Jonathan Hughes has been active as an independent musician in Buffalo for several decades now, during which time he has recorded and performed with a broad swath of the region's finest musicians and worked within a diverse variety of genres.
He's been part of the highly successful Robot Holiday collective from its beginnings, writing, recording and performing with the band at their annual Larkinville holiday soirees. He's released several collections of his own electronic and ambient music. He's performed with the likes of Guillermo Izquierdo, Ravi and Naryan Padmanabha, Ron LoCurto, Rob Falgiano, Dave Mussen, Alex Lynne, Jim Whitford and Hussalonia.
For his latest project, Hughes returned to an early love of jazz for inspiration, and enlisted top-tier Buffalo jazz talent across several generation to aid him in the creation of the just-released "Luna."
I caught up with Hughes recently and we chatted about the benefits of multi-tasking as an independent musician, the incredible array of talent he assembled to make his latest album, and his thoughts on the health of the present-day Buffalo music scene.
Question: I'm interested in how you've turned your ability to multi-task as a musician into an interesting, rewarding career. How important is the ability to wear many different hats – player, composer, producer, sideman, etc. – to succeeding an independent artist around here?
Answer: I’ve never been dependent on music as a source of income, so I’ve always been very picky about what I play and who I play it with. I’ve also never been too concerned about what other people are doing, so I pretty much do what I want. Consequently, I’m not headlining at Canalside anytime soon. But being flexible, reasonably talented in various things, and dependable has meant I’ve gotten a bunch of opportunities to do cool things. For me, being able to pick and choose what I want to do, and do it well, is being successful.
Q: Keyboardist Harry Graser is a representative of the "new school" of Buffalo jazz musician, in that he seems to be able to find a way to make valid and individualized statements in almost any musical setting imaginable. What did Harry bring to the table for "Luna"?
A: Harry is definitely the glue that holds the record together. A lot of piano players double on other keyboard instruments, but don’t always sound at home on them. When Harry plays Rhodes, he plays it like a Rhodes, not an acoustic piano. A lot of people can play in multiple styles, but Harry can play idiomatically in all those styles, and help bring out the essence of a song while still adding something new.
“Stacking the Stone” is a perfect example. At its core, it’s a '70s-ish funk song, which Harry does really well; but in the verses he’s bringing in a neo-soul thing, comping those chords really far behind the beat (but not so far that they get written up for being late to work) to give it a more modern feel.
His solos are always spectacular — adventurous and confident, with a nice mix of beauty and occasional detours into the outside. You couldn’t ask for a better solo than what he plays on the title track.
Q: Kelly Bucheger and Tim Clarke are top-tier improvisers, but also very interesting composers in their own right. Was their approach to your material what you thought it would be, or did they surprise you?
A: I guess I was hoping that everyone would surprise me, but in a broad sense, their approach was what I thought it would be. Kelly plays with a bit of “reckless abandon” (and that’s a compliment), and I thought his playing would add an interesting and maybe unexpected texture to the songs he played on. Tim played beautiful solos that never overpowered the spaciousness behind them.
The other star is Mike DiGiacamo, who’s probably not too familiar to many people (he’s a child psychiatrist by day), but his playing is super solid, and his solos are always very melodic — he’s like Buffalo’s Stan Getz, minus the personal problems.
But certainly, there were things that everyone played that were well outside what I was expecting. Tim’s little flurries of fast notes on “mauveine” were certainly unexpected, and added some nice motion to what is a very slow song. The line that Harry plays at 3:50 — where did that come from?
Q: Rob Lynch is a bit of a renaissance man – like you, a guy who wears many hats as an artist. You have a long working relationship with him. What makes it work?
A: Rob and I are good friends, and I’ve recorded more things with him than anyone else. Our shared, ridiculous sense of humor makes working together easy, but that’s not worth anything if you don’t play well together. Rob’s an incredibly solid drummer, and my bass and his kick drum have always locked together really well, regardless of what we were playing or who else we were playing with, so playing together has always been effortless.
Just as important, Rob is also exceptionally creative, and he brought things to the songs that I wouldn’t have thought to suggest (the half-time drumming on “Parisian Nightsuit” and the “Purdy Shuffle” behind my guitar solo on “Canaveral” for instance).
Plus, he’s got really nice cymbals.
Q: I'd like to get your take on the current music scene, locally. Positives? Negatives?
A: I’m probably the worst person to ask about the current local music scene, just because I’m not that regularly involved in it, but certainly one positive is Pausa, as well as the various series and festivals which have given fans of jazz - as well as other types of non-mainstream music - the opportunity to hear the music with little distraction.