Hobby Horse at VIA
I have had the pleasure of both hearing Hobby Horse live and of listening to their CD. From the live performance, a couple of things stick out. Firstly, this is a group that plays together and stays together musically. The musicians in the group, Dan Kinzelman, Joe Rehmer, and Stefano Tamborrino, work through their sets with an almost seamless unity. It is nice to hear musicians listening closely to one another and to hear them respond to one another both in terms of tempo and of tone. Secondly, this is a group that plays a “free” style of jazz, but does so in a very low key way. The free style of their playing avoids clichés and does not venture too far into the highly expressionistic style of free jazz one sometimes encounters in Coltane, for example. Depending upon one’s taste this may be a virtue.
It was also interesting to see the band experimenting with unusual instruments, including a Hungarian pipe and various percussion instruments. I learned from talking with Kinzelman during a break between sets that he had been traveling in Africa. The band seems to have been keen to expand its repertoire of sounds. Both the CD and the live performance contain hints and sometimes more than hints of African inspired sounds and rhythms. In short, the freeness of the band’s sound extends to an inventiveness with both sound and style.
Despite the nice way the band hangs together in terms of tempo, the dominant focus of their music would seem to be the free development of a melody. Their music is melodic, that is to say, but in a way that is not bound by the conventions of classical harmony, and seems to flow smoothly and even endlessly along its way. My discussion with Dan did not lead to the revelation of any particular influences, but I believe I could hear a distinct similarity to Sun Ra’s music on some of the tunes.
Sun Ra’s otherworldly, lyrical creations sustain a similar open-ended, searching melodic style. There was even a Ra-esque chanting at times. Kinzelman’s alternation between a saxophone and bass clarinet helped to add some interesting colors to that searching atmosphere. To add a further layer of interest, the tempo the rhythm section kept was usually a slow one, often a slow 4/4 with a slight strut that evoked the world of Mickey Spillane. The searching melodic quality of the “Sun Ra” aspect of their style manages to merge in a very natural way into the “Spillane” aspect. Sometimes the two seem to interact. In either case, there is a nice air of 50’s jazz that comes through.
But finally, again, something further ought to be said about the rhythm section. The strut that was mentioned earlier was sometimes expressed and sometimes merely implied. It takes a band that has played together a lot to pull off an implied rhythm and make it stick. In pop music, for example, a 4/4 is usually pulsed out by drumming that plays consistently on the beat, and sometimes on all four beats. Sometimes that kind of drumming can be monotonous, so jazz drummers and bassists work toward an implied rhythm. Often, as soon as one tries to clap one’s hands to the music one can begin to hear the implied beat. Hobby Horse’s rhythm section pretty well pulled off the trick of creating an implied rhythm that lies close enough to the surface that it can be felt by those who are not consciously trying to find it.
If there is anything to critique on the album it would be simply that the slow melodic development of the tunes can become a bit monotonous over the course of the album. There are a couple of tracks that add variety, but more variety would be better. The album as a whole has the virtue of breathing well and the players all work within the space provided by the tempo of the music very well; but the next step for the band may be simply to focus more on the rhythmic side of their playing, since the melodic side is already well represented.