I know it, have dedicated time to this approach.

Tim: How did you end up joining the Robert Glasper Experiment?

Derrick: I stayed at Robert’s place in NYC one week for a gig at the Bluenote that producer Jill Newman put on. We were called the “Jabane Ensemble”, and it was a number of friends that worked together from time to time. Lionel Loueke was in the group as well. One night, Robert was asked to do a set at the 55 Bar, and Chris Dave and I both were at his crib so we did it. I think Lionel and Roy Hargrove may have come through and played as well since they were in the Jabane Ensemble too. That ended up being my first time playing with Chris Dave. So much was happening, it was unbelievable. From then on, whenever I was around NYC, we’d do gigs. Robert, Chris, and Casey had already been doing gigs around NYC before, and the Experiment had already existed around NYC under what was originally the “Robert Glasper Experience” but someone screwed up the flyer and wrote “Experiment” and they just went with it. My first time joining them was that night at the 55 Bar,
and it’s been a fun ride ever since.

Tim: So now a technique question. One of my favorite aspects of your playing is your very musical use of artificial harmonics. Did anybody in particular influence your approach with harmonics? What do you do to practice that technique?

Derrick: Thanks. Artificial harmonics were something that first stood out to me when I was a teenager and I heard Jaco use them in his playing. What stood out was how well those notes sang when accurately placed. I’d say that when I first heard guitarist Russell Malone in college, that blew me away too. He was so fluid with it, and I loved how it gave the illusion of another instrument being played, especially in combination with natural notes being played simultaneously. When it comes to practicing them, I would try finding the harmonic series on various notes, and try to build sequences of notes that made musical sense. Not necessarily contained in one octave, but a sequence that would carry over 2 octaves. Somehow, it became something I incorporated in live playing.

Tim: Who are some of your main influences? Both on the bass and overall musically.

Derrick:  As far as bassists, just to name a few, I’d say Jimmy Haslip, John Patitucci, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Gary Willis, James Jamerson, Joel Ruffin, Jethaniel Nixon, Reggie Parker, Kevin Arthur, Flea, Ron Carter, Christian McBride, John Clayton, Edgar Meyer, Vince Fay, Mike Boone, Ray Brown, Sam Jones, Israel Crosby, Paul Chambers, Andrew Gouche, Jimmy Blanton, and a lot of younger artists like Matt Garrison, Hadrien Feraud, Thaddaeus Tribbett. Again, this is just to name a few. I’m constantly inspired from an instrumental perspective!  Overall musically there are so many. Gospel Music in general, R&B, Hip Hop, and Rock music in general, European Classical music, American Jazz music, John Williams, Ravel, Stevie Wonder, Nancy Wilson, Donny Hathaway, Terence Blanchard, Harry Gregson Williams, Quincy Jones, Nas, Common. The hard thing with starting is that I can’t stop. So I’ll just stop here at random. I’m really a product of a melting pot of
sound. I was never forced into listening to one thing, and I now embrace that instead of feeling like a musical scatterbrain, which is how I had felt in the past.

Tim: So can you tell the readers a little bit about the gear you are using now?

Derrick: Sure. Depending on the situation, I vary between the Aguilar DB 751 and Tone Hammer 500 for a head. For speakers, I use the Aguilar DB 410′s, DB112, GS 410′s, and GS 412′s. I also use the Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp and the Octamizer pedal.
For basses, I use Callowhill Basses, as well as a Fender Jazz bass that Tim Cloonan (who makes the Callowhill’s) took and installed Nordstrand hum canceling active jazz pickups. I use a Status Electro 4 string fretless bass as well.

Tim: What are some projects you are involved in now, besides Robert Glasper and your band, that you are excited about?

Derrick: Since “Live Today” was released in August, every week has been pretty busy. Currently, I’m writing a piece for Harlem Stage that also features the work of choreographer Laurie M. Taylor. I’m also working with Maxwell through the fall and preparing for more scoring and arranging projects in 2014. Loving the challenge of it!

Tim: So what’s in store for the future for Derrick Hodge?

Derrick: More albums, more shows, more writing projects! I appreciate the support that people have been showing, and it drives me to be better, to give more, and do it soon! I will continue to post new ventures on my website and as well as other social media outlets so everyone can stay informed.

Tim:  Thanks for your time Derrick.

You can stay in touch with all things Derrick Hodge thru his website music.derrickhodge.com

Biographical excerpts taken from All Music written by Thom Jurek

Tim Seisser

About Tim Seisser

Tim has worked with many of Chicago's finest musicians including Mark Colby, Howard Levy, Rob Parton, Frank Catalano, Corey Wilkes,  Saalik Ziyad and The 5 After 7 Project, Steve Ramsdell, Nicole Mitchell, A Cor Do Brasil, The Renegades, The Rob Nicholas Band and The Delisfort Project. 

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