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Abuzz with ideas

Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding
By Lucinda Breeding

Robert Hokamp keeps busy, at jazz fest and beyond

Denton guitarist and bassist Robert Hokamp just released two full-length albums at the same time.

One album, Jungle Team, is a quirky, instrumental concept record, full of color and sunshine. The second, Bees, is a traditional “straight-ahead jazz record” the musician said he’d been wanting to write.

But it was Jungle Team that came first. It’s a weird, enticing record that defies easy categorization. Singer Jimin Lee drives the songs with a sweet, pure soprano.

With no lyrics to pin her down, Lee seems to frollick through the record with “la las,” “bada da dup dups” and “ya doe lows” against Matt Moore’s clarinet, Hokamp’s plucking and strumming, Sam Jones’ drums, and Spenser Liszt’s bass clarinet and tenor sax.

Sean McLellan and Ben Jones provide the electronics and synthesizers on the record. To the duo’s credit, their contributions second the playful posture of the record, and complement the warm feel of the tracks — which are mostly short. The longest track, “The Globe,” clocks in at a compact 3 1/2 minutes. The shortest, “Veery,” is just over a minute long.

“I was interested in the idea of things not repeating,” Hokamp said. “That’s not to say it wasn’t structured, because it was very structured. Everything was recorded with a click track. Very. I wanted everything to be a certain way. I’m interested in movie music. It’s something I’d like to do. I was thinking about soundtrack music.”

The record is ripe for animation. “The Globe” is alternately happy and mournful — perfect for a cartoon about a little planet in a big galaxy navigating a dangerous course around the sun. “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” is begging for a Wes Anderson movie about a boy and a girl building a time machine in the attic of a drowsy uncle. Bass clarinet gives way to surf-punk guitar licks in “Weeps-a-pideea,” a song that seems simple but gives Hokamp room to do his virtuosic thing on his best instrument.

Hokamp was something of a precocious talent. While at Ryan High School, he was studying guitar with University of North Texas jazz guitar faculty member Fred Hamilton — and he was the only student Hamilton taught who wasn’t in college.

Hokamp was and is a fixture in Denton punk outfit the Wee-Beasties, where he swapped guitar for trumpet. After he graduated from UNT, Hokamp settled in his hometown. He works as a composer and is especially busy in Denton’s live music scene.

He plays with Bubba Hernandez y Los Super Vatos, Los Patos Poderosos, Richard Haskins and the Unmarked Graves, A Cruel Country, A Taste of Herb, Dangle Dixon and Palm Trio. (And local music buffs thought Ryan Thomas Becker was busy.)

Except for the heavily improvised “The Dream,” Hokamp said he wrote the music for every song on Jungle Team. He wrote all the parts, and the band members recorded each part separately — layering the songs to their finish.

Hokamp said he thinks of Jungle Team as a cousin to a film score, using music to illustrate mood, emotion and color.

“I was thinking about more of an overt narrative,” he said. “I’m always really inspired by nature. I like the idea of being lost somewhere. It’s funny, too. The music isn’t too, too serious.”

For all its structure, Jungle Team is full of whimsy. Between Lee, Liszt and Moore’s singing with voice and woodwind and even strumming from Hokamp, the record sounds free of pretense.

Hokamp is handy with making technique serve his ideas. All the musicians involved are clearly competent and clever. But they aren’t mannered or showy. By the time we get to “Friendlier People” on the album, the clarinet almost twirls, until Hokamp’s guitar work — sharp high-fives of notes — suggests they drop the dancing and do some socializing.

The band started working on Jungle Team in the fall of 2012, and Hokamp said production took more time than anticipated.

Bees hatched more easily. Hokamp gathered a different group of players to make his second record: Stuart Mack on trumpet, Nick Salvucci on tenor saxophone, Young Heo on bass and Matt Young on drums.

“I wanted to do a jazz album,” Hokamp said. “I wanted, before I did a bunch of albums, to make a straight-ahead jazz record.”

The 10-track record was inspired — at least distantly — by saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. Shorter proved himself to be a fluent composer, writing modal jazz (think John Coltrane in the early 1960s) and mashing up R&B, funk and soul into jazz (think Grover Washington or Al Jarreau, who headlines the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival on Friday) while also writing hard bop.

“Jazz can be simpler than pop,” Hokamp said. “When you write a melody, it has to be clear enough to give the improvisers something to go on.”

Hokamp said Bees is a simpler record than Jungle Team.

“It was a lot harder to write, yeah,” he said. “You have a lot more decision to make about what to leave out, what you’re not going to use.”

He said he approached the songwriting the same way he approaches drawing.

“I don’t try to start with something that is going to work, because I try not to be limited,” he said.

Bees reflects that. Most of the songs are expansive. The composer gives clear lines and lets the band improvise. Don’t be fooled by the title. Salvucci and Mack don’t buzz busily all over the place. And Hokamp hangs back, sometimes fading deliberate behind Heo’s work on the upright (“Everything Sleeps”).

If there’s any metaphor to be had here, it’s that the musicians all take up their work diligently. Their end? To keep the sweet stuff coming, smooth and citrine. Young doesn’t phone it in behind the drum kit, either. He slips into high gear, propelling the winds to new places.

Hokamp is a master of the blend on guitar. A guitar can be shrill and unwieldy, but he masters it to the benefit of Mack and Salvucci.

Hokamp isn’t a natural frontman. When quizzed about whether he had dates for a double CD release show, he got sheepish.

“I probably should do that, but no, I haven’t,” he said.

Even as a teenager, Hokamp wasn’t overdemonstrative on stage. He lets the music do the expressing. If you’re looking for a show, you’re likely to feel cheated for histrionics if you’re looking to the bassist.

But if you want music that lives and breathes, Hokamp won’t disappoint.

As it turns out, he has a lot to say.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.


The local musician performs with Bubba Hernandez at 9 p.m. Saturday on the Courtyard Stage, and with A Taste of Herb at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on the Jazz Stage. After the fest on Saturday, Hokamp plays a show with Richard Haskins and the Unmarked Graves at Andy’s Bar, 122 N. Locust St.

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