Jazz group crosses boundaries

Steve Hudson and his ensemble to make Baltimore debut

June 10, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

The name says a lot: Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble.

You sense it's not quite classical, since a classical ensemble's name would more likely be taken from a famous composer or place. But that "chamber" part must mean something. And it does.

"This particular group has a strong classical influence," says its founder, jazz pianist and composer Steve Hudson. "I decided to use 'chamber ensemble' most obviously because of the instrumental sound, using cello and violin with piano and percussion. I want clarity and subtlety. Less is more."

Hudson and his colleagues — violinist Zach Brock, cellist/vocalist Jody Redhage and percussionist Martin Urbach — make their Baltimore debut Saturday at An die Musik, the last stop in a quick East Coast tour to promote their first CD.

If you had to force the ensemble into one category, it would be jazz, but it comfortably spreads out across genres. "There are allusions in my music to Philip Glass and Debussy," Hudson says, "along with Afro-Cuban, tango and folk. The goal is to do it in a seamless way that just flows through the music."

This fusion is easily detected in such pieces as Hudson's "Galactic Diamonds," which moves from an energetic, tightly synchronized section of piquant harmonies to a lyrical passage with Redhage singing a wordless theme.

The smoky violin tune in the laid-back "Wanderin' " has a bluegrass feel. The moody "Song for John Lennon" combines the air of a rock ballad with uptown jazz. "PG" pulsates with minimalistic patterns beneath expanding vocal and instrumental lines that lead into an inviting Latin dance. Hudson's music is at once carefully constructed and free.

"The key is a balance between what's written and unwritten," he says. "I wanted to write for musicians who were comfortable with reading music and with improvising, and who took seriously their sound. Zach has a strong classical background, but a very strong jazz background, too. He's studied John Coltrane in depth. There are times I may take over the bass line with my left hand; you can't ask cellists to walk a bass line all night. This allows Jody to improvise and sometimes harmonize her voice with the line in the cello below."

The Cleveland-born Hudson, 39, grew up in Albany, N.Y., and now lives in New Jersey, where he teaches music at a community college — when he isn't performing with the ensemble that bears his name or with other jazz groups in New York, Canada and Europe.

"I'm basically self-taught," he says. "When I was about 8 or so, my family moved into a house where the people had left a spinet piano. I doodled with it, playing tunes from the radio. I tried private lessons with two or three teachers, but quit every time. I didn't want to go through Mickey Mouse songs with the promise to play real music after."

By the time he was 10, Hudson was introduced to boogie-woogie and rock from an art teacher who had been a friend of Jerry Lee Lewis. "That's what interested me," Hudson says, "not the subtlety of jazz or the beauty of classical. We would play along with recordings of Ray Charles and Lou Rawls."

His high school and college years (Rutgers University and the Manhattan School of Music) found Hudson exploring more genres, including classical, which he still enjoys. "Not one day goes by, it seems, that I don't practice Bach or some other classical music," he says.

One he started composing, Hudson was uninterested in narrow paths.

"I didn't adhere to a specific style," he says. "I wrote music that, first, moved me, and hopefully moved the feet and ears of listeners. You have to be careful not to fall into fads. You have to follow your own ear, your own musical line. The challenge is to create music as deep as it can be and not worry about the genre, to just create music that speaks to people — make it ring true, you know what I mean?"

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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If you go

The Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble performs at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Saturday at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10 and $15. Call 410-385-2638 or go to andiemusiklive.com

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