Guitarist Eric Hofbauer, a mainstay of the Boston scene, assembles a supple jazz sextet where he teams up with bassist Nate McBride and drummer Curt Newton in the rhythm section, providing footing for a pretty active three-horn frontline composed of saxophonist Seth Meitch, trumpeter Jerry Sabatini and trombonist Jeb Bishop.
The five-part suite Book of Water is the first of five books addressing the following elements: fire, wood, earth, metal, and water. The parts last between 10 and 17 minutes, approximately, and were given titles drawn from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem Water. Hofbauer’s influences include John Tchicai and Roy Campbell, but there is also subtle touches of Messiaen and Ives, as well as the subversive orchestral worlds of Anthony Braxton and Sun Ra (without the synth).
By way of illustration, “Water Understands Civilization Well” favors an avant-garde jazz that still swings. The luxurious orchestration challenges any possible preconception, leading to sections where the interplay commands. After conversational maneuvers with plenty of rhythmic figures and oblique movements between trumpet and trombone, it’s time for the saxophonist and the bandleader step forward. The former instigates rapid phrases, some of them reiterated through circular breathing, while the latter combines quirky notes in order to bring certain atonality to the textures. Finally, bassist and drummer shake the foundation a bit, with the horns stepping in with timely pinpoint accuracy.
A nearly three-minute hushed guitar intro brings “It Wells, It Chills” to life. For his sonic exploration of the water’s ice states and vapor, Hofbauer employs a dry, peculiar tone suffused with bright harmonics and delicate percussive techniques. Entering quietly but totally dominating the melody, Sabatini shows an impressive attack and pitch control of the trumpet and contributes gracious melodic lines. Effective chills occur in the darker final stage, where an unaccompanied McBride applies the arco to keep the gravity low.
The whimsical and resilient “It Is Not Disconcerted” takes advantage of penetrating saxophone lines, comfortably psychedelic guitar comping, resolute bass with a well-defined tonal center, and restless drums, proving that water is uncontrollable and unpredictable. Later on, is Bishop who experiences a similar type of freedom.
“Well Used, Adorning Joy” is marked by an unflagging 5/4 bass ostinato, which, along with the percussive stream and the projection of the horns, vouches for stoutness. The bandleader strikes with an unorthodox if swinging guitar improvisation filled with magic glamor.
The last and longest piece on the album, “Ill Used, Will Elegantly Destroy”, is also the strongest. It starts off with trombone and a timidly meddling arco bass, advancing for an uptempo orchestral foray in 3/4, which shifts afterward so that the trumpet can speak square. Meicht is the man here, delivering a nice saxophone solo but Newton also stands out behind the drum kit after the horn players’ infiltrations.
Hofbauer reveals himself as a creative composer capable of integrating exacting composition and tactical flexibility with dogged determination.
01 – Water Understands Civilization Well ► 04 – Well Used, Adorning Joy ► 05 – Ill Used, Will Elegantly Destroy