It's quite possible that Thursday evening will mark a dramatic new beginning for two extraordinary musicians.
Chicago singer Tammy McCann owns one of the most luxuriant voices in jazz, but she never has teamed with a pianist-arranger of comparable gifts.
Former Chicago pianist Laurence Hobgood spent two decades writing, arranging and playing for singer Kurt Elling, until their mutually beneficial partnership crumbled late last year.
Through a lucky bit of timing, McCann and Hobgood began talking last November and have been rehearsing intensely for their public debut together on Thursday, when they open a four-night engagement at the Jazz Showcase. They'll follow that highly anticipated run with a Chicago recording session that could yield – for the first time – an album worthy McCann's singular instrument and interpretive insights, with arrangements by Hobgood.
The very thought of a singer of McCann's vocal prowess sharing a stage with a pianist as sensitive and technically accomplished as Hobgood is enough to quicken the pulse of just about any jazz listener. But it took a remarkable turn of events to make this possible.
"I was thinking about creating some new music, and I knew from the beginning that I needed a partner who understood musically where I was coming from," says McCann.
"And when I say 'where I was coming from,' I mean from the South Side of Chicago, with Von Freeman wailing," adds McCann, referencing the uncounted nights she sat in with the mighty tenor saxophonist. "Freeman let me sing with him every Thursday, and I did that for two years, and he would let me come and learn and study. And I knew that Laurence came from the same place."
Though McCann understood that Hobgood's schedule was locked up by tours with Elling, last November she bypassed managers, booking agents and other gatekeepers to contact Hobgood directly via Facebook. What she didn't realize was that Hobgood and Elling had just called it quits.
"I was just dropping a penny into a wishing well," says McCann.
Adds Hobgood, "Tammy sent me a message on Facebook, and, I swear, it was like a week-and-a-half, no more, after Kurt and I had decided to part ways. And she swears up and down that she had no idea that I would even return this little message, because she had not seen the article" in the Tribune, which broke the news of the Hobgood-Elling split.
"She just sent a message out in the universe. So I said, let me listen. And as soon as I heard that voice," adds Hobgood, referring to an MP3 file McCann had sent him, "I said, 'Man, I would love to write for that voice.'
"I just heard Dinah (Washington) and Sarah (Vaughan) and even Nancy Wilson and a little Aretha (Franklin)."
Indeed, McCann's powerhouse alto shows traces of all these divas, and maybe a touch of Mahalia Jackson, as well, in that McCann sings sacred music with a fervor and majesty not often encountered these days. But no one puts these influences together quite the way McCann does, the singer bringing an array of tones, textures and nuances to each phrase she delivers. Classically trained but the steeped in the sounds and rituals of Chicago jazz, she's a one-of-a-kind talent who has been steadily gaining attention nationwide during the past few years.
What has been missing is a musical context that could spotlight McCann's art to maximum effect, and she may finally have found that with Hobgood. Or at least on Thursday night they'll publicly launch their journey of mutual discovery, as Hobgood hopes to do for McCann what he did for Elling: cast a fine vocalist in the best possible light.
"The main thing is to have the music have an elegant space," says Hobgood. "Tammy is an elegant person, and she's a very refined person. And that aside, I think having an elegant space is the most important thing – it's the thing that I try to instill in the way I write and play.
"Or put it this way: Swing it! Either a ballad or a Latin tune, I want that buoyant feeling. To me, that's what swinging is. And Tammy swings so hard.
"She told me this marvelous anecdote," continues Hobgood. "She was having a hard time figuring things out, and she was asking Von Freeman what she needed to work on.
"And Von looked at her and said, 'Honey, listen to the horn players – don't listen to the singers. Listen to how they phrase.'
"That's what she did. … And now she has this amazing phrasing where she's dancing all over the phrase, and it's not lockstep with the normal way of doing things."
Exactly how McCann's enormous voice will sound alongside Hobgood's distinctly glistening keyboard touch – and how each will influence the other – won't be known until they begin to perform on Thursday evening. McCann remains tantalizingly tight-lipped about their program, declining to specify what repertoire they'll be performing and what they'll be taking into the recording studio.
But certainly each musician stands at a turning point. McCann has been flourishing as artist-in-residence at the Music Institute of Chicago and playing concert and club dates across the country. Hobgood has been quite busy in his post-Elling musical life: He just finished producing-arranging a recording for singer Charmaine Clamor; and he has been arranging for and accompanying cabaret vocalist Ariane Reinhart (including an upcoming engagement in New York's 54 Below), performing "PoemJazz" with former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky and playing and recording his own instrumental music.
The McCann-Hobgood collaboration represents an important development for both artists, and for anyone who values jazz musicianship of the highest level.
"This moment means a lot to me," says McCann. "I feel as though I'm at a watershed moment. I feel that what Laurence is doing is really breathing new life into my approaches. … I feel as though we are going to that next chapter together.
"He's been with a male voice for so many years, so now, being with a female voice, and in partnership with a woman, is a completely different thing."
But that's not the only shift in Hobgood's musical life.
"I played with the same person – people – almost exclusively for a long time," he says, referring to Elling and his band. "And I like doing all these different things.
"I want to play with Tammy a whole bunch, but part of my job as a writer is to make sure that (singers) have material and charts that – as long as they've got some time to rehearse – they can play them with any number of different people, so that they have a program that's theirs.
"And that's part of what I want to do with Tammy, too, is to give her that," adds Hobgood, who makes his belated Jazz Showcase debut with this engagement.
"Whenever I can be there to be with her, I hope to. And if the special chemistry that we're already feeling blossoms through a bunch of progressive steps into another major collaboration similar to what I had with Kurt, that would be great."
With these two, anything's possible.
Tammy McCann and Laurence Hobgood perform at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $25-$40; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.
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