Artist Feature

Jim Hobbs
By Ken Waxman

Boston-based alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs has no problem with having his improvising and compositions celebrated – or fully celebrated – during four nights at Douglas Street Music Collective (DSMC) August 20-23, but he maintains his music is still evolving. “I’ve always believed that the music is supposed to progress and that’s the musician’s responsibility,” says Hobbs, 47. “Music shouldn't be confined to a museum re-enactment.” Known as a member of the trio or quartet called the Fully Celebrated Orchestra (FCO), Hobbs, is one musician who has always followed his own path, although chance and coincidence have also played a part.

Hobbs’ individuality began when he arrived at Boston’s Berklee College on full scholarship in 1986. However he discovered that the teaching at Berklee wasn’t that all-embracing. Instead it was his peers who introduced him to sounds he hadn’t heard growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind. Following viola studies in fourth grade, Hobbs switched to alto saxophone the next year. Soon he was winning school music competitions, which led to frequent stints at Jamey Aebersold’s summer jazz workshops. There too his fondest memory isn’t of the instruction but of the “whole roomful of records” available for sale there, “everything from Duke to Ornette and Ayler,” he recalls, which led him to different sounds than the mainstream jazz in which the Aebersold camps specialized.

It was the same at Berklee. Being a composition major didn’t stop him from constantly working out with his horn. “I always thought of it being the complete package, writing and playing,” he notes. Soon he and a couple of classmates were regularly busking in Harvard Square and attending classes “in my spare time”, he jokes. “We played our own material, and tunes by Ayler and Ornette. We tried to find a middle ground between what we wanted to play and what communicated with the tourists coming through the square,” he recalls. Eventually that band, with bassist Timo Shanko, drummer Django Carranza, and much later cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, became the FCO. But not before Hobbs graduated, and from 1990 to 1993 tried establishing himself in NYC. Besides working at every musical job he could – what he called general business (GB) jobs – the Shanko and Carranza trio also gigged frequently. A day job with Revlon Products in New Jersey gave him some money, but soon to be a father, he was becoming frustrated. “They were moving the Revlon plant o Arizona and every week I waited to see if my name on the list of those laid off,” he remembers. “One week it was finally there. Yet I went home to find a letter from Silkheart records saying they wanted to record us.” That situation arrived after an acquaintance phoned the label from a band gig and held the phone near the bandstand so Keith Knox could hear the trio. Babadita came out in 1993.

However by that time Hobbs’ son had been born and the family decided to move back to Boston. Following a short stint with a rock band, Hobbs became a manager at Rayburn Musical Instruments, where he worked until two years ago. “I took the job because I decided that I was never going to take another GB job where no one was listening and the band didn’t really want to play. Even when I was at Rayburn I never felt that I wasn’t doing music. I would play with bands every week or so and use my vacation time and unpaid leaves of absence to do projects in New York or to tour Europe.”

It was around that time that Hobbs, Shanko and Carranza became the FCO. A club engagement with a group of poets, led to the trio being billed as the “Fully Celebrated Orchestra” and the name stuck. Over the years, from his Boston base, Hobbs has managed to release one CD every year or so; work and record with out-of-towners such as Bynum, Anthony Braxton, Laura Andel and Fred Ho; plus local heroes such as guitarist Joe Morris. “I first met Joe when I was busking. Then our band and his groups played in different club around Boston at the same time, and I’ve gone to Europe with Joe in a trio, a quartet and in Go Go Mambo, which performs the music of Perez Prado.”

Bynum, Morris, Mat Maneri, Brandon Seabrook and others with Boston connections will participate with Hobbs at DSMU, along with Nate Wooley, Ava Mendoza, Chad Taylor, Ingrid Laubrock, Josh Sinton, Ken Filiano, Tomas Fujiwara and Tatsuya Nakatani. Although most sets will be purely improvised, Hobbs has composed special music for a seven-piece ensemble on August 22. “The best writing is that which encourages players to do their best and encourages them to do the most,” he declares. A composition major at Berklee, he continues to be influenced by the great jazz composers. “I can listen to a piece by Ellington that I’ve heard for years and still find new things in it”, he explains.

Recent events have also given him more time to write. Like his experience at Revlon, he had already decided that he would work at Rayburn until his son’s university education was paid off. Mailing off the final cheque for that a couple of years ago, Hobbs went to work and found he had been laid off.

Now a full-time musician again, Hobbs is involved with different configurations. One is a 13-piece band he calls the Brothers of Heliopolos, another is Lawnmower, a punk-jazz quartet he founded with drummer Luther Gray. Plus participating in an April performance of Braxton’s opera, Trillium J at Roulette, led to the August residency. “Everybody was encouraging and said I should play more in NYC,” Hobbs remembers. “Then [clarinetist/saxophonist and DSMC member] Josh Stinson said: ‘I can set up a little series for you’.”

This sort of serendipitous encouragement continues. While he not sure about the economics of releasing the DSMU sets or sessions by the Brothers of Heliopolos on CD, his next record will definitely be a solo saxophone set on Relative Pitch. Having already recorded As the Crow Flies with Mary Halvorson and Bynum for the label, “Kevin [Reilly] was after me to record solo. Finally he called up and said he had booked me some solo gigs and I’ve grown to like doing it. I’m playing one more and then I’ll select the best cuts for the CD.”

Taking that and other opportunities in stride, Hobbs continues to let his music evolve.

Recommended Listing:

• Fully Celebrated Orchestra - Marriage of Heaven and Earth (Innova 2002)

• Fred Ho- Year of the Tiger (Innova 2011)

• Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet - Apparent Distance (Firehouse 12 2011)

• Lawnmower - West (Clean Feed 2011 )

• As The Crow Flies - As The Crow Flies (Relative Pitch Records 2012)

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2014