Bassist Robert Hurst is an M.V.P.—a long-standing member of Diana Krall’s and Chris Botti’s touring bands, an esteemed colleague of jazz stars like Branford Marsalis and Robert Glasper, and most recently a key player on Sir Paul McCartney’s Grammy-winning Kisses on the Bottom. But Hurst’s own recordings, with his compositions and his bands front and center, are especially welcome events in the jazz world. On March 12, BoB: A Palindrome, an all-star Hurst date and the fourth release on his Bebob label, will be released after an unusually lengthy gestation.
Recorded in October 2001, the CD features a stellar lineup including Marsalis and Glasper as well as Bennie Maupin and Marcus Belgrave (Detroiters like Hurst), Jeff “Tain” Watts, and Adam Rudolph. It immediately follows a pair of simultaneously released, critically praised 2011 albums: Unrehurst, Volume 2, an electrifying live piano trio date recorded in 2007 featuring Robert Glasper and Chris Dave (Unrehurst, Volume 1, featuring Glasper and Damian Reed, came out in 2004), and Bob Ya Head, a politically tinged, radio-friendly studio work that delves into Afro-pop and electronica.
In 2004, Hurst became an Associate Professor of Music, now tenured, at the University of Michigan. It was a positive development that required a reordering of his career priorities. He had hoped to release BoB: A Palindrome by then, but in the days following 9/11, it was difficult to find time to put all of its pieces together. Between flying back and forth between Los Angeles (where he was a member of the Tonight Show band) and Michigan, and recording and touring with Diana Krall and Chris Botti, he also needed more time to complete Bob Ya Head, which he began working on during 2007.
With originals written as far back as 1985, BoB: A Palindrome draws warm inspiration from people who have played important roles in Hurst’s life, and the sessions proved to be an exercise in spiritual healing. The jaunty and elegant “3 for Lawrence,” which begs for a big band treatment, pays tribute to Lawrence Williams, a drummer and composer from Detroit who set an important example for Hurst before his untimely death. The patiently unfolding, powerfully climactic “Big Queen” and sweetly reflective “Little Queen” were written for Hurst’s wife (and manager) Jill and daughter Jillian. “Tigers on Venus” commemorates a day on which Tiger Woods and Venus Williams both triumphed, a doubly proud moment for African Americans.
Then there’s “Middle Passage Suite,” a lyrical, three-part meditation on black history inspired in part by Charles Johnson’s prize-winning novel, Middle Passage. And the Headhunter-like “Jamming (Ichabad),” a fusion-y workout that, as literary sleuths can deduce from the parenthetical reference, has no head.
Robert Hurst was born in Detroit and took up bass as a young boy after seeing the Modern Jazz Quartet perform and meeting Percy Heath. Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, a Detroit icon, was an early mentor for Hurst, who began working professionally with Belgrave at 15. After meeting drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts on a gig, Hurst was recommended by Tain to his boss, Wynton Marsalis, whose group the bassist joined after college at the University of Indiana and with whom he recorded seven albums for Columbia.
In 1985, the year he made his recording debut on Out of the Blue, a Blue Note Records project featuring a group of young lions including Kenny Garrett and Ralph Peterson, Hurst began touring with Marsalis. He stayed with the band (which initially included brother Branford and pianist Marcus Roberts) for three years, appearing on such classics as Live from Blues Alley and J Mood. “That was when I started to take myself seriously as a jazz musician and began feeling a real sense of pride in being one,” he recalls.
In 1989, Hurst began working with Branford Marsalis and remained for five years, again recording for Columbia. Hurst continued on with Branford to California to begin work on The Tonight Show. When Marsalis left leadership of the show’s band in 1994, Hurst stayed on for another six years.
The bassist debuted on record as a leader in 1993 with Robert Hurst Presents: Robert Hurst (DIW/Columbia), featuring Kenny Kirkland, Branford Marsalis, Marcus Belgrave, Ralph Jones, and Jeff “Tain” Watts. Most of the music on the disc was specifically written with this exact personnel in mind. The following year, Hurst released a trio session, One for Namesake (DIW/Columbia), with Kirkland and Elvin Jones.
In support of BoB: A Palindrome, the Robert Hurst Ensemble will be appearing Fri. 4/5 as part of the Detroit Chamber Winds’ Nightnotes Series, at Hagopian Carpets in Birmingham, MI; and Fri. 5/3 in the WEMU/Sesi Motor 501 Series at the Ravens Club in Ann Arbor. Hurst is also scheduled to headline the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend. More dates are in the works.