They say everything is bigger in Texas. Waco-born Mace Hibbard cuts an imposing figure, like someone who spent his Friday nights (and perhaps even Saturday afternoons) on the gridiron as a teenager. But to this son of notable Texas trumpet player Dave Hibbard, “big” means the full, dulcet sounds coming out of his saxophone. The younger Hibbard didn’t stay in the Lone Star State, and struck out to Atlanta and quickly making himself part of the music scene there, both jazz and non-jazz. Derek Trucks and wife Susan Tedeschi quickly recognized Hibbard’s immense abilities and he soon became featured in their bands as a soloist and handled the horn arrangements. It’s that kind of work on Trucks’ widely acclaimed Already Free album that earned Hibbard a Grammy just last year. Yes, the big man from Texas has made it big.
Amidst his association with the Trucks, serving as a professor in jazz studies and his involvement in local festivals, Hibbard has also shone as a solo artist. In 2007, his first album When Last We Met came out to critical acclaim (I looked, too, couldn’t find a single cross word written about the record). Shortly afterwards, Hibbard got to work on forming and cultivating a stable, working acoustic quintet culled from the finest of Atlanta’s jazz performers: Louis Heriveaux (piano), Marc Miller (bass), Justin Varnes (drums) and another emerging talent who impressed us with his own debut record just this year, Melvin Jones (trumpet).
Following three years of gigging and getting the rapport down, the group went into the studio and recorded a set of dozen songs, ten of which are Hibbard’s. The product of this, self-released this past June 28, is called Time Gone By.
Time Gone By is one of those records that’s so enjoyable because every song is a different entity that compels for different reasons, and the band sounds like a real unit on each of them. I’ve seen Hibbard compared to everyone from Bud Shank to Lee Konitz and Cannonball Adderley, but he’s thoroughly distilled those inputs into something all his own, and Time Gone By makes that clear.
On a crisp, snappy cut like “Rude On Purpose” (live video below) you hear a incisive, powerful saxophonist, slashing through the song with authority and lacking nothing in his attack, except for clichés. Jones compliments him perfectly, taking a very similar approach on his trumpet. Just as proficiently does Hibbard undertake the downbeat “December 18th,” but with another side of him that reveals a softness in his tone and a sensitivity in his delivery making the ballads as much a strength for him as the energetic hard boppers.
His band members ain’t no slouches either. “Indecision” is a group success, from the steadily swinging rhythm section to Heriveaux’s vintage McCoy Tyner chordings. And Hibbard’s ability at crafting memorable melodies is evident all over this album: “Hallowed Ground,” “The Rain King” and the title cut are instances of songs with harmonic heft constructed in such a way that possess some complexity and mystery yet retain a natural flow. Even on albums that are generally great, the quality of the tracks start to peter out toward the end, but the back end of Time Gone By sounds just as good as the front end: the sophisticated Latin flavorings of “La Danza Olvidada” offers proof that Hibbard doesn’t ever seem to run out of ideas.
There’s only one borrowed tune on here: “Always On My Mind” made famous by Willie Nelson, one I’m sure has been covered thousand of times, but Hibbard makes it such a natural jazz ballad, with lithe phrasing and a level dose of passion.
There’s good jazz coming out of Atlanta, and a transplant from Texas is at the forefront of it. For anybody who felt that Mace Hibbard’s first album made him a force to be reckoned with, Time Gone By is a resounding confirmation.