Eric Hofbauer and Five Agents/Eric Hofbauer & Dylan Jack – Book of Water & Remains of Echoes – [TrackList follows] – Creative Nation Music, 58:28 & 47:43 [6/14/19 & 10/18/19] ****:
Performing Artists (Book of Water):
Eric Hofbauer – guitar; Seth Meicht – tenor saxophone; Jeb Bishop – trombone; Jerry Sabatini – trumpet; Nate McBride – bass; Curt Newton – drums
Performing Artists (Remains of Echoes):
Eric Hofbauer – guitar; Dylan Jack – drums
Boston-based guitarist Eric Hofbauer is probably one of the most underrated jazz-plus guitarists who is woefully unknown to many people. The prolific musician has released close to 25 albums which represent various facets of his artistry, from solo projects to band records; from original compositions to covers; and more. In 2019 Hofbauer issued two items on his Creative Nation Music imprint: the nearly hour-long and conceptually-centered sextet album Book of Water and the 48-minute Remains of Echoes, a drums/guitar duet document.
The idea for Book of Water came in 2017 when Hofbauer decided to do a continuing, multi-group endeavor in five parts. Each venture or book would incorporate five movements. The ongoing band was named the Five Elements, after the Chinese philosophy of Wu Xing, or Five Elements (also known as Five Agents, Five Phases, et al). The Wu Xing foundations are wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Thus, Book of Water is the first in a series. Book of Water was taped live with a studio audience and has an unrestricted, improvisatory group comprising Hofbauer; tenor saxophonist Seth Meicht (he’s worked with Odeon Pope and has led his own trio and quartet); trombonist Jeb Bishop (he played bass guitar in Ken Vandermark’s The Flying Luttenbachers, then switched to trombone for the Vandermark Five; and has done studio time with Joe McPhee and Hamid Drake); trumpeter Jerry Sabatini (previously involved in Hofbauer’s Prehistoric Jazz ensemble and has shared stages with Oliver Lake, Fred Frith and others); bassist Nate McBride (credits include guitarists Jeff Parker and Joe Morris); and drummer Curt Newton (also Vandermark and Morris).
Throughout Book of Water the sextet swirls, rolls, veers and delves deeply during Hofbauer’s five original compositions. The ten-minute opener, “Water Understands Civilization Well,” has absorbing, fluid changes, including Hofbauer’s intriguing approach to using his archtop guitar; charismatic trombone, trumpet and tenor sax interactions; a certain amount of free jazz-tinted sounds; and multiple layered rhythms. Yet the piece is never overtly difficult or off-putting.
Hofbauer does not do things in a predictable aspect. For example, his guitar can reflect any number of other stringed instruments. Case in point: during the nearly 12-minute “It Wets, It Chills,” he emulates Asian spike fiddles. That Asian timbre is fascinatingly matched against Sabatini’s Miles Davis-like trumpet notes. The tune’s otherworldly aesthetic is refocused when McBride creates an effects-etched arco improvisation partly melodic and partially drone-esque. Listening to “It Wets, It Chills” it becomes noticeable the material is not simply a set of themes, but there is a constant flow of ensemble plus solo instrumentation which weave into a larger tapestry. A similar artistic characteristic permeates the likeminded, 10:25 “It Is Not Disconcerted” which has a measured, methodical advancement. Hofbauer stresses an abstract style which mirrors Derek Bailey while the horns provide a somewhat free-jazz sensation, especially Meicht’s tenor sax. Bishop’s trombone spotlight is also significant. The sextet ends with the lengthiest cut, the epic almost 17-minute, “Ill Used, Will Elegantly Destroy,” which again emphasizes the intense use of avant-garde instances and improvised interchanges but also has the most upbeat and exuberant theme: it’s as if there two bands performing next to each other, rather than one unified sextet which can swing in a standard, straightforward way and then swerve into Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler territory.
The ten-track Remains of Echoes is a different slant on jazz. Here, Hofbauer and drummer Dylan Jack—a Boston-area music teacher—fashion music inspired by other artists. Hofbauer explains, “This is a concept album of sorts. We wanted an album entirely of covers, but very specific ones: they’re songs from our mentors or heroes, or songs by bands and composers that influenced us at pivotal moments. They’re stories with a deep narrative connection to our own development as lovers of music. It’s a celebration, a connection with the past, with our musical spirit guides who got us into drumming, into guitar, into improvising.” The album title is a line found in Jimi Hendrix’s “Up from the Skies,” (which also covered on Remains of Echoes) which goes: “Or is it just remains from vibrations and echoes long ago.” The record commences with an individualistic version of the Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” where Hofbauer’s close-miked guitar effectively combines with Jack’s percussive sounds. Because only guitar and drums were used there had to be a precise weight put on the low-end frequencies. “With the widening high frequencies from the cymbals all the way down to the bass drum,” Hofbauer says, “the music demanded more low-end focus from the guitar as a counterbalance.” The result is an open and expansive soundscape. With no bass Jack tuned his bass drums and floor toms during some pieces to support melodies found in the original tunes. That technique is captivating to hear during “Walking on the Moon” as well as Don Cherry’s “Mopti,” Ornette Coleman’s “Word from Bird” and Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.” Listeners can get a tangible understanding of Jack’s rhythmic drive during Cherry’s “Mopti,” where Hofbauer generates a lower-end trumpet-ish tone. The longest piece is “Fables of Faubus,” which has a distinguishing flair. The arrangement utilizes the finest Mingus accents but also showcases the duo’s rhythmic dynamics and chromatic communication. “Fables of Faubus” is explorative in all the best ways. One unexpected gem is an outward-bounding translation of Jackson Browne’s early song, “These Days,” which Browne wrote when he was 16. It was recorded by Nico in 1967, in 1970 by folkie Tom Rush and then Gregg Allman did it in 1973, the same year Browne did his own adaptation. Jack and Hofbauer’s revision is prominent for slide guitar and expressively outré percussive slices. Other standouts involve Duke Ellington’s “African Flower” (a vehicle for Jack’s rhythmic heightening); the Hendrix cut; and Thelonious Monk’s “Let’s Call This,” which works well despite a pared-down minimalist treatment. Jazz guitar fans who have not discovered Hofbauer should take time to do a search engine query.
TrackList (Book of Water):
Water Understands Civilization Well
It Wets, It Chills
It Is Not Disconcerted
Well Used, Adorning Joy
Ill Used, Will Elegantly Destroy
TrackList (Remains of Echoes):
Walking on the Moon
Up from the Skies
Word from Bird
Let’s Call This
Fables of Faubus /span>