I really wanted to capture that spirit of those people because I think that's the best way to show respect to them. Not trying to necessarily copy their format or way of doing it because we're all coming from a spirit that evokes. I figured the best way to do it was pay homage to that by just being honest to myself.
– Derrick Hodge
The bridge is the moment where it hits. It is here that something special emerges. There, the melody, the rhythm, reminds us of a place we have been before and where we want to return. The bridge makes us remember.
It is in and upon those bridges, where bassist-composer, Derrick Hodge accomplishes perhaps his most significant work. There the imagination of the composition resolves itself into a concrete reality, and into a specific meaning for us. The bridge helps us to connect our worlds to the larger universe of sound that is evoked throughout the composition. We are never alienated. In fact, the bridge is there to make sure of that. In this manner, the music allows us to be one with all of the forces of the universe that make us, that make everything.
A veteran of many different musical words from rhythm and blues to jazz, the Willingboro, N.J. native quickly became a mainstay in my widely expanding universe of go-to artists. Though we share many indirect connections (both of us graduated from Temple University), my affinity for Hodge’s work is and has been lodged in its ability to articulate for me paths of thinking about the world that other forms of knowledge production expression had not done. Part of what has been critical in this sense, is the ability for different forms of intellectual work to produce different feelings, different sensibilities. I have begun to seriously think about ways that “academic writing” can be creative; particularly as it becomes clearer that emergent in the forms of creativity that spawned melodies like Hodge’s, is a meaning that is at the core of the thinking traditions that have always oriented and guided Black cultural production. In the many vapid spaces of academia, we need a little sound to massage away the nonsense, and the pain, and to reframe what it is—at least for the Black academic—we are about. More than that, for me, music is what settles me in an unsettling environment—that is, the larger world Black folk find themselves in. Like our best literary traditions, it is among the few forms that remind us that there is something beyond the eye can see that guides how we come to know ourselves, and how we conceive of the possible. So it was not a small thing that sounds like those created and rebirthed by Hodge prepared me to receive a newness, a novel way of perceiving. Like so many other artistic renderings of our realities, it has helped to bring into our consciousness different ways of being in the world.
My aural journey with this kind of musical genius began with Hodge’s composition on the Robert Glasper Experiment album, Double Booked. While “Open Mind” featured a Hodge-accompanied disquisition of Glasper keys punctured by Bilal chants, the arresting moment for me was its bridge. There, Chris Dave’s inspired drumbeat provided the space for a kind of resolution, it was an opening for us, but one that also provided a closure—what some might call coming “full circle.” The song began to evoke for me a sense of the spacemaking practices that are necessary for the working out of problems. The bridge ushers us from those moments of thinking to those moments of resolving. This kind of working out and playing in between the ranges and spaces of melody and rhythm marked for me the beauty of Hodge’s music. It is only when I encountered more of this, what I am calling “bridgework,” that I noticed that this was a discernible pattern.
The bridge ushers us from those moments of thinking to those moments of resolving. This kind of working out and playing in between the ranges and spaces of melody and rhythm marked for me the beauty of Hodge’s music.
Hodge’s debut as leader, Live Today, released in 2014 was a significant moment, as it crystallized his ability to collect and organize an extended “essay” of his thoughts. With this offering, original compositions like “Message of Hope” and covers of songs like “Solitude” (a tribute to the late Mulgrew Miller, a Hodge mentor) extended his bass playing to depths of feeling that cleared the way for deeper engagements with life, with its meaning for us. And if it was not clear at the outset, “Dances with Ancestors,” a deeper immersion, preceded by the Common-featured title track pushed all of us to a brink and then rescued us. There the settling and unsettling merged. An emotional rollercoaster that made us feel better than we felt as we came on board.
Admittedly, none of this could prepare you for the blessings and energy of Hodge’s live performance. I had heard him play with the Experiment. And often in those sets, there was a moment where his solo (whether on upright or electric) transported us to a different place only to resolve the tension, beautifully in a harmonious reconnection to the band. Only to be transported again. And again. Hodge’s bass moves us. But we are never troubled by the movement. It takes us to places we had always wanted to be.
His accompaniment and solo on Ambrose Akinmusire’s “Henya” and to his “Message of Hope” recorded at Blue Note Records’ Our Point of View concert is likely the best example of what I am attempting to convey here. His own live sets, though, were spiritual connections. This is the only way to describe them. In the best Black church and African traditions, music prepares the ground for the spirit to come in, to move, and to pervade our spaces with their essence. There are often tears. Not of sadness. But those tears that come when you know that your sense of reality has shifted. Tears that are momentary signifiers that what is happening outside this space of musical exploration can never infiltrate while the sounds go forth. Tears, not of sorrow, but of contentment.
In the best Black church and African traditions, music prepares the ground for the spirit to come in, to move, and to pervade our spaces with their essence.
Naturally, then, his follow-up to Live Today, an album aptly called The Second, was met with great anticipation. And because it seems that this music is ordained by some higher spiritual power, it just as naturally could not disappoint. The bridgework continued. And this time it was Hodge, himself, providing much of the musical direction not only with his composing, but as a work that features him—and most of the time, him only—on multiple instruments. The title track greets us with Hodge’s piano providing the foundation for the “singing” bass that marks the terrain, builds up to a breaking moment, that explodes into that consistent resolution drawing us closer to an embrace.
Just as soon as we are allowed some respite with the appropriately titled “Transitions,” a guide that steers us towards something even greater—toward a spiritual peak that is reached with “Song 3,” a bass-driven lyrical ballad that narrates, that gestures, to a stillness, a thereness. A place away and beyond. The “singing of the bass” moves us to this place that is marked for our listening, not simply our hearing.
There at this peak, we stay, each bridge taking us through those particular forms of the spirit: joy, melancholy, resilience, strength, lament. One feels each emotion passionately, but not singularly. It is the beauty of the blue note. It is never only one thing, it is everything in one. And the next offering, “You Believed,” maintains that “complex simplicity,” to evoke the title of Teedra Moses’s debut album. Atop the summit, Hodge is joined by Experiment bandmate, Mark Colenburg, whose timing sets the stage for the arrival of a melodic journey toward a belief, often thought illusory. In these spaces, this belief is not suspended, it is revealed as never far from our mind, our hearts. It is a belief in the impossible. “World Go Round,” takes us back to these places where some—many—of us had left it. Echoes of the work-song emanate from these registers of joy. A number also reminiscent of the musical traditions of the Black church, one of Hodge’s foundations, these notations of our past leave us less “worried.” And they let us dance.
And as we settle into the groove, “Heart of a Dreamer,” is a reminder that we cannot always stay there. That beyond the here and there, there is the not even imagined. The symphony of voices on this record reflect the possibilities of life that lurk beyond the known, even beyond the rational—where we have always found solutions to our most vexing problems. We are purposely unsettled again. But there is more undoing, and more repair to come.
“Underground Rhapsody,” introduces how liberation from those structures of the mind that seek to contain (coopt) our best traditions might emerge. Evoking the now standard kick-drum of the “trap genre” and placing it into a deeper conversation with its musical forbears, the lines drawn by Hodge’s bass and Colenburg’s stirring signals to us that there is space for all at the Martinican poet, Aime Cesaire’s “rendezvous of victory.” For those who desire it. This desire is further fueled with “Clock Strike Zero” a hip-hop paean to the sounds made famous by the likes of J Dilla.
Hodge’s experience as a producer and as a session musician, working with everyone from the enigmatic Lionel Loueke to Floetry is often evoked, sometimes in one fell swoop. In the territory created by “Heart of a Dreamer,” we reconnect to those heralds of a past, a past that inevitably informs the imagination of a future world. In “For Generations,” the horns are those heralds—the dirges of New Orleans march us to our memories.
But as should be clear by now, the movement, the orientation of The Second is not linear. From the Second Line we circle back to the spaces we just left. “Don Blue” is a dance, a dance our ancestors called “the ring shout.” And like the shout, it reaches a moment of intensity, a halting one, but one that nevertheless invokes the spirit yet again. Of course, it is the bridge that produces that moment.
To begin the process of properly exiting the groove, the next track, “Going” gives us a little funk, a little infusion of soul, to help us cope with all that has just occurred. In a sense, all the bridgework accomplished up until this moment, gives us a sense of direction. Going. But where? Necessarily, a percussive moment accompanies the bridgework in this penultimate encounter. The direction is of course wherever the rhythm leads.
“From Me To You” is less a descent from the peak and more a reminder of why we must do what it is we do. It is a closing statement, a moment of exit. It is not, however, the final chapter. The only song featuring singing of the conventional kind—Hodge’s actual voice—the bassist slows us back down and reveals to us, that we must maintain the connections forged here in this space:
I loved you then and love you now/And when words fail me I remember how/You loved me then and love me now/So here’s a melody to you from me/Here’s a melody from me to you
And it is often the case that mere words fail. The love that we exhibit for ourselves, our families, our communities, our ancestors, the Creator cannot often be contained by words. So we need sound (a dichotomy forced on us, by the way). The Second is a “melody” for us, to render ourselves more complete, by maintaining connections to those of us still here, and those of us who may appear to be gone, but are all around us waiting for us to sing to them, waiting on us to meet them on the bridge.
Bio: Josh Myers teaches Africana Studies at Howard University. He blogs at speaktomekhet.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter at @ddehewty.