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Hugh Hopper: A Progressive Jazz Legacy

An original member of the legendary avant jazz band Soft Machine, Hugh Hopper's bass playing has become a template for other bassists to emulate. His nimble fingers generate a mammoth sound that thunders far beyond the normal deep tonalities customary to the instrument. Even when performing on the soft side, Hopper's style is instantly recognizable for his slippery-notes and fluid foundations.

His sonic efforts have enhanced the Canterbury scene of prog rock (for which he is accredited as being one of the pioneers).

During his long and illustrious career, the man has recorded many albums and appeared in collaboration with numerous notables.

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Q: As someone whose music has influenced several generations of bass playing, who influenced you in your formative years? And who do you feel is worthy today of influencing the next wave of aspiring musicians?

HUGH HOPPER: Generally, I've got to say that all sounds, musics, noises since conception are bound to have influenced me... But the specific ones I'm aware of are (list certainly not complete): Jet Harris (Shadows), R&B bass, Motown's James Jamerson, Larry Graham. James Brown basslines, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Charles Mingus, Scott La Faro, Colin Hodgkinson, Jimmie Garrison...and as a musical bass-concept, Coltrane's bass players' drone/ostinato style...tambura drone in Indian music...

Q: Is there anyone (alive or dead) with whom you'd love to record?

HOPPER: I really don't have a shopping list of musicians. You can never tell who is going to spark off that chemistry, that magic. Of course, there are many, many musicians whose music gives me pleasure, but until I make contact with them, musically or personally, I never assume that anything wonderful will happen.

Q: Following this mildly morbid line of thought, heaven is certainly full of awesome musical talents. Who do you see as the most incredible band line-up in the afterlife?

HUGH HOPPER: Don't know about heaven, but it's true that there are some real monster players in hell! In fact, if I know anything about famous musicians, most of them will be sitting around muttering and grumbling and bitching about all the others. There would probably be a one-off millennium concert with Coltrane, Dolphy, Mingus, Hendrix, Lennon, Miles Davis, Ollie Halsall, Keith Moon...and they would all say "never again".

Q: As someone who has been performing for over three decades, have you any comment on how technology has replaced many aspects of instrumentation in music?

HUGH HOPPER: Like all tools, modern technology has produced some wonderful moments in music and also some horrors. It all depends on the brain in charge. I always think that in any area of the arts, you get maybe ten percent of people who are creative, original...and the rest are generally following on, copying (and usually making more money from it than the originators!).

I love using Cubase, the computer sequencer. It can do things no normal mortal can and is great for hearing immediately how an arrangement will sound. You don't have to wait for other humans to rearrange their lives to let you hear how your music sounds.

Q: While space technology exists in such tandem with modern electronic music genres, how does a Canterbury "legend" view man's exploration of outer space?

HUGH HOPPER: It's amazing that the really daring trips like Apollo and the Far Space probes were achieved with little computers on board that had what—a couple of MB memory? Think what Apollo could have done with Windows media player on board! Conquered all known galaxies, probably... I'm always fascinated by cosmology. I'm no mathematician, so I'm stuck with the graphic representations. Have you read John Gribbin's book "Schrodinger's Kittens"? He's a science journalist and is good at rounding up current theories.

Q: What was the last scientific discovery that made you go "Wow!"?

HUGH HOPPER: John Gribbin's suggestion that the answer to the wave/particle dilemma is that we're not asking the right question. A "photon" can seem to be a wave or particle, but it's probably "a something else" that appears to be one or the other depending...

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HUGH HOPPER: 1984 (CD on Cuneiform Records)

This was Hopper's debut solo release in 1972 (it was reissued on CD in 1998).

Joining Hopper for the music on this 48 minute release are: Lol Coxhill and Gary Windo on saxophones, Pye Hastings (from Caravan) on guitar, John Marshall on percussion, and Malcolm Griffiths and Nick Evans on trombones.

Perhaps the most abstract of Hopper's releases, this instrumental interpretation of George Orwell's classic book displays dense performances and very avant garde structure. The melodies ooze like static honey, frequently prone to a change of temperament in mid-riff. While the basslines occupy the dominant position in the songs, the other instruments produce a fluid sense that can be as jarring as it is mesmerizing.

This is progressive jazz in a very experimental mode, fusing elemental genres into a sonic mass that may not seem as innovative as they were at their inception, but still retain a fresh quirkiness thirty years later. The horns have a predilection for diving into chaotic passages of frenzied passion which even the other steadfast instruments cannot restrain.

Included on this CD reissue is a five minute track not found on the original release. This version of "Miniluv" displays a loose, jazzier example of the long loop-infested track that starts off the album.

This recording left listeners speechless and desperately wanting more. Alas, the music industry was not as perceptive as the audience, and Hopper retreated from studio and stage to find employment in a tourist information office in England.

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HUGH HOPPER BAND: Alive! (CD on Voiceprint Records)

This 1993 release features 68 minutes from a 1987 concert in Holland and a 1985 gig in Utrecht. These tours marked Hopper's return from retirement.

Expect progressive jazz comprising celebratory saxophones, delicate keyboards, snarling guitar, comfortably intricate drums, and monster bass. This music flows with a relaxed fury, capturing a sedate funk and transforming such into grooving instrumental passion.

While the music is basically dominated by sax and percussion, the other instruments function with subtle effect, bonding everything together into a sparkling sound that soars without being heavy-handed. There are frequent examples of keyboard riffs taking front-stage, while Hopper's basslines create a surging footing that exudes heat and cool with simultaneous charm.

This appealing blend of cafe and festival blurs the dividing lines between old school Coltrane and modern post-fusion jazz.


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