JC Hopkins – Big dreams of a big band
If JC Hopkins had released Underneath A Brooklyn Moon ten years ago, he would have risked being lazily categorized with the last decade’s slick swing revival. It’s a fate he’s happy to have missed.
“I feel nothing in common with that music, whatsoever,” Hopkins says, sitting at a small table in Chelsea’s landmark Empire Diner, where he used to be the late-night piano man. “All that bomp-bomp-ba-bomp-bomp, you know, there’s none of that. This is more in the spirit of Ellington and Mingus and the great songwriters. That’s where I come from.”
Underneath A Brooklyn Moon is credited to JC Hopkins Biggish Band featuring Queen Esther, a mouthful that in itself says a lot about Hopkins’ ambitions. Improbable as it may be in 2005, he has produced an old-fashioned big-band album of all-original material. The songs, some written by Hopkins alone and some with collaborators Madeleine Peyroux and Norah Jones, are conventionally melodic and carefully arranged without ever sounding consciously dated. He is not so much aping a tradition as working within it.
“To me, aside from the blues, the greatest influences in jazz were the songwriters, the Tin Pan Alley American songbook,” he says. “I mean, bebop is comprised of the chord changes to these great songs. Dizzy and Monk and Bird would take the changes to ‘How High The Moon’ and give it a crazy title and come up with their own tune.”
Hopkins’ own trajectory was somewhat the reverse. He started with bebop and worked backward. Growing up in Southern California, he was exposed first to his father’s hard-bop record collection, along with the predictable assortment of Beatles-derived rock and pop. In the late ’80s, he fronted Flophouse, an eclectic Bay Area folk-rock trio whose 1990 debut was produced by Peter Case. The band eventually dissolved, leaving Hopkins ready for new directions.
“I got a couple piano bar gigs in the city [San Francisco], and that became a way of life for about five years,” he says. “I would play standards, but then I would write songs in the standard form, and that became my repertoire.”
The idea of a big band grew out of those gigs. Assorted friends and musicians started dropping by to sit in, and pretty soon Hopkins was working with a core group. But after various efforts in the Bay Area, including a musical called “Show Biz’ness” that enjoyed a long San Francisco run, he and his wife, Shell, moved to New York.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get the sound I was looking for in San Francisco,” he says. “We felt we had done all we could there. There’s a lot of great musicians, but they don’t have that hard, driving bop sound I was raised on. It’s just not there. Here, you can hear it in the street, you can hear it in the subway.”
It didn’t take long for Hopkins to connect with a network of New York musicians, ranging from Martha Wainwright to jazz veterans such as vibraphonist Warren Smith (who played with Mingus and Max Roach, and on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks) and trombonist/arranger J. Walter Hawkes. And then there was Norah Jones, who Hopkins saw playing at a Times Square piano bar and enlisted as the band’s first featured vocalist. Other ventures took her away eventually, but Hopkins remains a fan. “Norah was always incredibly generous with her talent and her singing,” he says. That generosity extended to Jones’ duet with Willie Nelson on Hopkins’ song “Dreams Come True”, which appeared on Nelson’s 2004 album It Always Will Be.
Hopkins speaks as fondly of Queen Esther, a New York veteran with a dense resume of musical and theatrical work. (She recently released an album of her own roots-rock-country material.) She’s a savvy singer, and she gives Hopkins’ urbane songs a worldly touch.
“Of all the singers we’ve had, Queen Esther really captures the spirit of the band, and has a voice that can cut through the horns and some of the faster tempos,” Hopkins says.
The songs on the album were written over several years, but they hang together in a loose narrative about young love in the big city. The title track is a romantic paean to Hopkins’ adopted home in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene. The four songs written with Peyroux came in the months after September 11. “To me, those songs are songs of hope, but also songs of trauma,” Hopkins says.
He hopes to tour in support of the album (released in August on his own Tigerlily label, named for his daughter), although the logistics are complicated. Taking a big band on the road is tricky, but this is music that works best when it has room to move.
“One thing it’s hard to get from the CD is the experience live,” he says. “Things open up. Solos. Riffs are improvised, one guy’ll blow a line, the rest of his section will pick that up, and then the reeds will do a counter-riff, and then it just builds and builds.”