Derrick Hodge: Riding High with Maxwell, Robert Glasper and a New Solo Album

December 8, 2016

It’s often said that success happens when opportunity meets preparation, and perhaps no other bassist today personifies that idea as gracefully and with as much humility as Derrick Hodge. Blessed with natural gifts, the good fortune to grow up with a posse of other badasses, and an early attraction to the instrument, the 37-year-old Philadelphia native has parlayed a strong work ethic, an enviable education at Temple University, and guidance from mentors into a worldclass career remarkable for its breadth. His association with Maxwell as bassist and musical director, now in its seventh year, has garnered a Grammy for Best R&B album (2009’s BLACKsummers’night), and his eight years with the Robert Glasper Experiment have included another pair of R&B Grammys, for Black Radio (2012) and Black Radio 2 (2013). Whether he’s on upright with Clark Terry or Mulgrew Miller, scoring Grammy-winning films with Terence Blanchard and Spike Lee, writing music for the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, grooving on electric with fellow Philadelphians Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild, or conjuring hip-hop bass magic with Timbaland and Kanye, Hodge is always tasteful, in the pocket, and self-assured, effortlessly anchoring each situation with elegance and abundant musicality.

Most impressive, perhaps, is the way Derrick ties together all his experiences on The Second, the follow-up to his impressive debut, 2013’s Live Today. Unlike its predecessor, a coming-out party with cameos from high-profile collaborators, The Second is an intimate artist statement that showcases Hodge’s various loves—composition, film scoring, grooving, improvising, jazz, Western classical—with him on almost every instrument.

We checked in with Hodge while he was in Europe with Maxwell, a long way from the Denver home he shares with his wife Christian, his daughter Josephine, and his son Elijah.

What is it about bass players from Philly?

It’s pretty crazy. And they’re still coming! Philly musicians are sponges, and we’re not afraid to take in different influences—we’re chameleons, in a sense. Although it might seem that there’s a specific “Philly sound,” in reality, one bassist from the Philadelphia area often won’t sound like another Philly bassist, even if they’ve grown up blocks from each other.

Can you talk about the impact of hearing Philadelphia gospel bassist Joel Ruffin at the age of six?

Joel Ruffin is without question the only reason I wanted to play bass. He was playing a Fender Jazz Bass through a Peavey amp, and you always knew when he was there, from his sound alone. That was probably the best thing I could have been exposed to that early—the power and importance of having a sound. Joel is the reason I later took up guitar, and eventually bass, once we moved to Willingboro, New Jersey.

You grew up with Thaddeus Tribbett, Adam Blackstone, and Wayne Moore, three of the most acclaimed bassists/musical directors on the scene today. How did that shape you as a musician?

Don’t get me started! [Laughs.] Thad, Adam, and Wayne are my brothers. I’d say their biggest impact on me as a bassist and musician would be how we’ve never made it a competition. From day one, it’s been about friendship first. On top of that, we were inspired by the drive to get better—we used each other as motivation, never to undercut each other or fight over the same gigs. It sounds cliché, but that’s what we’re about, to this day.

Tell us about that crossroads moment with R&B singer/actress Jill Scott where you had to choose between school and going on the road.

I was 19, I think. Touring with Jill was my first big gig, and it was my dream. At the time, it seemed like the obvious choice was for me to continue doing that, but I chose to leave the tour and finish college. She showed mad love and told me to finish what I started. I went with the decision, and it was the springboard for something new for me.

Who have been some of your mentors so far?

I know I’ll inevitably forget to mention someone, but I’d have to mention James Poyser, Terence Blanchard, Stefon Harris, John Clayton, Osvaldo Golijov, Common, Victor Wooten, Christian McBride, and Vince Fay. Early on, I’d say Jethaniel Nixon, Alex Guidry, Lady Phillips, Mulgrew Miller (RIP), Terell Stafford—I could go on and on.

How have your composition studies affected your approach to bass?

Formal study has probably informed my decision-making as a soloist and improviser the most, in terms of the arc of my phrasing, using delayed resolutions, where I choose to resolve, when to maneuver based on overall harmonic content, balancing dissonance with resolution in tonal centers, or when to focus on the melody when soloing. Those choices pretty much go back to composition. In terms of bass lines, I try to flow and not think about it too much.

Some players feel that going to music school has a negative effect on one’s personal approach. What was your experience?

It depends on the teacher. The wrong teacher can discard what makes you “you” and try to force you to play what they think is good music. As strange as it sounds, sometimes the narrow-minded teacher can help you understand how much work you must put into respecting traditions. Sometimes it’s good to have both types of thought, you know? It’s up to us to chew the meat and spit out the bones.

In your compositions, you give melody and harmony just as much importance as rhythm. How can a rhythm-obsessed bassist learn to hear harmony, use space, and prioritize melody?

It starts with avoiding familiar habits. Put the bass down. Don’t practice for three straight days, and listen to music as much as you can. Limit yourself to maybe five harmonically dense or lush records—Debussy or “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber, then something with a different vibe but with harmonic and melodic focus, like Nancy Wilson’s ballads. The key is that it has to be something that’ll make you think different.

On the third day, before practicing anything, tune up, then immediately attempt to learn one of the pieces you’ve been listening to. No matter how simple the music appears to be, you’ll be thrown. The questions will become, “How do you make the melody sound like that? How do you make the chords go with the melody? The fingering I know isn’t working!” It’ll make you practice new things that focus on touch, pressure, economy on the fretboard, varying locations of striking zones in the right hand, and figuring out how to maneuver while making a song sing with only four, five, six, or whatever strings.

This exercise is time-consuming but fun. The key is going into it without having played the bass steadily. Force your mind to listen. Fall asleep, wake up listening. You’ll hear different.

Do you make it a point to work on stuff you find difficult?

That’s most certainly a very important approach. We have to identify what needs improvement, as well as repeat things for the sake of muscle memory and dexterity. Right now, after my practice sessions, I put on earbuds and ’shed over chord changes. Working within different harmonic contexts keeps the ears fully engaged and the creative juices flowing.

Do you have separate compositional processes for film and for bass work?

I try to keep it wide open. For me, going into something with a preconceived process almost dictates how I’ll create. I like keeping it sonically unpredictable, regardless of whether I’m composing for film or specifically for bass.

Do you have any tips on getting into a compositional headspace?

Never underestimate the importance of recording a thought when it first comes to you. Inspiration comes at interesting times, and documenting an idea as it comes to you can spark the creative flow when you listen back later. Was your compositional process for The Second different than it was for Live Today?

It was. For Live Today, I wrote based on who I wanted on the album, and I contoured melodies and songs based on the musicians. The Second, which is more self-contained, required me to put in more time so that different sides of myself could evaluate. I’d begin layering parts and would have to sit with it to let the producer in me decide what was next. I wanted to focus on three aspects of myself: the producer, the songwriter, and the instrumentalist. Also, I wanted to make sure people felt the intimate vibe, so I chose to record in my studio, for the most part.

How do you balance your solo and sideman careers?

It’s not easy, but it’s a blessing to have to balance these things. I will say that I had to significantly cut back on other things I was doing so I could have clarity of thought to create The Second. I’m now primarily doing either solo work or MD work as an instrumentalist, with recording sessions sprinkled in.

You tour a lot. How do you maintain a practice regimen on the road?

Mornings have been the best time. Also, between dinner and performance time. It helps me chill the heck out, too!

It’s always great to hear Stanley Clarke incorporating bass into his scores. Is it important for you to have especially juicy bass parts in your soundtrack work?

Tell me about it! Stanley and Marcus—oh, and Robert Hurst—have incorporated really cool bass lines into their scores. I don’t do that as much. I got into the game as a Sundance Composer fellow, understudying Terence Blanchard, and I’d often create with not a bass in sight. Unless the director specifies that he or she wants that vibe up front, I go into every situation with no preconceived approach. It keeps it interesting for me and helps me go all the way into a style that I may not have gone into before. But man, in terms of influence, Marcus Miller in Boomerang and Stanley Clarke in Passenger 57 had crazy bass lines! Quincy Jones had cool bass lines in older scores, too.

Do you have any tips on getting an upright vibe on electric?

I see them as two different instruments. In terms of vibe, I kind of just let it happen. I actually focus more on making sure I’m respecting the nature of both instruments individually. Honestly, it’s best to take lessons on both.

What’s your favorite way to work on intonation for fretless electric bass?

In practice sessions, I tend to limit my picking hand to one or two fingers, focusing on one location. Using consistent right-hand pressure makes the sound consistent so that I can focus solely on my fretting hand, which exposes my deficiencies.

When it comes to intonation on the fretless, I focus on thumb position and how it’s used as a pivot to specific regions on the bass neck. Working on a 4-string for fretless practice is great because you’re forced to shift and do jumps. For starters, I recommend two-and-a-half to three-octave major, minor, and harmonic-minor scales. Then break them up into arpeggios. Practice at a comfortable tempo and alternate between cut time and double time. The click remains steady, and you discover quickly how you need to alter your fingering to make the faster passage work, as opposed to the slower one. When you inch up the click, you tend to stay in one fingering, just faster, and resort to only attacking certain movements a certain way. Consistent finger movement and focused thumb-shifting behind the fingerboard/neck is what has helped lock in intonation in my experience.

In your travels these days, do you hear common themes and approaches among bass players?

I do hear trends and influences, and the fact that I hear it more uniform wherever I go in the world speaks to the power of social media and the information age that we’re in. I’ve heard conversations knocking that, and my thought is: Do you—and if you want to stay up on what’s going on, check out what’s going on. But don’t knock it. Just do you. I think checking out trends and different aesthetics is fun. Grow or die, man!

It was a major blow to lose CallowHill luthier Tim Cloonan in October. How did you meet him?

I met Tim when I was a freshman at Temple, and he was one of the seniors who took me under his wing. He was just a cool, super-creative dude with strong opinions. I was honored to be one of the first musicians to receive a CallowHill bass. He poured his heart and soul into every instrument he made. I’m really happy that the third CallowHill bass he ever made was showcased in the Grammy Museum for the Blue Note exhibit. I’m also glad that I used his instruments so much on records and that his sound is documented. I’ll continue to honor his legacy.

Tell us about your CallowHill basses.

Most are prototypes and have never been used anywhere outside of my studio. Tim was always creating, and he wanted me to check out what he was working on next. Aside from the prototypes, I mainly use the CallowHill DH6 [not a current model for sale]. It’s one of his earliest basses, and it’s the main bass on both Live Today and The Second. I also have a CallowHill Junk 5 and an MDM 5, a hybrid bass based on three basses Tim made for me, Maurice Fitzgerald, and Micah Jones, which he labeled with our initials, MDM.

How important it is for today’s bass players to diversify beyond practice, gigs, touring, and studio work?

I always ask, What do you want to be? A good musician? There are things that you do to work towards that. Do you want to make it in the music business? That’s a different thing. In the music business, being a good musician is a tool to succeed, but it’s just a tool, not the tools. You must be willing to diversify and pay attention to what the music market is. The more money you have as your cushion, the more aggressive you can be with your career choices. Start by not spending all your money. That’s a big deal, and probably the biggest factor in decisions that many musicians make. I can’t say it enough. Start by not spending all your money!

What advice do you have for a bass player with chops and ambition who wants to have a career like yours?

Try not to burn bridges. Be you, have drive, but remember that the music business is a people business. Adapting is key. Be unafraid to try new things. That one risk you take might be the difference in a whole new world for you. Your safety net? Don’t burn bridges and don’t spend all your money. I’ll preach that until the cows come home! [Laughs.]

What would you say to someone just starting out in 2016?

“I’m excited for you. Hit me next week and we’ll do some listening together.”

What’s your next big adventure?

There are a couple film projects in the works that I’m excited about, and I’m looking forward to touring in 2017. This year was a blast in terms of writing music; a highlight was visiting the new Smithsonian African-American History Museum to hear a few pieces I wrote for exhibits. I want others to have these opportunities, too, so that’s part of my vision for my company Son Of Knowledge Entertainment, which I’m developing as a springboard for composers looking for film opportunities, musicians who want to have their music heard, and musicians/MDs who may have work for each other. Short term, SOK Entertainment is focusing on a few initiatives for 2017 that will provide composers grant opportunities, film work, and performance spaces so their work can be performed. I plan to showcase musicians by letting them open up for my band.

I heard a rumor that you’re planning to tour with The Second just with bass and drums.

Yes, that’s in the works. I’ve tried it with Mike Mitchell on drums, and we had a blast. I’m just trying to push myself while giving the people something authentic. 2017 is going to be a fun year!

Hodgepodge

Derrick Hodge’s bass playing is rife with expression, nuance, and attitude— a reflection of his vast experience as a performer and as a listener. Example 1, from The Second, contains the melody of “Song 3” (at 0:29), played on a CallowHill DH 6. “I tried to be patient and let the melody of the song come to me, and in time it did—which ended up being one of the defining moments that shaped the entire album. Listen to the passage and focus on the degree of bite, dynamics, and balance of finesse versus punctuation. Then play it and make the melody speak to you the way it spoke to me. Make the story yours.” Example 2, also from The Second, contains the melody of “Going” (at 0:47). “My inspiration was a switch to Dunlop strings. I put a pair on my red Fender Jazz Bass V, and the sound brought to mind a 14-year-old me obsessing over how Marcus Miller made his bass sing on his records, and how Reggie Parker did the same on Hezekiah Walker gospel albums. Try to maintain the raw, fun vibe when you play it.” Finally, Ex. 3 shows the main bass line of “Written in Stone,” from Robert Glasper’s latest, ArtScience. “That was an idea DJ Jahi Sundance had, so I went with it. I used a Sadowsky 5-string that was on the wall of the Parlor Studio in New Orleans, and I turned up the tube-drive sound on my TC Electronic Blacksmith head. Use a pick and play it evenly and aggressively; play it like you’re using your own sample, and then open up a little.”

7 Questions For Prospective Musical Directors

Thinking about being an MD? Derrick Hodge recommends introducing yourself to musical directors, going to rehearsals with MDs, and asking yourself these tough questions:

1 How efficient are you at Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, and beyond? If you’re not, who are the people you need to know?

2 How efficient are you at recreating or enhancing the original sounds on records?

3 Are you willing to lead your bandmates with respect while demanding their best?

4 Are you willing to accept blame and provide answers, even if something may not necessarily be your fault?

5 Are you willing to be honest with the artist who hired you and is relying on you to present them in their best light, even if the truth may sometimes be uncomfortable?

6 Are you willing to put their best interests at the forefront, no matter what?

7 Are you willing to protect the artist from drama to the best of your ability?

“The quicker you internalize these questions and get to some answers, the better,” says Derrick. “Then you can focus on the other stuff, the obvious stuff—like the music itself.”

INFO

EQUIP

Basses Czech plywood bass, CallowHill custom 6-string, CallowHill MDM5, CallowHill custom semi-hollow 5, CallowHill Junk 5, Fender Jazz 5 with Nordstrand Dual Coil Jazz pickups (modified by Tim Cloonan), Moollon Jazz 5-string, Moollon Jazz 4-string, Fender Jaguar Bass, fretless semihollow Status Electro 4
Rig TC Electronic RH 750 and Blacksmith heads, TC Electronic RS 410 4x10, TC Electronic RS 212 2x12
Effects TC Electronic Flashback Delay, TC Electronic Ditto X2 Looper, Aguilar Octamizer
Strings Thomastik Spirocores, Dunlop stainless steels, Dunlop nickels
Cases Reunion Blues RBX, Reunion Blues Continental

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