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Jazz Guitar New England Style, Draa Hobbs



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to a busy fixture in the New England jazz guitar scene, Draa Hobbs.

Above photo: Draa Hobbs with 1964 Gibson Super 400 (with Berklee faculty guitarist Mitch Seidman in a concert with Eliot Zigmund, Don Friedman, and Ron McClure)

Originally from Chicago, he has made Vermont his home for several years.

JB:  What inspired you to play jazz guitar? Was it in your native Chicago or after moving to Vermont? 

DH:  I had an awareness of jazz guitar while growing up in Chicago. But I was mostly into Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. l went to high school with Brian Torff, the bassist who went on to play with Stephane Grappelli, George Shearing, and Sonny Stitt. He would come over and we would play through some things from Mickey Baker’s book. I remember rummaging through a record bin and coming across Wes Montgomery’s Movin’ Wes, and I would go to the Jazz Showcase to hear people like Kenny Burrell. While living in Chicago I took a workshop with Joe Diorio. So, the seed was planted in Chicago. But it wasn’t until I met Attila Zoller in Vermont that l started taking it seriously. 

JB:  You studied with some jazz greats. What did you appreciate most from what you learned from: 

Attila Zoller?
Attila was a huge influence. For some reason, he took an interest in me. He would call me all the time to come over and play with his friends at his home in Vermont, who happened to be the greatest musicians in jazz. My early exposure was hanging out and playing/learning from the likes of Jimmy Raney, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Heath, Jimmy Cobb, Jim Hall – innumerable jazz legends, too many to list here. To say the least, l was very, very lucky. That was my school. 

Jimmy Raney?
Jimmy was a very positive influence on me as well. He would say things that really registered: “You can tell when a guitar player isn’t listening to what he’s playing. Because if he were, he wouldn’t be playing what he’s playing.” I learned the importance of listening and the need for syncopation in phrasing. 

Gene Bertoncini?
Gene taught me the importance of playing along the neck – a huge lesson. I remember sitting in a room with Attila, Gene, and a young Peter Bernstein. Gene would say: ‘Let’s play “All the Things You Are” – but only use one string.” That kind of practice is tough. But it forces you to play melodically and it forces you to think, as opposed to playing a bunch of “stock riffs”. That right there was an invaluable lesson. 

Peter Leitch? 

Creating interesting solo guitar arrangements. He also had me look at Coltrane a little closer. He was a great, great player. 

Tell me about the day you spent with Jim Hall. 

Jim came up to Vermont with Attila to teach at his summer workshop. The three of us wound up just hanging out and talking about music for hours. I was impressed by both his humor and his very serious commitment to music. 

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why?  

DH:  Oh boy, that’s a tough one. Definitely Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ At The Half Note for the sensational playing by Wes and how he interacts with pianist Wynton Kelly. 

Jim Hall Live! for the extraordinary interplay between Jim, Don Thompson, and Terry Clark. I use Jim’s solo on “Angel Eyes” to illustrate how a great musician tells a story, held together by a simple, recurring, melodic motif that Jim refers to throughout his solo – just amazing. Number 

Three is hard, as there are just so many great recordings. Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life pointed jazz guitar in a new direction. I would have to say that’s a big one. 

JB:  You have performed with guitarist John Stowell. Talk about John’s impact upon your playing.

DH:  John has had an enormous impact on me as well. He has exposed me to a whole new repertoire of music by turning me on to people like Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor, among countless others. He has also been tremendously influential in the world of harmony. His dedication to the art of jazz guitar has also been a tremendous inspiration. I can’t say enough about the great John Stowell. 

JB:  You perform regularly with vibraphonist Rich Greenbatt. Tell about some of the unique joys and challenges of mixing the guitar with the vibraphone. 

KH:  I love the vibraphone and the blend in timbre between vibes and guitar. There’s an airiness in the sound of a vibraphone that I find very appealing. The timbre is typically not as dense when dealing with harmony and therefore not quite as challenging as playing with a piano, where you really have to stay out of each other’s way, which is not to say you don’t have to be careful – you do. It’s totally about listening. Rich performed on my most recent recording project currently in the mixing/mastering stage. 

JB:  It appears that you sometimes perform with a Gibson Super 400 guitar with a Florentine cutaway but then also with a couple of other archtops. Tell us about the three archtops that you use the most. 

DH:  My main guitar is made by Tom Ribbecke, called a “Halfling” with a Kent Armstrong pickup (Kent happens to be a neighbor here in Grafton, Vermont!). I also use a Hofner AZ Standard, which I received directly from Attila. He brought over two of them from Germany. I chose the Standard and the other went to Jimmy Raney. That guitar has tremendous sentimental value. The Gibson Super 400 is from 1964. 

JB:  As an educator, what traps do jazz guitar students easily find themselves in?

DH:  One of the biggest problems stems from the fact that the guitar has a “visual” aspect: we learn “shapes” and visual “patterns”. But music isn’t visual. Students are constantly asking: “What does it look like?” as opposed to “What does it sound like?”. That’s the biggest trap. So it’s very important to get a student to change his or her orientation to the instrument and to begin to LISTEN. We tend to get so wrapped up in the complexities of the neck on a guitar that we lose track of the real goal, which is playing music. Another trap is overplaying. We don’t have to breathe, so we can go on and on forever – and neglecting that all-important fundamental found in all great music: the use of space. 

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