Derrick Hodge – ‘The Second’

Derrick Hodge lives in a world that most modern jazz musicians can only dream to be a part of. A world where he can afford to take creative risks and still maintain his relevance in the fiercely competitive 21st Century jazz scene. Fortunately these risks frequently pay off, and have led to Grammy Awards, recordings with Robert Glasper, Mulgrew Miller, Clark Terry, Terence Blanchard, Common, Q-Tip, and Kanye West (just to name a few), and a recent performance at The White House as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series and President Obama’s SXSL music festival. Simply calling Hodge a successful musician would trivialize how important of a figure he has become in modern jazz.

On The Second Hodge has taken a starkly different, more organic approach to composition than his previous Live Today, leaning more towards the sonic textures of recent efforts of acts like Snarky Puppy and Brian Blade than the genre-bending work of Robert Glasper (in particular, his Black Radio series). This isn’t a bad thing for Hodge. Though The Second has its share of missteps, Hodge has created an album that showcases his virtuosity while simultaneously creating a beautiful melodic narrative that intrigues as well as entertains.

The album begins with the gorgeous title cut, which sets the emotional tone for a musical journey brimming with equal parts introspection, melancholy and pure unadulterated exultation. The influences of glitch and hip hop help highlight the perfectly calculated amount of space each instrument creates for itself. This is unsurprising, as Hodge plays the majority of the instruments on this album and this maintains full control over the placement of nearly all of the notes you hear. “Transitions” simple, layered bass runs create a necessary backdrop to the unpredictable electronic and string touches of the tune. The stunning ballad “Song 3” follows and proves that an electric bass can be an extremely complex melodic powerhouse when in the right hands.

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The Second succeeds when Hodge doesn’t succumb to what I like to call “Jazz Altruism,” or the urge to use established musical tropes in his tunes in order to appease the audience. The precise, calculated changes and perfectly melded interactions between instruments sometimes seem disingenuous and at worst… safe. “Underground Rhapsody,” “Clock Strikes Zero,” and “You Believed” add nothing of value to the record, and act as unnecessary background noise to the more interesting tracks. “World Go Round,” almost whimsical in nature, is a lighthearted major scale exercise that makes playful use of finger snaps, claps and knee slaps as percussion instruments. “For Generations” is where we see Hodge take on, for the first time, a “straight ahead” jazz tune, incorporating both electric and acoustic bass, as well as a more structured (though still fairly loose) horn section. This is an interesting tune, as it is entirely inoffensive, but Hodge does bring much needed excitement to the often banal sub-genre of revivalist trad jazz.

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The future of Hodge’s sound is uncertain, but I believe that we may see Hodge further develop the sound structures explored in “Clock Strikes Zero.” This is where Hodge shines: cinematic in scope (Hodge has done significant work in film) with an accessible melody and minimalist ambient production in the style of Noah “40” Shebib. This, to me, seems like what Hodge was trying to achieve with “Heart of a Dreamer,” a track that lost me very quickly due to its excessive and at times arrogant production.

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Despite The Second’s shortcomings, Hodge has a knack for creating extremely emotional, interesting melodic statements. This, combined with his impressive skills as a multi-instrumentalist, make this an album worth repeated listens. While Hodge may not have fully found his voice as a composer, the path he is forging for himself is not only fascinating to watch, but undeniably rewarding as a listener as well.

The Second, the sophomore album from Derrick Hodge, is out now on Blue Note Records.