If you think you’ve been cold here this spring, versatile jazz pianist Steve Hudson, a professor of music at Raritan Valley Community College, was even colder. We caught up with him by phone while he was in Alaska, performing at the Juneau Jazz and Classics Festival premiering a work commissioned in honor of the female Alaskan sled dog driver and explorer Mary Joyce. The composition, “Mary Joyce Project: Nothing To Lose,” was co-written with baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, a longtime collaborator, whose father was Mary Joyce’s first cousin.
Hudson will be appearing with his group, the Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble, Friday, May 27, at the Solley Theater, Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street.
“Mary Joyce is a real legend up here,” says Hudson, who lives in Annandale, NJ. “She was a woman who, in the 1930s, did a 1,000-mile dog sled trek from Juneau to Fairbanks. And this was at a time when Alaska wasn’t even a state. She broke all the rules: it was the 1930s, she was a woman, and it was just her and some native Alaskan guides. She was a true pioneer in the Amelia Earhart sense. Afterwards, she opened a bar in Juneau, and at that time women weren’t allowed to serve in a bar, so she just bought it. She was a real maverick.”
The Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble plays a fascinating brand of jazz that incorporates strong classical and new-music influences with many of the more established styles of music that have become integral to jazz. The style of music Hudson often plays is known as third stream, but this pianist’s music lacks the dogmatic, self-reverent spirit of some of that genre.
The word “chamber” in Hudson’s group signifies a commitment to the small classical ensemble. “It’s really meant for small theaters, chambers. We use the instrumentation, cello and violin, that is usually within a chamber ensemble,” says Hudson. “It’s really not music that has a goal or an agenda, but there are strong classical music influences in it, as well as jazz and folk, all of the stuff I’ve been listening to on the radio since I was a kid. When you grow up in the United States, you are exposed to so much different music, and all of that stays with you.”
Hudson says he started the chamber ensemble because he wasn’t hearing the type of music he wanted to play in a traditional jazz group with sax and trumpet. “I wanted the lyricism of strings, but I also wanted the freedom of jazz. So that’s how the process got started. All of these musicians are well-versed in classical as well as jazz improvisation. I wanted people who had roots in both areas.”
With Hudson in the group are vocalist and cellist Jody Redhage, violinist Zach Brock, and percussionist Martin Urbach. Hudson refers to Brock, who has played with Stanley Clarke, Jack DeJohnette, and Alice Coltrane, as a “master improviser. He can play very lyrically but can also play with real intensity. He has studied the classical tradition but also the jazz tradition. His knowledge and imagination just take the music to another level.”
Of Redhage, whose voice is prominent on the ensemble’s latest disc, “Galactic Diamonds,” Hudson says he admires her “amazing sound. She plays with such passion.” Redhage is now collaborating with Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding. The Peruvian-born Urbach plays the cajon, a wooden Spanish percussion instrument that has become a staple of Afro-Peruvian and Afro-Cuban music. It is important that Urbach’s oeuvre stays predominantly with cajon, because the string instruments need space and subtlety rather than power. “Because he is not playing the drum set, his sound never overpowers the strings,” says Hudson.
Two of Hudson’s major influences are modern composer Philip Glass and classical composer Claude Debussy. “What I really admire about Philip Glass is his spirit,” Hudson says. “His music is inspired from many different genres other than the classical music tradition. What comes to mind is how he was inspired by the rhythms of Indian music. I also love how he layers textures and melodic lines.”
Hudson was born in Cleveland, but moved to Albany, New York, as a youngster. His father was a lawyer who worked for the state of New York, and his mother was a teacher. He didn’t come from a particularly musical family. But he lucked out in one major way — when his family moved into their Albany home, the family who moved out left their spinet piano behind. Eventually Hudson, who was about eight years old at the time, started tinkering around with the instrument, which he still has, and found that he liked it very much. It was a couple of years later, though, that Hudson’s affinity for music really took off.
“My mom sang a lot in church, but other than that, my family wasn’t musical; they didn’t make me play,” Hudson says. “But I just really kind of took to it, and I started learning how to play tunes by ear. Luckily for me, I had an art teacher, James Reed, who was good friends with Jerry Lee Lewis, and he would show me all this boogie-woogie, rock and roll piano. I did that for several years, and then I began to play jazz and classical.”
Hudson’s first college degree, from Skidmore College, was in English — he wanted to teach. He later earned an undergraduate degree in music from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in 2004, where he studied with Stanley Cowell, and a master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music in 2008, where he studied with Kenny Barron.
During Hudson’s week-long stay in Juneau he says he was really impressed with the state capital. “The people here are amazing. It’s an unbelievable place. It really feels like the Last Frontier. It’s a very small town, and you walk just three minutes up Main Street, and you’re at the bottom of a mountain with hiking trails and old mines where miners used to look for gold. It’s something I’ve never seen. Most places, Princeton included, are either city, suburbs, country, or trails. Here it’s like, small town, mountains. And the natural beauty here is unreal. We went out in a small plane, saw whales. It’s really amazing.”
Steve Hudson Chamber Ensemble, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Friday, May 27, 7:30 p.m. Original music rooted in jazz, classical, folk, and pop with Steve Hudson on piano, Jody Redhage on cello, Zach Brock on violin, and Martin Urbach on percussion. $15. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.