Given that they were all raised in the rock ‘n’ roll era, the members of the Outer Bridge Ensemble can do it all.
The group was founded by Rutgers Jazz Ensemble alumnus Steve Hudson and used to be known in New Brunswick as the Steve Hudson Quintet. The other core members of his group are also Rutgers Jazz Ensemble alumni.
“Our sound is a combination of jazz, blues, Afro-beat, and funk,” says keyboardist and piano player Hudson from his apartment in the east 90s in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Claudia, and three children, Emma (11), Chloe (11), and Isaac (6).
“(The sound) is really an organic thing, but our core members are all coming from a different musical place, and that’s what ends up coming out on the bandstand,” he says.
“We have a split personality: we can play for a sit-down jazz audience, but on the other hand, we can play for people who just want to dance at an outdoor festival,” he says, adding that he and his band mates can play instrumental jazz that is more rock driven.
Hudson brings his Outer Bridge Ensemble to the Princeton Arts Council Friday, March 14. It’s part of the organization’s monthly Sound Bite concerts and a feature of Pi Day. “We will perform a piece dedicated to (Albert) Einstein and involve various time signatures, polyrhythms,” says Hudson of the event. The group plays a prestige gig the following night, Saturday, March 15, at the Blue Note jazz club, 131 West 3rd Street in Manhattan.
Hudson, an Albany, New York, native, earned a B.A. from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in 2004 and a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 2008. An adjunct music professor at Raritan Valley Community College, he first came in contact with folks at the Princeton Arts Council about five years ago, he says, when he taught a jazz improvisation class there.
“Princeton seemed to me to be a community with a real good theater and a good, supportive arts community, so when they brought me in I got to meet Jeff Nathanson, and we’ve been playing the Paul Robeson Theater on and off for the last few years,” he says.
They changed their name to the Outer Bridge Ensemble after most of the members had left New Brunswick for greener jazz pastures afforded in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Outerbridge Crossing is the span that connects New Jersey and Staten Island and links with the Verrazano Bridge to Brooklyn.
“It’s a collective, so different people take the baton at different times. The group started out because I wanted to create a space where we could totally experiment without having to impress any teachers or anybody else,” he says. Suitably, they found a residency at the [now defunct] North Star Bar in downtown New Brunswick while they were completing their degrees at Mason Gross.
Unlike the situation now in the Hub City with the New Brunswick Jazz Project hosting three and four shows each week at clubs such as Makeda, the Hyatt Regency ballroom, Tumulty’s, and Destination Dogs, New Brunswick in 2004 had a paucity of places for jazz musicians to play. Indeed, this scarcity of jazz clubs was the impetus for the three dedicated volunteers who founded and now orchestrate shows as the New Brunswick Jazz Project.
Outer Bridge core members are: percussionist-drummer David Freeman, Canadian-born saxophonist Mark DeJong, and drummer Jerome Jennings. The group is often augmented with either James Zollar or Steven Bernstein on trumpet, “and occasionally we’ll bring in a guitar, too,” says Hudson, who accompanies baritone saxophonist Claire Daly on her critically hailed 2013 release “Baritone Monk.” Hudson also composed a film score for “Black Girl in Paris,” which currently airs on HBO.
About growing up in Albany, New York, Hudson says that the long winters there played a role in his musical development. He started out as a drummer but switched to piano. His father is a consumer advocacy/action lawyer who worked for a time with Ralph Nader, and his late mother was a public school teacher.
“There was a club up the street from our house, and I’d see (baritone saxophonist) Nick Brignola and others up there. Then we moved into a home where they’d left a piano behind, and I began doodling around on it. I got to be very friendly with an art teacher in my school, and he basically showed me the beginnings of how to play blues piano. We’d spin records by Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy, and we’d play along with the records. As time went on I got more into jazz, and I started attending the Barry Harris Workshop in New York City,” he says.
At Rutgers he studied with jazz pianist Stanley Cowell and later, in Manhattan, with jazz pianist and composer Kenny Barron, who also used to teach at Rutgers.
“No one in my family is really all that musical,” he says, “but my mom was often the loudest singer in church. I also found out my great-grandfather had a piano factory in New York City, so maybe there’s a connection.”
To be sure, Hudson has good influences: pianist greats Oscar Peterson, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, Gene Harris, and Ray Bryant — to name a few. Of his time at Rutgers, Hudson says, “I have to say, it’s a great program and Stanley Cowell was a great teacher. He really had me get into the whole tradition, from James P. Johnson to Eubie Blake to Bach and others. We started with Herbie Hancock, but he took you all the way back and presented a huge, wide scope of music, so that you could find yourself and move toward developing your own style.”
The Outer Bridge Ensemble has released two albums, “Seamless” and “Determined,” and an earlier release as the Steve Hudson Quintet. Of the two, Hudson says “Determined,” a 2012 release, really captures the essence of the group and the direction it continues to pursue.
Thanks to DeJong’s Canadian roots the band plays in that country while staying close to the New York/New Jersey region. “We’ve had some great experiences at the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival, where we opened for (American jazz-rock guitarist) John Scofield. That was a highlight. Then we’ve had some really incredible gigs in Brooklyn, where we got the whole crowd up and dancing.”
At the Arts Council — where the band will add trumpeter Zollar, bassist Soren Nissen, and guitarist Orrin Neiman — Hudson says, “people can expect a high energy show that will make people want to dance. It’s full-on. We’ll have a high energy night of music that deals in jazz, blues, funk, and Afro-beat.”
Outer Bridge Ensemble, Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Friday, March 14, 8 p.m. $8 to $10.
Free workshop for musicians and students of jazz, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Register to firstname.lastname@example.org. Students are encouraged to bring their instruments.
Next Sound Bite Presentation: Friday, April 11, 8 p.m., CD Release Concert featuring the Tom Tallitsch Quintet, with saxophonist Tom Tallitsch, pianist Art Hirahara, trombonist Josh Brown, bassist Peter Brendle, and drummer Paul Wells, $10 to $12 ($20 with CD).
For more information, call 609-924-8777 or visit artscouncilofprinceton.org.