The Hudson River Valley has inspired artists since the mid-19th century, when Thomas Cole founded what was ultimately known as the Hudson River School of painters. A hundred years later, the region was met with an influx of musicians, a wave started by Bob Dylan, who moved up to Woodstock in the early 1960s. Then, of course, the town of Bethel set the stage for what would become the most historic music festival of its kind, when a half-million people descended upon Max Yasgur’s farm to watch the greatest musicians of the time perform over the course of three days.
And now from the Valley comes jazz and more specifically, the jazz supergroup Hudson — featuring drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Larry Grenadier, keyboardist John Medeski, and guitarist John Scofield — whose eponymous first album was released last June on CD and MP3. (On April 21, the vinyl version will be released.)
Other than being virtuosos of their chosen instruments, the world-renowned musicians of Hudson have something else in common: They are all full-time residents of the Hudson Valley, which made naming the band after their shared homeland a somewhat obvious choice.
John Medeski appreciates the variety of people who live the Hudson Valley. Photo by Michael Bloom.
“Living here enables me to see, to find a certain something, to feel good and inspired,” says Medeski, also a founding member of legendary cult trio Medeski Martin & Wood. “There is something here to draw from; what that is, is hard to know. There’s a Native energy. When you respect that, when you quiet down and open up to those kinds of energies — the nature of the place — there is a lot to be gotten. Driving around, taking in the beauty of it all: the sunset, the trees in the fall, the air in the summer, blankets of snow in the winter.”
Multiple Grammy Award winner Scofield, who’s lived in Katonah with his wife and family for 25 years, adds, “It has a special — I hate to use the word — but a special vibe. Observing the change of seasons, feeling a part of the whole continuum of the Earth circling the sun. I love it.”
While the band members have all played together extensively in various groupings over the years, the Woodstock Jazz Festival in 2014 was the first time this particular lineup performed as a unit. But what began as a one-off gig took on a life of its own, as there was an undeniable chemistry among the musicians.
“It was Jack’s idea,” says Scofield, who over the course of his career as a professional musician has recorded more than 30 albums as a leader, accompanied Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of his time. “It was his 75th birthday last year, and he had the idea of doing Hudson as a cooperative group. The fact that we all came together, playing at Woodstock, gave us a little bit of a hook. And because there’s so much music from Woodstock and the musicians who lived there — music we all relate to a lot — it became a defining thing.”
Idyllic Studio: Bassist Larry Grenadier says recording in the Catskills is incomparable. Photo by Pat Kepic.
Those musicians include Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Joni Mitchell. Another Woodstock standout was The Band, who in 1968 famously composed their Americana masterpiece, Music From Big Pink, in a pink house in Saugerties that they all lived in together. They reunited with Dylan at Big Pink to record The Basement Tapes.
Hudson pays tribute to these artists and others associated with the Valley; half of the tracks on the album are covers of their songs. Hendrix, aside from his iconic performance at Woodstock, lived in the region for a brief spell.
Although Mitchell never lived here, she composed “Woodstock” after being stuck in a New York City hotel room during the festival. Hudson’s version of Mitchell’s ode captures the complex mixture of emotions she experienced, forlorn at having to watch the event from afar while exulting in what she saw as a holy communion of hope and optimism..
“When I play that melody, I am actually thinking of Joni. I hear her voice in my head,” Scofield explains. “Guitar can reflect the human voice, which is our first instrument, but I try to sing on the guitar.” With the cushion of Grenadier’s warm, woody bass and DeJohnette’s steady, gentle pulse on the ride cymbal, Scofield’s guitar does indeed sing, and Medeski’s stunning, ethereal piano solo manages to embody the song’s melancholic, yearning essence.
“Music expresses things that words cannot,” says Medeski, “It exists between language and emotion.” And therein lies the brilliance of this quartet: They play what a song feels. Every cover on the album is a revelation, shining light on the emotional core of the tunes that lies beyond, beneath, and between the lyrics.
Hudson was recorded over the course of four days, at a studio nestled in the Catskills — a setting very similar to where The Band recorded, according to DeJohnette, a NEA Jazz Master and arguably the world’s most revered jazz drummer, who gained his iconic status after playing on Miles Davis’ 1969 masterpiece, Bitches Brew. “We were all in the same room,” he says, referring to the Hudson recording, “and we all had eye contact. We were all connected. It was very relaxed. And being up here in the Catskills, the Hudson Valley, helped the vibe. It really made a difference to the feeling of what we were doing.”
Of the recording process, Grenadier, a critically acclaimed bassist known for his extensive work with pianist Brad Mehldau, adds, “It was idyllic. I do my recording all over the world, as well as in the city, so this was a completely different kind of experience. I wish I could record everything up here! I don’t think this album would sound quite like it does if it was recorded anywhere else.”
What initially drew Grenadier to the area (he and his wife, singer Rebecca Martin, moved up from NYC in the early 2000s and reside in Kingston) is something that all of the members of Hudson relate to: “There’s a real tangible creative energy, lots of musicians, artists, actors. It seemed to be the right area to move to where the artistic temperament matched NYC, but on a smaller, calmer scale.”
Medeski, who lives outside of New Paltz, not far from the Shawangunk Ridge, adds, “Everywhere up here there is a combination of ‘salt of the earth’ people and a lot of artists.”
DeJohnette, who relocated to the mountains outside of Woodstock from New Jersey with his family 40 years ago, echoes these sentiments, adding, “It is a conducive area for creativity, for artists, but also a great community for people from different walks of life. People come here for the nature, the vibration of the energies, the Native American presence,” he adds, picking up on what Medeski noted.
Percussion Plus: Drummer Jack DeJohnette moved here 40 years ago. Photo by Janis Wilkins.
These larger themes informed the four compositions DeJohnette contributed to the album, including “Song for World Forgiveness,” about which he explains, “If we could truly forgive our ancestors for harmful things they’ve done and thoughts they’ve had, we would see transformation…everyone has common baggage.”
And this humanist notion of people recognizing and embracing the similarities they share rather than seeing only what divides them is one of the founding principles of the band.
“The Hudson band is to some extent about building bridges with the music — trying to demonstrate this dialogue and the need for it,” says DeJohnette. “The Hudson Valley has people who identify with that: equality, a willingness to find meeting ground where we can have dialogue to find out that we are not that different, to step back and look at it from a different point of view — it can change your molecular structure.” The album’s final song, “Great Spirit Peace Chant,” is the sole acoustic arrangement on the record, performed with flutes, percussion, and voice. It is a tribal chant, harking back and paying homage to the Native Americans who first inhabited the region.
“The Great Spirit is what native people identify as the Creator. The chant came to me, just like you hear it; they are not words, at least they are not translatable…you put meaning to them,” DeJohnette says. “This chant was given to me by the Great Spirit. It’s a gift. It was clear we [Hudson] needed to end with that, to put that energy out, to carry it around all the time.”