‘Strangely, few have attempted to follow Johnny Hodges. Too difficult?’

Outside In Music – OiM 2402L

Owen Broder – alto and baritone saxophones; Riley Mulherkar – trumpet; Carmen Staaf – piano; Barry Stephenson – bass; Bryan Carter – drums

Recorded Sept. 10-11, 2021

Tracks: Used To Be Duke (3:40) / Wabash Blues (5:02) / Back Beat (6:14) / Big Smack (4:25) / St. Louis Blues (5:37) / Shady Side (7:03) / Stompy Jones (5:00) / The Star Crossed Lovers (3:38)

Take inspiration from Johnny Hodges! Why not? Hodges is the great alto saxophone voice before Parker. Hodges even employed Coltrane! One of the interesting choices made by producer Norman Granz was pairing Hodges and Parker in one of his jam sessions. Listening to the two of them side by side tells so much about the journey of jazz.

Another of the Granz sessions was when he put Ellington and Hodges in a series of small groups ‘Side by Side’ and ‘Back to Back’. We saw a different side of Ellington and a freer Johnny Hodges.

Owen Broder in his second Hodges album chooses pieces from the Granz sessions and it is interesting to make a comparison. Hodges, of course. was at the heart of the Ellington band. No one amongst his contemporaries could emulate his sound. Hodges’ playing always sounded effortless and just right. Duke Ellington said when Hodges died: ‘Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same.’

It is both brave and timely for Broder to play the Hodges pieces. Strangely, few have attempted to follow Johnny Hodges. Too difficult? It is even more courageous to play some of the pieces. ‘Stompy Jones’ was one of the key pieces from ‘Side By Side’ and it contains some of the best of Hodges and one of the finest Ellington solos. Broder does not have the fluidity and seductive tone of Hodges but he recreates a solo that has a rhythmic vitality.

Not content with grappling with ‘Stompy Jones’, Broder takes on ‘The Star Crossed Lovers’ from the Ellington-Strayhorn Shakespeare Suite. This piece is meant to represent Romeo and Juliet. Billy Strayhorn wrote such wonderful themes for Hodges. He seems to have had access to the sensitive part of Hodges’ nature so ‘Blood Count’ and ‘Isfahan’ enabled Hodges to soar and sing out. Broder captures the mood of the Shakespeare piece as does Riley Mulherkar on trumpet.

It is Mulherkar who has the task of playing the Harry Edison role. He has a beautiful tone and is sharper than Edison, but he has the sensitivity to dig out the swing from the pieces.

Pianist Carmen Staaf has the Ellington qualities of dissonance and space. She also captures the free swinging percussive qualities of the relaxed Ellington. Her solo on ‘Stompy Jones’ is a delight and equals Ellington’s passion.

Three standards (‘Wabash Blues,’ ‘St. Louis Blues’ and ‘Stompy Jones’) are drawn from ‘Back To Back’. Hodges compositions are featured: ‘Back Beat’ and ‘Shady Side’ were both originally recorded on 1960’s ‘Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges’, allowing Broder the opportunity to pay homage to Mulligan with his baritone playing. ‘Big Smack’ was written with Hodges who shared credit with Ben Webster.

Broder, in an interview, has said how important the playing of Hodges has been to him as he developed his own understandings. ‘He was one of my earliest primary influences and has continued to be an important player in the way that I conceptualise playing the alto. I’ve always loved his lyricism and his melodic approach to improvising.’ In the two albums Broder has not only paid homage to Hodges but highlighted his own skills.

The group’s first album, Hodges: Front and Center Vol 1, is just as good and is also a tribute to the relaxed, timeless, potent swing of the Hodges’ small groups.