By: Jason Bivins, Moment’s Notice
Those of us in the reviewing biz tend to obsess about artists we feel are underappreciated. It’s a noble impulse, we hope, and a necessary one, too, given the over-saturation of recordings out there. Since I first heard his music many years ago, I’ve been perplexed as to why the ace guitarist and composer Eric Hofbauer isn’t a household name.
Aside from his wonderful playing itself – he generally favors a clean tone, and eschews excess – he’s drawn to conceptualism in his composing. I’m a sucker for that, and Book of Water is one of Hofbauer’s finest in recent years. For this entry in Hofbauer’s focus on the elements, his combo Five Agents (which is actually a sextet) delivers a bracing live set of postmodern mainstream jazz. Backed by the ace Boston rhythm section of bassist Nate McBride and drummer Curt Newton, Hofbauer and the tasty three-horn front line (trombonist Jeb Bishop, tenorist Seth Meicht, and trumpeter Jerry Sabatini) cavort through a complex, protean suite.
The opening “Water Understands Civilization Well” is filled with fascinating, organic shifts. Hofbauer comps incisively, one of many seemingly independent voices, from pinwheeling brass exchanges to scalar tenor, all flowing together inexorably. Like many of Hofbauer’s pieces, this one balances melody, asides for modest noise, layered pulses, and more. There’s a lot going on, but the music isn’t designed to overwhelm you so much as get you listening to the collectivity of ideas in play. This is true even in very soft pieces like “It Wets, It Chills,” whose guitar and drum interplay is like a trickle, an eddy, set against subtle horn voicings and a gentle pulse that sets up some ace playing from Sabatini.
“It Is Not Disconcerted” feels almost like an extension of the preceding piece, with some similar techniques opening up into further expression. Its slow, deliberate pace (McBride and Newton impress, as ever) gives it a slightly free feel, which Meicht and Hofbauer emphasize in their somewhat abstract playing. Bishop deals out an absolutely killer solo, with choice overtones, followed by some of Hofbauer’s strongest playing here: wide open, spiky chords contrasted with glissing and crystalline shapes that he uses in conversation with the horns.
“Well Used, Adorning Joy” opens with solo guitar, where Hofbauer displays a range of techniques, from expressive chords to soft noise. Spacious and patient as ever, the ensemble weaves in the thematic material gently, navigating different ideas until eventually merging them in the juiciest swing. The most intense piece is “Ill Used, Will Elegantly Destroy.” It opens with a brisk section for guitar, drums, and outrageously good trombone. The hugely buoyant head that follows is purely joyous, and as the ensemble solos exuberantly, Newton and McBride simply surge. It’s a smart, inventive, bracing record.