Hopscotch is the nine-piece new jazz ensemble lead by the songwriting team of pianist Charlie Hiestand and vocalist Jean Mishler. I met with dynamic duo over coffee to chat about their debut self titled album to be released May 3rd on Critical Sun Recordings.
Innocent Words: Hello Charlie and Jean. The two of you lead Hopscotch,; who else is in the group?
Jean Mishler: Ronnie Bishop is on drums, Nate Parker is our bass player.
Charlie Hiestand: Jeff Busch plays percussion, and we’ve got a horn section featuring Brain Kent on tenor sax, and Sura Charlier is our utility woman who plays everything we ask her to.
Mishler: She plays alto, tenor and flute, and she played baritone sax on the album.
Hiestand: And she sang on a few tracks, she kills on piano. Also Tony Grasso played trumpet.
IW: This is your debut album as Hopscotch?
Hiestand: Yes, we did another album ‘Identity Crisis,’ calling our selves Mosaic.
Mishler: It was an identity crisis because each song was so different, and it led to a name change.
IW: So Hopscotch is definably a jazz ensemble?
Hiestand: Yes each song is indefinably jazz.
Hiestand: Well, there are two covers on the album, a song called “Adoro,” an old Mexican song, and “Ici-Bas” by Gabriel Faure that was written 130 years ago.
Mishler: It’s this great song I studied in college, and Charlie rearranged it for our band. We didn’t know what to call it and Charlie started to call it “Euro-Bossa” because it’s a European art song put to a modern Bossa Nova groove.
IW: Why do you call the album “new jazz”?
Hiestand: I’ve been talking about this for a while. One of the things I am interested in is why does Gershwin sound like Gershwin? What is his compositional process that makes him sound the way he does? Some of our songs apply that. Its new jazz, but it sounds like you could have heard it 40 years ago.
IW: Would you say you’re following the old traditions but writing new music?
Hiestand: Yes, that’s what we are trying to do. There’s nothing crazy here.
Mishler: We need to give Bubba Jones credit. Most of the songs we wrote together, and then Bubba listened to them and would say, “You know this should be reggae” or something, and then the whole thing would just twist.
Hiestand: And Ronnie was part of that as well. Drummers don’t enough credit for what they do.
IW: Because a drummer can change the feel.
Mishler: Yes. I found that when he would do something different the way I sang also changed. I would approach the melody in a new way.
Hiestand: We had gotten to a place on many of the song that we were happy with, and then Bubba pushed us to go further.
Mishler: Some of the songs are the same as when we started writing them six, eight years ago and others have really evolved.
IW: Who did the album art? It’s quite unique.
Mishler: My son Will did the photography and artwork. It’s a technique he uses in his own art. He will trace a photo and shapes and kind of does paint by number on them, because he fills the shapes with color. We picked a painting by Kandinsky and pulled the colors out of it and added them to our images.
IW: Tell us more about the songs. Let’s start with “Dog’s Life.”
Mishler: It’s basically a standard big band song. Its swing, fun, upbeat and danceable. I wrote it about my dog Bogie; we got him from the pound and put a lot of effort into that dog.
Hiestand: He had it good.
IW: Tell us about “Ravenna Nocturne,” that’s quite a title.
Mishler: “Ravenna Nocturne” is about someone’s attitude about life transforming. Going from feeling that life is really dreary and awaking to all the beauty around them, and once they are awakened you can’t go back to that dreary place, no matter how hard you try.
IW: Very Seattle in a nutshell.
Hiestand: Yes, it really works, and if you ever go to Teddy’s on Roosevelt in Ravenna, that’s the bar she’s in.
Mishler: The girl in the song is in a bar, then she goes outside, sees the twilight and how beautiful life is and discovers she doesn’t have to spend her life in a stifling corner bar any more. I know that environment. I used to work in this bar in Fremont and it was a community of people that came in everyday, and it was kind of their church.
Hiestand: That’s another one where I had this little musical idea and I presented it to Jean.
Mishler: On that one it took about a year to write. I wrote the words to that song after my dad died in 2011. I was really working on screenwriting then, so I was busy with other stuff and not sure what to do and if I could make a living at writing music.
Hiestand: I think that song really pushed us over the edge to completing the project.
Mishler: When we got that done I thought, “This is really fun, why would I want to do something else?” It put us in the mode that we have enough songs to do something.
Hiestand: That’s when we knew we had half the deck.
Mishler: The last two years we really plowed forward to get this done.
Hiestand: We are both lucky that we can make money doing other gigs and corporate type musical work, but this is what we love to do.
IW: On this album you cover many styles, swing, Latin, R&B, pop. What is the jazz element that holds it all together?
Hiestand: The funny thing is the songs sound like jazz. The rich chord progressions are definitely out of the jazz palette. With all the improvisation that is going on, when you really get down to it these are pop songs done in a jazz style, but that still counts for me.