“Pianist living in the moment”
By TOM CONWAY – Herald-Palladium Correspondent
SOUTH HAVEN – There’s no telling what will happen when Steven Hobert sits at the piano to perform tonight at Foundry Hall.
Certainly, he will play some compositions he has written over the years, as well as his interpretations of classical works and popular jazz and traditional tunes. But, the 30 year-old pianist may just as likely improvise a new song on the spot.
“I am going to do some songs that I have written that actually have words and singing, and some of them are just instrumental, but composed,” Hobert says by telephone from his home in Minneapolis. “I intermix those with some improvisations, letting myself go on piano.”
At times, Hobert’s piano improvisations may come from an idea he had off stage that he expands once he gets on stage. Other times, he may make up a song completely from whole cloth right there.
“Sometimes, I do just sit down with no goal in mind, just knowing it feels right to play,” he says. “Sometimes, I knew I wanted something with a groove or something more moving. Maybe another time, I might have felt like I need to play something more introspective or reflective.”
On occasion, Hobert has taken his cue from improv comedy by eliciting suggestions from the audience for his piano improvisations.
“If it was an intimate setting with the crowd, I would have a little bit of interaction,” he says. “I would ask people to throw out a phrase or a concept or a mood, whatever they wanted. I would pick one to try and play off of.”
Hobert has been gifted with the talent for improvisation for as long as he can remember.
“I guess when I was young I would noodle around on the piano and just make things up, maybe even as young as middle school,” he says. “I studied classical music and I also studied jazz. I started writing more in the later part of high school and throughout college. I think at some point at college I started doing more free-flowing improvisation.”
Originally from Hartland, Wis., Hobert holds a Bachelor of Music Liberal Arts degree and minor in Piano Pedagogy from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Hobert was influenced to pursue piano improvisation after listening to jazz and classical pianist Keith Jarrett while in college.
“In the ’70s, he was known for doing solo piano improvised concerts,” Hobert says. “He would do whole improvised concerts.”
Hobert says that piano improvisation allows him to express himself in the most uninhibited creative manner.
“A lot of times, I would just be in a piano practice room or at my house and I would just need to get some emotion out, just some kind of release,” he says. “So, I would start playing and it would feel really good.”
Hobert works as a freelance musician in Minneapolis, and has performed with a number of symphony orchestras and bands of other musical genres, giving him inspirations for his compositions and improvisations.
“In addition to my original music, I have been playing in big band jazz groups, folk groups, a reggae band, for weddings and accompanying singers, all over the place,” Hobert says. “I listen to so many different styles of music. It all blends together in my head. I don’t usually think about it in any certain way.”
Hobert also plays accordion in the group Lulu’s Playground, which also includes trumpet, cello and guitar, and in 2008, he toured through Japan, Canada and the United States with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Performing classic swing and big band arrangements taught him a lot about composing music.
“Being the pianist, I would have these old charts in front of me that would have all of the chord symbols,” Hobert says. “Sometimes, I had a pretty minimal role and didn’t need to do that much. I would be listening to what the saxophones or the trombones or the trumpets were doing. I could follow along with the chord. Some of those old big band arrangements are actually pretty unique and pretty creative from an arranging standpoint or compositional standpoint. I would study them, in a way, while I was actually on the show.”
In 2012, Hobert released his debut album “Ballet” under the music ensemble name of FireFlyForest. He is beginning work on his next album, which he will be starting a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for soon.
“The main thing about the album is that I am focusing on myself as a pianist,” he says. ‘The last album I put out, a couple years ago, was more about the ensemble and the compositions and the homogenized group sound. This is more about me doing my thing, whether it is through an improvisation or a composition.”
Hobert has enlisted the talents of a few musician friends and guest vocalists Lynn O’Brien and Barbara McAfee for the album, but otherwise it will be a solo effort featuring his compositions and improvisations.
“It’s not as heavily arranged as the things that I have been doing the last couple of years,” Hobert says. “Even the ones that are composed, I went into the studio without too much instruction for the other people. There is a variety to it, but it is mostly about letting me play piano. It is what I have done the longest and what I feel like is the most natural extension of me.”