By Daniel Sheehan, Dorchester Report
Next week’s edition of the Dot Jazz Series (Thurs., Feb.13, 7:30 p.m. at Peabody Hall in All Saints Church) will celebrate the release of jazz guitarist Eric Hofbauer’s newest body of work, “Book of Fire,” the second album in a five-part series inspired by the five elements according to ancient Chinese Wu Xing philosophy: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
The first iteration of the series, “Book of Water,” which was released last year, drew inspiration from a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem entitled “Water” in that each “chapter” in the book took its name from a line of the poem. This time around, Hofbauer says, he drew another literary connection between fire and another of his favorite writers: James Baldwin, author of the seminal work “The Fire Next Time.”
Baldwin’s voice features prominently on Hofbauer’s project, which mixes recordings of the literary giant with elements of acoustic guitar, drum machine, and sampler played by Hofbauer as well as upright bass and turntables played by the second half of the duo, Anthony Leva. The result is a collection of original, acoustic/electronic multimedia compositions constructed around Baldwin’s sociopolitical musings.
“Book of Water is built around the contemporary issue of climate change. “I wanted to integrate [Baldwin’s] text and the language of his speech to talk about racial inequality, and it had the end effect of creating this multi-layered subtext of narratives,” explained Hofbauer, who said the project required a good deal of research, first diving into the history of Wu Xing, then combing through Baldwin’s audio archives.
“The source material inspiration was “The Fire Next Time,” but there’s not many examples of him reading from that. So I did a deep dive through all the recorded interviews and speeches of his to try to find the type of messaging that was appropriate, that fit talking about his whole dynamic of systemic oppressions and inequality.
“He’s just so eloquent in addressing these issues. A lot of his quotes in the ‘50s and ‘60s are dealing with black and white folks in America, but now globally we’re also dealing with things like migration, xenophobia, spikes in anti-Semitism…His words are timeless, and they can be applied now just as they were in those times.”
Just as fire contrasts with water, the electronic atmosphere of “Book of Fire” marks a sonic departure from “Book of Water,” which Hofbauer recorded with a jazz sextet. The new project also forced Hofbauer, a primarily acoustic performer, to step outside his comfort zone.
“I hadn’t ever really done anything like that; I was mainly a very acoustic jazz guitarist, and always in the acoustic instrument world. But at same time, I’ve been a giant hip hop and rock fan since I was a teenager, so it was always in the roots of what I’m passionate about in music. For the last few years I wanted to find a way to merge those loves,” he said.
Yet, Hofbauer said, he wouldn’t go so far as to describe his playing, or his compositions, in terms of those other genres.
“At the end of the day, I’m still a jazz musician,” he said. “I didn’t go into it saying I’m a hip hop producer or anything like that; I’m not. Tony, too, is using the turntable like a jazz musician; he comps for me, he just uses samples instead of an instrument. The language I’m using is still jazz. The tools are from hip hop, but I’m still using them like a jazz musician.”
Hofbauer pointed out that Baldwin’s voice, with its rhythmic and melodic qualities, also functions as an instrument in his compositions.
“He’s talking off the cuff and has a phrasing and a rhythm…He speaks with these dramatic pauses — purposeful, meaningful spaces where you can hear him in the silence writing and editing. He’s almost speaking like a drummer, leaving spaces.”
When Hofbauer and Leva take the stage at Peabody Hall, it will mark only the second time the duo has performed the album live. Hofbauer said the audience should expect the same organic, real-time expression they would hear at any jazz performance.
“Even though we’re going to play the whole album, within each section there’s room for everything to be fresh and new,” he said. “Live is going to be a totally different experience than the album.”
Hofbauer and Leva will perform Book of Fire at All Saints’ Peabody Hall on Thurs., Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7. Tickets are $15 and are available at the door or online at greaterashmont.org. Those under 18 admitted free.