Pianist with Kurt Elling takes center stage at Tanglewood

Jazz pianist Laurence Hobgood travels under the radar. He’s known as the marvelous collaborator with singer Kurt Elling, a pairing that continues to make a deep imprint with Elling’s sophisticated, hip inventions over Hobgood’s luscious and inventive piano.
The pair met in Chicago around 1993 and made their first record in 1995. Since then, each of their eight offerings have been nominated for a Grammy. They finally got Grammys earlier this year for “Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Hartman and Coltrane” (Concord, 2009).

Hobgood himself is a superlative player, with technique and great touch. He shines in his solo spots with the Elling band. He records on the British audiophile record label Naim, and is brilliant on a solo album “Left to My Own Devices” (2000) and a duet with bass great Charlie Haden, “When the Heart Dances” (2008).

On Saturday at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in Lenox, Mass., Hobgood will do an infrequent set of piano trio music, before joining the Elling band later in the evening. He will play with drummer Ulysses Owens and Harish Raghavan on bass, also members of the Elling band. The trio played to a sold-out house at Smalls jazz club in New York City recently.

Hobgood, like Elling now transplanted from Chicago to New York City, is excited about the gig. “It will be some of my preferred originals with a couple cool arrangements of standards, things from my records, and stuff like that,” he said.

It will be a rare treat for the festival. Hobgood, 47, has been playing piano from age 6. The son of a theatrical arts professor who moved around heading theater programs at various colleges before settling at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Hobgood played all manner of gigs, paying his dues before becoming a regular on the improvisational jazz scene in the Windy City. His fortuitous meeting with Elling and their quick rise to fame gave him more national notice.

He’s looking forward to recording his project with string quartet, light percussion and piano. He’s also been writing for jazz sextet and hopes to develop that in the future.

He’s also excited about his collaboration with Elling. Joining the group will be its newest member, guitarist John McLean, also from Chicago. And the band has recorded a new album, “The Gate,” on Concord Records, though it won’t be released until February.

“McLean is another Chicago secret weapon,” Hobgood said. “He’s a brilliant musician. Because he’s from Chicago, not a lot of people are aware of him. We’re happy to be introducing more of the world to his playing, because he’s a bad, bad motor scooter, as we say.”

He added, “The new record is really something. I can’t wait for people to hear it,” he said. Also making the record was renowned bassist John Patitucci and Terreon Gully on drums. “It’s really a piece of work. Don Was produced it. It was a blast.”

“We’re really proud of it. Even Kurt likes it,” he said with a chuckle, alluding to the singer’s critical eye toward his projects. “Kurt, no matter what is said about him one way or the other, he’s his own worst critic. … That’s part of his methodology for keeping such high standards, I think. So when I hear him say that he’s excited about it, that makes me really excited about it.”

Hobgood wouldn’t give away any secrets about the new album, though Tanglewood may get a taste of it. He said Elling sounds amazing on it. “That’s not really giving anything. He always sounds great. But he sounds really great on this record. His instrument he hones amazingly. A huge part of that is that he exercises a huge discipline in life. He doesn’t do things that a lot of other singers do that take a toll on the vocal chords. He keeps them pristine. His voice keeps getting better and better.”

As for their Grammy accomplishment, “I’m not going to lie and do some false humility trip. It felt great. Not just because we’ve been nominated so many times and it was kind of a relief to finally win. But for me, I’ve been watching the Grammys ever since I was a kid and knew that music was probably going to be my calling,” he said.

He later added, “No matter how much terrible music I make in the future, no matter how much I screw up, no one can ever take that away from you. It’s kind of nice having something permanent like that. It means a lot.”

As for the Elling-Hobgood pairing, the pianist said they are always coming up with new ideas. People can expect to hear some of their notable renditions of songs, like “Nature Boy” or “My Foolish Heart,” along with a mixture of “summertime, seasonal tunes.”

Artistically, Hobgood, like Elling, is someone who always aims high.

“We’re out there doing what we can to make the world a better place in our own way. We see people at performances that are deeply moved. They are bearing witness to artistry and to forms of expression where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s the thing about a great jazz group. No matter how great the individuals are. … If you go to see Dave Holland’s band, or Danilo Perez’s trio, or Wayne Shorter; … I like to think it’s true with us as well. You’ve got gifted individuals on stage who have worked very hard, but because of the cumulative nature of the performance, the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. It affects people deeply. I’ve seen it. I think that’s really important.”