Maxwell's 2009 smash Blacksummer’snight has been a resounding return for the R&B crooner. The mostly live-recorded CD, featuring jazz-trained, soul-savvy young guns who breathe and morph with Maxwell’s every move, is both a throwback and revelation that at last threatens to loosen the mechanized grip on contemporary R&B. Anchoring this amoeboid ensemble is Derrick Hodge, who at age 30 has already amassed the necessary cred to musical-direct this allseeing unit. Besides a bass baptism that includes gospel, neo-soul, and straightahead and experimental jazz, Hodge has produced jazz and hip-hop artists alike, and composed a handful of film scores. Still, his sympathetic, multi-shaded bass work—in conjunction with Chris Dave’s dynamic drumming—is what ultimately sets the tone for the singer’s stylish, intimate mood poems.
Hodge was born on July 5, 1979, in West Philadelphia, and discovered his deep-end destiny soon after, at the Beulah Baptist Church. While watching his mother sing in the choir, he became awestruck by bassist Joel Ruffin. At age seven, with his family relocated to Willingboro, New Jersey, he started on guitar because the bass was too big for him, but he quickly made the switch in second grade, when he got a student-size Blade P-Bass. In addition to playing gospel in church, Hodge played bass guitar in his grammar-school orchestra, giving him an appreciation of classical music. Later, Derrick’s junior high school bought him an upright bass, which he eventually played in his award-winning high school jazz band and local youth orchestra, earning him a soloist award in a Berklee ensemble competition. Meanwhile, Derrick took advantage of his rich musical surroundings and the support of older musicians such as bassist Jethaniel Nixon and keyboardist/producer James Poyser. He recalls, “My best friend growing up was Thaddaeus Tribbett, who is an incredible bassist. One night, his cousin, who is also a bassist, introduced us to John Patitucci, Jaco, and Marcus Miller, all in one listening session. They became my three main influences.”
On the advice of his high school band teacher, Hodge attended Temple University on an electric bass scholarship. He joined the orchestra and quickly found himself having to re-learn the upright correctly, via his teachers John Hood and Vince Fay. By his third year he was working with neo-soul staples Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, and Floetry; the road beckoned, but Hodge elected to stay in school. He came under the tutelage of Christian McBride, and upon graduating, he began gigging with Philly jazz mainstay Bootsie Barnes. Barnes suggested Hodge to pianist Mulgrew Miller, with whom he recorded four albums. Stepping back into hip-hop, he recorded and toured with Common before returning to jazz as a member of Terence Blanchard’s band. The connection was invaluable, as it enabled Hodge to explore a long-held ambition to compose for film. He admits, “I basically bombarded Terence with questions the whole time, and he was completely supportive of my playing and writing.” In addition to four CDs with the trumpeter, Hodge contributed to two of Blanchard’s scores for Spike Lee projects and attended the Sundance Composers Lab on Blanchard’s recommendation. There, he met composers in other genres, eventually landing a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (for his composition featuring 6-string bass and brass ensemble) and scoring four independent films. In 2009, the pop world beckoned again with an offer from long-dormant Maxwell.
How did you come to join Maxwell’s band?
Through the recommendation of my friend Chris Dave. He was friends with Max, who along with producer Hod David, had Chris and I come in to play on some tracks. At the first session, I had just finished tuning up and writing myself a lead sheet for “Stop the World,” and they pressed PLAY. I’ll never forget the feeling I had playing along, that this was going to be a special record. I hadn’t even heard any of the other songs yet—I just knew. Then the horn players came in and did their thing, and it turned into a really cool experience. Still, the success caught us all off guard. To have art for art’s sake and balance that honesty with mass commercial appeal is incredibly difficult. Max has found a way to achieve that without having to chase the sound that has been so prevalent at the top of the charts. He has no façade; he’s a genuine person who respects music and musicians. He doesn’t tell any of us what to play, but he hears everything. I didn’t go through the Neve preamp for one of the songs, and Max had me come back and recut it, because he heard the difference!
How did you come up with your parts?
Most of the songs were finished, with bass parts played by Hod, when Chris and I came in to redo the bass and drums, so that gave me a starting point. Hod just told me to play whatever I felt. I actually recorded with his basses [a ’72 Fender Jazz Bass, and one track on an Avella-Coppolo J-Bass]. We put a different feel on some of the songs, but mostly I tried to add vibe. Each song was cut only once or twice, and there were a few notes I wanted to go back and change, which everybody was cool with. There was a lot of trust there, and you can hear that honesty in the music. My schedule didn’t allow me to redo the last four songs on the CD, so that’s Hod on those.
You’re on your second major tour for the CD this year, having been named musical director. Has the music evolved?
Absolutely; now that the world has heard the CD and its statements, and because we have the same musicians, we were able to open up the music during rehearsals in the spring. My job was to put the arrangments together, but it’s a collective effort; we didn’t even have a musical director on the last tour. Just about everyone in the band is a leader with solo projects and albums, so the ideas and contributions were flowing, yet everybody knows how to keep the songs first. From there we coordinated with the production team, which sets up the stage show. We do the whole CD plus some of Max’s older hits.
How has his your jazz training impacted your hip-hop projects?
In numerous ways. Ear-training and knowledge of jazz harmony helps you get to the meat of a song by enabling you to strip it down and figure out the chord changes, voicings, instrumentation, and arrangement, and really flesh out what the sound of the song is. This applies rhythmically, as well. The other key is the extensive amount of time you spend studying your instrument, and how you’re taught to constantly balance and adapt; you learn about nuance, which really comes into play with music that’s less complicated. Oddly, a lot of jazz musicians gain this information and insight and apply it only to jazz, but it applies well to all styles. For me, the most rewarding aspect of being a young jazz musician was the support of the older players, like John Clayton, who has been a mentor. Jazz is a small community and everybody is listening; they dissect everything about your playing and track your growth. They want to see you take it seriously, because many of them didn’t get the same opportunities. So you learn to be accountable, do the research, and get as much knowledge as you can. You owe it to yourself and to the music.
Can you address your relationship between the upright and the electric, and your bass concept in general?
I approach them as separate instruments with regard to touch, sound, and technique. Stylistically, there’s definitely some crossover; on the upright, at times, I may reach beyond the conventional role in jazz and apply some electric bass moves. On the electric, I’ll mute certain notes more and in a different way than the typical electric bassist might, to get that upright vibe. When it comes to concept, I never think about the instrument specifically; I just play and focus on respecting the DNA of the song I’m recording, and what it calls for. Live, I find that artists want something to inspire them every night, so I try to add presence and a little edge, while still leaving space for everything going on around me.
How does being a composer affect your bass lines?
Mainly it has led me to try giving meaning to everything I play, even if it’s improvised in the moment. Another important aspect is that I came up in gospel music, where it’s all about emulating the vocalists. I try to use that kind of phrasing for my bass lines, melodies, and solos—something Marcus Miller is a master of. No matter what style of music you play, when you strap on your bass, try to make ideas that sing.
Lesson: Esoteric Derrick
Derrick Hodge's versatility and penchant for possibility has led to his plucking various basses in interesting places. Example 1 shows the main groove of “Bad Habits,” from Maxwell’s BLACKsummer’snight CD, right after Hodge enters at 1:07. He notes, “I focused on vibe and dynamics; there are some notes you almost can’t hear, like the high E’s going into beat four.” Moving to the album’s first single, “Pretty Wings,” Ex. 2 shows the first two measures of the second chorus, at 2:14. Derrick explains, “I shifted to the upper-register here, to sort of echo the horns, and then I worked my way back down.” The high-style part really takes flight at the end of the track, with Hodge adding some slapping and artifical harmonics.
Having brought his upright to hip-hop with Mos Def and others, Hodge’s acoustic takes center stage on Common’s “Be (Intro),” from his CD of the same name. Example 3 shows the eight-bar phrase of what is actually a walking bass line against a programmed half-time beat. “I had arranged an orchestral beginning over this part, but Common and Kanye West, who produced, decided they liked it with just upright.” On the flipside, Hodge handled his Callowhill 5-string for “Mantra Intro” and “Mantra,” from jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s Tale of God’s Will CD. Example 4 shows 12 of the chord voicings he draws from on the rubato “Intro.” “We had recorded the main piece, and composer Kendrick Scott asked me to set it up with a solo piece out front. I wanted to get a resonant, open-string sound, so I started in A and adapted some of the tonality of the main track. The voicings were inspired by the classical music I was listening to at the time, Ravel in particular.” Derrick used a fingerstyle “claw” position to grab the chords and notes in between. Stretch before attempting these, and know that even Derrick couldn’t reach all the notes in the Dm(add9)/C chord at once!
Electric basses Callowhill J(unk) 5-string, DH 6-string, MDM 5-string; fretless Status Electro-4 4-string; Fender American Standard Jazz Bass V; all with Sadowsky Nickel & Stainless roundwound strings
Acoustic bass Circa-1990 Czech plywood bass via David Gage, Gage Realist pickup, French-style bow, Thomastik Spirocore strings
Amps Aguilar AG 500 or DB 751 heads with DB 410 or DB 412 cabinets, Aguilar DB 900 tube DI & Tone Hammer preamp
Can Be Heard On
Maxwell, BLACKsummer’snight [Columbia, 2009]; Terence Blanchard, Choices [Concord Jazz, 2009], Tale of God’s Will [Angel, 2007]; Common, Be [Universal, 2005]; Gretchen Parlato, In a Dream [ObliqSound, 2009]; Mulgrew Miller, Live at Yoshi’s, Vol’s. 1 & 2 [Blue Note, 2004]; Robert Glasper, Double Booked [Blue Note, 2009]
Film scoresFauborg Tremé, 2008; The Recruiter, 2008; The Black Candle, 2008; Who the !@#% Is Jackson Pollock?, 2006