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Pianist James Hurt Shares His Secret Pathway to Innovation

Jonathan Chimene
James Hurt performing at the Newport Jazz Festival with DJ Logic in 2017.

Pianist James Hurt has forged a circuitous path in improvisational music.

His contributions deserve more acknowledgement, as his approach is a critical link in the development of the sound of Black American Music from the early 2000s to the present. He shares his story on Let Me Tell You 'Bout It, and forecasts two upcoming productions with vocalists — and a possible, long-overdue new album as a leader.

James Hurt Full Audio Interview.mp3

As a teenager growing up in Memphis, Tenn. in the early 1980s, Hurt experimented with tuba and guitar, and eventually piano and percussion. He met international piano legends and fellow Memphis natives Phineas Newborn and James Williams.

Then Hurt headed to Nashville to attend Tennessee State University — the historic alma mater of saxophonist Hank Crawford, bassist Ben Tucker and trumpeter Louis Smith. As a music major, he joined the "Rat Patrol" drumline in the University's historic marching band, and contributed arrangements for the ensemble. Hurt earned bachelors and master's degrees from TSU and by the mid 1990s, had headed to New York City.

For days at time, Hurt would seesaw between the uptown and downtown improvising communities. He would learn songs, receive tutelage and participate at sessions on such bandstands as University of the Streets and the then-new Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village. As one of the first players to synthesize the acoustic language of bebop with the energy of hip-hop and other electronic genres, Hurt began to stand out. Rising-star saxophonists Antonio Hart, Gregory Tardy and Sherman Irby all enlisted Hurt for the piano chair in their respective ensembles. He was exploratory and always played with a deep commitment to swing and groove. He toured the world and began to receive kudos and support from players like Kenny Kirkland and Jeff "Tain" Watts.

Dark Nines

Many listeners and musicians outside of New York first learned of Hurt through his 1999 Blue Note debut recording as a leader, Dark Grooves, Mystical Rhythms. The album's shifting meters and emphasis of odd time signatures was cerebral enough for insiders, but through Hurt and his band's mastery, the material possessed an accessibility that put him on jazz radio around the country. He was clearly one to watch.

As many held their breath expecting a follow-up, it never came. By 2002 he was off the label, and copies of Dark Grooves became harder to find. Newer players began to emerge that were investigating the same synthesis as Hurt, and many outside of New York wondered what happened to him. He was still on the scene as an educator, producer, touring musician and collaborator across genre lines.

In 2017, Hurt wowed the Newport Jazz Festival as part of a tribute to the recently deceased P-Funk keyboard master Bernie Worrell. Twenty years after the release of Dark Grooves, the New York Times praised Hurt's conception that joins the buoyancy of stride to the bounce of hip-hop.