American Grace is guitarist Eric Hofbauer’s third solo recording, completing the trilogy begun in 2004 with American Vanity and followed by American Fear in 2010. Throughout all three recordings, Hofbauer comments on varied aspects of American society and culture, covering a wide range of styles from ’80’s pop tunes, jazz standards, bebop and free jazz to country and blues. Any other guitarist would require multiple personalities to pull it off so gracefully. In trying to describe the impact of such stylistic diversity in Hofbauer’s playing, critic Dan McClenaghan in a review of American Vanity posed the question, “Is [Hofbauer] a brilliant young artist or a wild-eyed nut-case? …possibly a combination of the two.”
Eight years later, Hofbauer isn’t that young anymore but he hasn’t lost the “wild-eyed” nature that has made him one of the most accomplished and intriguing solo guitarists in the world of free jazz and creative music. His sound, technique and invention have all notably matured and evolved as the result of numerous solo concerts and tours in the U.S. and Europe.
Hofbauer continues to dissect and examine American culture and values, only with American Grace, he now finds more hopeful and positive solutions to the conflicts between society and the individual, all of which become evident as you listen through the eighteen tracks he recorded here. “I had been meditating on grace,” he explains, “and how if you look on the outside, there seems to be a lack grace in American politics, culture and education. However, when you look inside, and there’s nothing like solitude to help with that, you can find it.”
Reflecting on his journey of exploration through three solo recordings, Hofbauer explains “The trilogy is about process, coming of age, or coming to terms with the internal and external world. It’s autobiographical and I hope in some ways, universal. Grace is the final step… acceptance of who we are, regardless of what the universe has dished out. Vanity and Fear portrayed the more green side of that process, while Grace is the arrival of knowledge, or awareness of how to embrace the duality inherent in life and humanity.”
His notion of duality is expressed by working one musical aspect against its’ opposite: poly-tonality, where one key center is played simultaneously against another, and poly-rhythm, where contrasting rhythms or meters compete for dominance. You will hear familiar melodies re-harmonized in unexpected ways, odd meter phrases of five, seven, nine or seventeen beats that sound perfectly logical, and harmonic form deconstructed and reassembled according to Hofbauer esthetics that find Ornette Coleman and Robert Johnson in the same tune.
The opening track, “Kid Justice;” swings like a cool pop tune turned avant-jazz. Hofbauer explains the title,”My favorite part about mythology, especially modern mythology, is when the main character realizes they are the hero. ‘Kid Justice,’ is my musical realization that we all have to be our own heros in order to survive.”
A catchy bass line hook and an unusual rhythmic subdivision of nine beats insure the groove. The “bridge” appears briefly and what seems to be a return to the melody is actually a wisely crafted solo that expands on the rhythmic counterpoint of the main theme, turning into free interplay. That’s right – interplay. A Hofbauer solo recording is a dialogue with his self, or selves, where multiple voices emerge. There’s a contemplative change of tempo and mood with a two-chord vamp supporting a three-note melodic line that slowly gathers momentum, returning to the original tempo, followed by a short reprise of the theme and the bass line weaving between feather-weight harmonic jabs before it slows gently to an “almost ending…”
The unresolved ending is a recurring theme on American Grace, suggesting that Hofbauer isn’t so much trying to answer questions as he is simply offering them for the listener’s consideration, hinting at how one finds beauty in the midst of angst, and resolution isn’t absolute. Beyond the next horizon, a new story is already unfolding.
“Dear Prudence” begins with the crackling sound of an lp – the original Beatles 1968 White Album and John Lennon’s guitar connecting the past with the future. This tune was also the second track on that album. Is this a ‘Graceful’ coincidence, or a Hofbauer-esque riddle? In any case, Eric’s sensitive treatment of the melody sounds like the “B” side to a single hit from American Grace. Listen carefully and you can hear the lyrics being sung over Hofbauer’s plaintive fingerpicking. Brief, but beautiful side-trips into jazz harmonic territory always come back to the unresolved nature of the song. Midway through, you’ll hear the stride guitar style of Mississippi John Hurt, then a creative deconstruction on the nature of Prudence as Hofbauer throws in poly-tonal quotes from ‘I’ll Fly Away’ (a folk hymn), and the jazz standard, ‘Cherokee’ to express the duality of multiple keys coexisting. When the theme reappears, it’s played over a seventeen-beat poly-rhythmic phrase, as if Prudence fell in love with a math professor from MIT. Hofbauer preserves the original intention of the song, the play between texture and dynamics, sustained tension, crescendo and release.
“American Incantation” is a mini-treatise on modern shamanism, an improvisation alternating between Flamenco guitar and a lullaby melody played over slightly dissonant open string chords. The beautiful ending gently fades out, only to be revived by electric shock and the powerful attack of Hofbauer’s transcription of Louis Armstrong’s solo introduction to West End Blues!
The blues are never far from Eric’s approach, and here he pays respect to the roots of jazz in New Orleans, captured by slow bending notes at the start of the melody. There is no rush to resolve as the notes hang in mid-air like a laid back southern drawl or Johnny Hodges alto saxophone. Hofbauer’s solo crosses the border into free jazz territory as if the spirit of Derek Bailey is wanting a piece of the West End – London. There’s fret slapping, string twanging and whammy bar imitations as Hofbauer strikes a chord while pulling the neck slightly out of tune. Long slides and zipping notes are followed by glissandos disappearing into thin air as he reaches past the upper limits of the fretboard.
“Beat the Drum” features palm-muted tapping and percussive attacks with a funky slap-bass 12/8 poly-rhythmic treatment. “It’s an obvious title,” Hofbauer says, “But what do we beat the drum for… communication, celebration, danger, battle, all of the above and more?”
“True Colors” poses the question, “How does Hofbauer get so many different colors out of one guitar?” To get this range of sounds from an archtop jazz guitar with flat-wound strings is an evolutionary revolution in sound and spirit: Hofbauer’s sonic solutions.
You might recognize this ’80’s pop tune recorded by singer Cyndi Lauper. The lyric goes, “I see your true colors shining through… you’re beautiful, like a rainbow.” Hofbauer interprets this quite literally in musical terms. Why play in one key, why not the whole rainbow of tonality? The melody stays in the home key but gets ‘colored’ by the harmonic movement. This juxtaposition is a natural element of Hofbauer’s vision where stylist boundaries no longer exist. His musical path is not so strictly marked, allowing him to wander effortlessly off the main trail, yet the direction is constant and the way forward is never lost. Once more, the tune doesn’t really end, giving the impression that it continues somewhere in another realm, embraced by silence, like modern art where the ultimate impression is left to the imagination of the viewer, or in this case, the listener.
“Mileage” has swinging free-bop single lines with sharp attacks and double-stop chords, a marvelous solo fragment which Hofbauer describes as “Theme and variation on a random Miles Davis riff that was stuck in my head. I can’t even recall from what solo.”
“Cheer Up Charlie” is from one of Hofbauer’s favorite movies, “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” He plays the verse as a lyrical jazz ballad and goes into a laid-back swing feel for the rest of the tune. In the style of another great solo jazz guitarist, Joe Pass and his “Virtuoso” recordings for Pablo records, Hofbauer plays precise single-note jazz lines with simultaneous chord accompaniment and a walking bass line, easily done on piano but a guitar technique that should earn him his own “virtuoso” status. While Joe Pass favored a glass of red wine, Hofbauer’s motto is “Wine is fine, but bourbon is urban.” His interpretation of “Cheer Up Charlie” sounds like a sub-urban version of Joe Pass with bourbon.
About “Pocket Chops,” Hofbauer says, “You gotta have chops!” Originally from the Infrared Band recording, Level, this distilled version was recorded in one take. The resulting abstract stream of consciousness improvisation makes good use of dynamics and space to frame phrases that bounce between angular riffs, atonal chord-melodies, sharp blues chords and loping jazz lines.
“God Moves” is a tune by ‘Blind Willie Johnson’ recorded first in 1929, about the sinking of the Titanic, but Hofbauer adds, “It’s really about human frailty and how technology and modern lifestyles will never conquer the universe’s plan of beautiful duality – the cycle of life and death.” This track has the quivering vibrato and snake-like charm of a Texas slide guitar. The the dobro sound that Hofbauer gets with his patented metal “Altoids” box goes back to guitarists Black Ace or Bukka White. It’s a blues without the usual 12-bar form, where free jazz meets the Delta, and the erie sounding ending is both free and blue.
“New American Psalm” reflects the folk hymn theme of this recording. In Hofbauer’s view, “It’s not about religion but about life, death and love… my personal offering to a country in need of a new psalm or song of thanks.” A word of ancient Greek origin, psalm means “music of the lyre,” or “to play upon a stringed instrument.”
“Peace” is by Ornette Coleman from his 1959 Atlantic lp, The Shape of Jazz to Come. The title is suggested through subtle dynamics and open, free flowing form, but in Hofbauer’s musical vision, “Peace” doesn’t imply a lack of movement, rather it’s in the search for grace that an active peace is found, where dissonance co-exists with consonance.
“Today” is a joyful, optimistic tune about living in the present moment. Hofbauer adds, “It is today, all day… embrace that.” The bar lines disappear on this track, and of what use are divisions when the time is clearly felt?
“Stella by Starlight” starts as an oblique reference to the melody with deconstructed harmony providing just enough starlight to recognize her as Stella. You can hear it best in Hofbauer’s solo improvisation where he spins new inventions over the harmonic framework. The melody becomes clear towards the end of the tune, but like others in this set, it merely flirts with resolution. Hofbauer delights in the fact that this tune “was originally used as the main theme in a movie about a ghost, a haunted house and a possessed girl who keeps trying to jump off a cliff. Love that duality.”
“Ghost in the Machine” is an improvised exploration of timbre built on a ‘call and response’ structure. The recurring vamp of a machine-like, almost mechanical pattern is contrasted by a stark, mischievous microtonal melody. Sounding like he has Gremlins in his Guild, Hofbauer creates the ghostly buzzing sound using right hand muted palm harmonics while playing microtonal melodies in his left hand by bending the strings to various degrees of re-alignment. The tradition of saxophonist Joe Maneri lives on in Boston.
Hofbauer first fell in love with Dexter Gordon’s version of “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” and later, with Sinatra’s rendition. The tune unfolds mysteriously with a tremolo effect that sounds like falling rain on a rooftop. There are more poly-tonal twists, especially in the verse and the A sections. Overtones and harmonics also play an important role in the development of Hofbauer’s overall sound, not unlike Derek’s Bailey’s solo recording, Ballads.
“And so it Goes” is an easy going improvisation where the main melody is a repeated play on the words “and so it goes / and so it goes.” Hofbauer’s intention here is a song about “graceful acceptance of struggle, and the tenacity to keep going… and so it goes.” His guitar orchestration at times sounds like it was written for a horn section, and the ending is out of 1930’s Duke Ellington or Count Basie – you can practically hear the brass section stand up and shout.
American Grace concludes with what sounds like the strains of a southern work song, slow paced enough to allow time for contemplation between beats, but is actually “Idumea,” a sacred harp hymn from the 18th century.
The first verse includes the lyrics, “And am I born to die? To lay this body down, and must my trembling spirit fly, into the world unknown.” To simulate the world unknown, Hofbauer placed two microphones inside his studio piano and held down the sustain pedal, creating the effect of an ominous overtone wash.
“I’ve been fascinated with this tune for years” adds Hofbauer, “There is something deep about old American church music. It was the perfect choice to end both the CD and the trilogy.”