William Hooker is feeling good right about now. The voice of the 61-year-old composer, drummer, and seasoned kingpin of the free-jazz world doesn’t betray an inkling of wear and tear. His utterance is eloquent in delivery and animated in expression and possesses a rather youthful quality coated in optimism. During a phone call from his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, Hooker lightheartedly raps about his enduring tenacity in hammering out art as an artistic director, musician, and poet and touches on life in New York City: his love for the theaters in his neighborhood, his hand in codeveloping the nonprofit Rhythm in the Kitchen Festival, and even the friend who gave him a rare copy of a silent film by Oscar Micheaux. As Hooker stresses frequently during the conversation, "It’s a good thing."
But the one thing that surfaced often throughout our discussion was the New Yorker’s impending trek to the Bay Area for a one-off performance. Hooker reveals that he hopes his visit to San Francisco will grow into an opportunity to return and build on this experience with more West Coast shows the next time around.
"This is going to be the start of the first time I perform annually in the Bay. Basically I’m trying to see what’s on the horizon right now because I don’t know what’s happening in the Bay, to tell you the truth," he says with a laugh. "I don’t think there is any difference in the quality of musicianship, but I do think there is a difference in the attitude of musicianship. Here it’s a little bit edgier. It could be because of the way Manhattan is, but I’m looking forward to having that free feeling for a change and just letting this opportunity grow."
Skimming through Hooker’s bulky résumé, one finds that the musician’s lifelong pursuits have been about nothing less than self-growth. Born and raised in New Britain, Conn., Hooker got off to an early start as a drummer for the Flames, a rock ‘n’ roll group that backed up singers and bands such as Dionne Warwick, Freddie Cannon, and the Isley Brothers. At college he studied 20th-century composers and independently researched the Blue Note Records catalog while performing in ensembles that played straight-ahead jazz, or "tunes," as Hooker referred to the music. He says his late-’60s move to the Bay Area was what really shaped his musical perceptions, a discovery that allowed him to hone his skills as a free-jazz musician.
"California opened me up to a different kind of approach to life," Hooker says. "Out of that came a desire to want to extend forms more. There was a lot more exploring of different cultures and playing with different sorts of people. You know, using a lot of drummers instead of me just being the one."
After relocating to the East Coast, Hooker finally established his home base in NYC in the mid-’70s, when he was involved in the loft scene with cats such as David S. Ware, Cecil McBee, David Murray, and Billy "Bang" Walker. He continued to perform in a number of jazz ensembles throughout the ’80s before mingling with lower-Manhattan noise rockers like Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Christian Marclay, and Elliot Sharp during the ’90s.
"The combination of jazz with noise … I must say, the time was culturally right for me and many of the free-jazz and rock people to come together," Hooker says. "I think that time has passed. There’s another thing going on now. And for people that like to go back to it, I like to remind myself that that happened already. Artistically I’m not in that place anymore."
Hooker may have moved on from the free-rock aesthetic, but his limits have been boundless for some time now, especially when it comes to experimentation. Playing in support of his new album, Dharma (KMBjazz), a duet recording with reedist Sabir Mateen, and his forthcoming Season’s Fire (Important), a trio full-length rounded out by Bill Horist and Eyvind Kang, Hooker acknowledges that he’s just trying to connect with listeners who are on "a certain level as far as free jazz goes." He believes he’s found two of those people in reed player Oluyemi Thomas and bassist Damon Smith, who are in his Bliss Trio.
"I’m looking forward to what’s going to happen when we play at the Hemlock, because both of these musicians are very good," Hooker says. "There’s no doubt about that."*
WILLIAM HOOKER’S BLISS TRIO
With Weasel Walter Group
Thurs/5, 9:30 p.m., $8
1131 Polk, SF