Jen Hodge had just spent five hectic days in Asheville, North Carolina, rehearsing every day and performing late into every night as part of the massive celebration of swing music known as Lindy Focus XVI. Despite the grinding schedule, the Vancouver jazz bassist and singer considered the Christmas-week event “a really incredible experience” that allowed her to meet and play with outstanding musicians from across North America and abroad.
Around 3:30 a.m. the day after New Year’s, Hodge flew into New Orleans, Louisiana, for a few days of downtime and a chance to savour some of her favourite music.
“New Orleans jazz is very close to my heart,” she admitted in an interview from her hotel in the city known as the cradle of jazz.
But jazz wasn’t even on Hodge’s radar when she first realized she wanted to pursue a career in music.
“I don’t think I ever really made that decision. It just happened. From when I was 11, I felt, ‘I’m going to be a musician. This is what I’m supposed to do with my existence.’”
Watching a Beatles movie at a friend’s house quickly focused her musical attention on rock as her genre of choice.
“I just loved that music so much. I had always wanted to be in the school band, so I wanted to pick instruments that were versatile enough that I could play in the concert band and play in a rock band.”
When it came time to declare her top three instrumental preferences, she made a pragmatic choice.
“You couldn’t play guitar in the concert band, but you could play electric bass. They used to give electric bass players the tuba parts, or string bass parts. So electric bass was my first choice, then percussion, and then saxophone.”
Because few other students wanted to play bass, Hodge basically ended up in all the ensembles in her Courtenay, B.C. school, thanks to the gift of an old instrument from a cousin.
“It was serendipitous. I kind of feel like the bass chose me more than I chose it. And I wasn’t about to resist.”
In Grade 11, after five years playing mainly classic rock, she auditioned for the senior jazz band. But her teacher had news: if she wanted to represent her school in the top band, she would have to take up the “real” bass. After looking at the school’s only upright bass, she scrunched up her nose and said, “Oh, that’s not very rock and roll.”
The teacher didn’t budge.
“He said, ‘Well, if you want the spot in the band, you have to play it. And we have our first real performance in two weeks, so the choice is yours.’”
Hodge reluctantly agreed to give it a try.
“I took it home and I was pretty begrudging about it at the beginning. Then I played it all weekend, and by the end of it I was like, ‘Oh, this is really fun,’”
Before long, she had connected with some Grade 12 students who were really into jazz and invited her to play with them.
“We would hang out on the weekends and listen to recordings they had of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock and stuff,” she said.
“It was different and interesting, and they wanted to play some of those tunes. So I was listening to them, to learn them and work on them.”
About the same time, Hodge first attended the Courtenay Youth Music Camp, which was originally established in her Vancouver Island hometown by the Vancouver Junior Symphony Society in 1967, before branching out beyond orchestral music.
“I played a different kind of jazz at that camp; (renowned Vancouver bassist) Jodi Proznick was the bass instructor, and she was really inspiring.”
Since graduating from the jazz program at Capilano University in 2007, Hodge has carved out a solid reputation as a performer, arranger and bandleader, first with the Company B Jazz Band, which started in 2007. With both that group and the Jen Hodge All Stars, which she founded in 2010, the emphasis is on a hard-driving traditional style.
“I’ve always been more drawn to jazz that has a deep groove and a solid beat than a more subtle one. I just love a big, fat, driving quarter-note. It just feels so good, and it makes other people feel good, and that makes me feel even better.”
The Jen Hodge All Stars will play two Yukon shows this week: Friday, January 19 at the Odd Hall in Dawson City (8 p.m.), and Sunday, January 21 at the Yukon Arts Centre for Jazz on the Wing (7:30 p.m.).
Other personnel for the northern visit are Chris Davis on trumpet, Jonathan Doyle on clarinet and saxophone, Josh Roberts on guitar, and Julian MacDonough on drums.
Much of the repertoire will be drawn from her second CD, which is set for official release in February. While it’s rooted in a particular tradition, it is music that “could only have happened now,” Hodge said.
“I think any of these tracks sound like 2017 to me. But they’ll sound like 2018 when we’re playing it live in the Yukon.”