The Album, Which Also Features an Impressive Array of Jazz Greats and Notable Singer Songwriters, Will Finally See the Light of Day Ten Years After It Was Recorded
There are some musicians who defy genre limitations, whose work spans a such wide spectrum that it simply does not allow them to be labelled or categorized. Multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer JC Hopkins is just such an artist. He’s produced albums for Victoria Williams, Ben Fields and John Lithgow (whose Sunny Side of the Street earned a Grammy as Best Children’s album,) has earned two Grammy nominations for his work with Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, and co-wrote “Painter Song,” which was featured on Jones’ multi-Grammy winning debut album. He’s performed in various, clubs around New York City with vocalists such as Jones, Elvis Costello, Madeline Peyroux, and Martha Wainright. That was where he found himself just as the events of 9/11, which so affected him that he was inspired to write the title track of the new album.
With the July 12 release of It’s a Sad and Beautiful World, Hopkins returns to the early 2000s when he recoded an album featuring an incredible array of musicians performing on its eight tracks. Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band join Hopkins on two songs (“Upside Down” and “Walking Cane”), with Hudson staying on board for another five, playing accordion, Hammond organ, drums, piano, mellotron and melodica. Other notable folk and rock musicians who joined Hopkins in the studio near Woodstock for the session are Teddy Thompson (son of folk icons Richard and Linda Thompson) and Martha Wainwright, the singer/songwriter who is the daughter of Loudon Wainright and Kate McGarrigle and whose expansive resume includes work with Snow Patrol and Hole.
“I had Teddy Thompson, Catherine Popper and Garth Hudson lined up to record songs I had written in the aftermath of the events of September 2001,” remembers Hopkins. ‘All we need is a drummer,’” I said to Catherine. ‘How about Levon?’ she replied.” Hopkins goes on with his story. “Levon had a gig coming up at the Bottom Line. The sessions were over a month away, so I figured we had plenty of time. Backstage I asked him. He told me that it sounded like fun and for me to call him tomorrow. So, I called him the next day and he said the same thing, sounded like fun and for me to call him tomorrow. Well, I did this every day for three weeks until I found myself at beautiful Allaire Studios, on top of a mountain above Woodstock. ‘What are we going to do without a drummer?’ Catherine asked. I called Levon’s house, and his wife Sandra told me that he wasn’t there. ‘Ah, okay,” I said, trying not to sound as crestfallen as I felt. ‘I think he is on the way to the studio,’ she finished.”
“Garth Hudson turned up at around midnight that same day. Martha had given me his number but told me that Garth’s midnight is our noon. And he came every midnight that whole week, adding melodicas and mellotrons and other things with keys,” finishes Hopkins.
Hopkins had originally come to New York to pursue his Biggish Band dream. That jazz group has gone on to record two highly successful albums, Underneath a Brooklyn Moon and Meet Me at Mintons. Explaining the integration of jazz with his singer/songwriter chops on It’s a Sad and Beautiful World, Hopkins says, “I come to jazz and all of my musical endeavors as a songwriter. I study the various forms; in the case of jazz it was the Great American Songbook and the music of such artists as Thelonious Monk. For folk, I studied the music of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and for rock, it was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the like. There is a great deal of interaction in all of this music.”
Prior to heading north to record It’s a Sad and Beautiful World, Hopkins recruited some of the remarkable jazz musicians with who he had been working – Vincent Chancey, Victor Lewis, Seamus Blake, Sunny Jain, Warren Smith and James Zollar - to lay down some tracks. “Hearing Victor Lewis playing a rock beat, you know that he is not just a jazz musician, he’s a great musician period,” says Hopkins. “There was a time when the singer-songwriter types and the jazz musicians were all always working together, and having jazz clubs, rock clubs, folk clubs and even burlesque clubs in close proximity on New York’s lower east side reinforced a sense of community.”
Once the recording was finished, Hopkins returned to New York City, where his career took a turn toward producing and working with his Biggish Band. The tracks remained in the vault. “This spring, I bumped into Matthew Cullen, who had engineered the project. He enthusiastically agreed to master the songs so there was no sense to keep them locked away any longer,” explained Hopkins. “I like the way they sound. They sound like New York City and they sound like Woodstock. The songs are earnest, and the musicians play with conviction. It was a sad time for this country, similar in many ways to this moment. But it was beautiful, making music with talented friends. I am glad it was captured and that I can now release it.”
New Album Fuses Middle-Eastern Music with Avant Jazz and Features Mark Helias on Bass, Hank Roberts on Cello, Hamin Honari on Tombak, Daf, and Frame Drum
and Grdina on Oud
“Grdina continues to passionately explore the depths of jazz improvisation, cross-cultural fusions and the fun that comes with cutting loose. Lately, he’s been tearing it up in a new combo from New York City.” – Stuart Derdeyn, Vancouver Sun
This wild, eclectic project combines intricate counterpoint with the ebb and flow of dynamic yet focused improvisation. Grdina takes inspiration from the complexity of Bartok, the freedom of Ornette Coleman, the energy and logical construction of ideas in Soundgarden, and the delicacy of Webern.
Grdina’s debut recording, Think Like the Waves (Songlines, 2006) was a trio with his mentor Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, and there is something of that group’s deep improvised jazz roots at work here, along with the compositional, classical music bent of his East Van Strings project (The Breathing of Statues, Songlines, 2009). It’s also a reaction to his rock playing in recent years in Dan Mangan’s band and his own instrumental duo Peregrine Falls. Says Grdina, “I felt a strong inner urge to write music that was more unexpected, that didn’t repeat itself so much and was more challenging than what I had been playing. Forms can sometimes feel like you’re being strangled and talked down to. I wanted the music to continually move, feeling free but clearly directed.
“Compositionally this also came out of the work I’d done with Gary Peacock but in a very different way. We worked a lot on composition being a distilled idea that is the germ that sparks improvisation. I wanted to see what would happen if I composed the development of the ideas, keeping the same focused writing style, asking the same questions…The process of writing was similar to what I went through with East Van Strings, which was informed by listening to a lot of Webern and the second Viennese school. Ornette always being present is a given but Soundgarden came up while on the road with Dan Mangan. When I was young I was a fan but didn’t really dig into it, as I was too interested in jazz at the time. I started listening to them again and was really excited and inspired by the energy and careful construction of ideas, intricate yet logical. I was also listening to a lot of Tim Berne and started to feel a connection between the two. So there was something between that intricacy and energy that I was really inspired by.”
“The musicians came together over a two-year process of getting more involved in the NY scene. Oscar [a member of Berne’s Snakeoil], Russ and Satoshi are all amazing, incredibly well rounded, multi-faceted musicians with unique voices. They are also master improvisers, but the chemistry of the band wasn’t apparent at the start. We had a lot of short rehearsals, a gig and then not seeing each other for two months. We did that for about a year. We then went on the road for a string of dates and everything changed. The band just solidified, everyone’s unique voice began to shine and the compositions started to click. It’s not easy music to grasp fully while you’re playing it, as it is very contrapuntal. Each instrument is focused on their own part and it takes a while before you hear it click with the other lines and the logic becomes apparent.”
“Over the course of the last few years I've started to connect some disparate directions musically. The oud and the guitar are starting to become interchangeable in a way…How I'm approaching each instrument is becoming more and more similar. I'm moving further away from the original Arabic sound of the oud and starting to push my own voice through its history. “Fragments” is a departure for me and is a path I would like to further develop with this band. Oud and piano in particular work so well together but are fundamentally opposed instruments. It really is like the meeting of two completely different worlds. The clash of ideologies is exciting to me.”
“I hear so many connections to so many genres in this music and from these musicians that I feel it has an extremely broad appeal…I’ve gotten compliments from folk, jazz and classical music fans both young and old, as well as fans of Soundgarden…What it demands though is deep listening. There are moments where it is energetic and in your face, bringing the music to you, but it always goes back in, requiring the listener to come closer and bring their own experience to it.”