LEVEL is Boston-based guitarist/composer Eric Hofbauer’s second recording with his working quartet, The Infrared Band. Like its predecessor, 2008’s Myth Understanding (Creative Nation Music), this release revels in Hofbauer’s penchant for wit and wordplay(the title is a palindrome), but the primary concept behind his newest compositions is a thematic exploration of balance and duality.
“The music on LEVEL, like most of my work, explores the human condition using sound to tell stories,” writes Hofbauer in the liner notes. “Historian and writer Joseph Campbell believed the new myths of the 21st century would be written in music. LEVEL embraces that idea, and offers nine mythology-themed pieces about duality in the universe and in life—two sides trying to find balance.”
Inspired by the universal dichotomies of good vs. evil, fate vs. chance and conflict vs. resolution, these pieces also reference such narrative examples as the mythological twins Castor and Pollux, Act II, Scene I of Julius Caesar and the W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.” On a musical level, Hofbauer draws on styles ranging from the blues to bebop to free jazz to a 12-tone row, while also making allusions to Albert Ayler and Jelly Roll Morton among others.
“Hofbauer brings a wealth of historical antecedents to his playfully inventive compositions,” wrote AllAboutJazz.com’s Troy Collins in his review of Myth Understanding, which he called “a sterling debut.” The Providence Phoenix’s Jim Macnie adds, “the leader bounces through an array of swinging originals that aren’t afraid to look around corners and investigate odd areas. Like most jazz, the music is based on nuance—careful listening is rewarded in numerous ways. Saxophonist Kelly Roberge is an able foil for Hofbauer, and their rhythm section is terrifically agile.”
LEVEL is an impressive contemporary jazz record full of space and fierce intelligence.
—Colin Buttimer, BBC
The CD is more evidence of the growth of the group and the consistently fine charts that Eric creates. It also demonstrates once again what a terrific band leader Eric is.
—Stu Vandermark, Boston Jazz Scene
Here’s the tension between structure and freedom that defined that first album (Myth Understanding, 2008) and so much of the best post-’60s avant-garde. But here’s the thing: Hofbauer has developed a hard-bopper’s skill with hooky song forms. Wherever these guys roam, the thematic material is never far from sight, and there’s always deliberation in what they do. If you’re going to experiment, do it with authority. Somewhere, Charles Mingus is smiling.
—Jon Garelick, Boston Phoenix
Back in 2008 this band—the only change here being bassist Sean Farias in for Michael Montgomery—produced one of the best albums of that year. In 2011, they’ve gone and done it again. Like Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill, guitarist Eric Hofbauer’s music benefits enormously from having the right musicians to bring it to fruition, and in this instance he’s blessed…with the extraordinary depth of empathetic interplay that clearly comes quite naturally to these players…a band with no agenda other than that of making highly distinctive music.
—Nic Jones, AllAboutJazz.com
Eric Hofbauer & The Infrared Band’s LEVEL might be trying to conjure up modern day mythology, but the sophistication and virtuosity that went into making these recordings is no made up story. No, these guys are for real.
—S. Victor Aaron, Something Else!
ON THE LEVEL
The music on LEVEL, like most of my work, explores the human condition using sound to tell stories. Historian and writer Joseph Campbell believed the new myths of the 21st century would be written in music. LEVEL embraces that idea, and offers nine mythology-themed pieces about duality in the universe and in life—two sides trying to find balance.
“These Two Things” presents two melodic strains in such a struggle for balance. There is a dialogue between the two melodies, one played by the bass and the other by the sax. The guitar is the fence rider, the drums are the arbiters, and we all hit on two.
“Ligne de Chance” introduces the first part of the narrative: the dark to the light, the cool to the hot, and the yin to the yang. It’s your fate line, the tick tock of density’s clock demonstrating how the present is a convergence of the duality of past and future. The melody, played on the guitar, is a 12-tone row pulled out of a hat by my mother while we cooked Christmas Eve dinner. The sax and bass play counterpoint lines built from variations on the same row.
“Castor and Pollux” are twin brothers from Greek and Roman mythology. One is mortal and the other immortal. Their duality is represented musically by one duet (saxophone and bass) that is celestial and calm, and another (guitar and drums) that is anxious, struggling, and conscious of its own brevity.
I composed “The Faction” while on stage performing (playing my guitar, not acting) in a touring production of Julius Caesar. During the scene when Brutus contemplates if Caesar should live or die by his hand, the faction of conspirators arrives at his gate, confirming his decision and sealing Caesar’s fate. The form is a blues in 7/8, relating musically to the seven conspirators.
“Murder for a Jar of Red Rum” is a palindrome within a palindrome that also marks LEVEL’s midpoint. The main character, portrayed by the bass, is agonizing over a fateful decision. Temptation swirls around in the form of harmonics and multiphonics from guitar and saxophone, respectively. A bit of Bebop counterpoint is found here, but at its most frenzied point, it becomes what I call “Albert Ayler meets Dixieland.” The backing harmonic structure of this section is part of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Black Bottom Stomp.”
“Surely Some Revelation…” establishes the idea of embracing the duality of the universe (the dark and the light, the cool and the hot, the yin and the yang) instead of fearing it or just choosing one side. This piece is in part inspired by the W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming”. One can hear the brightness in the opening chords tapped out in harmonics, lifting them away from the weight of the first part of this recording. The polyrhythmic guitar riff exemplifies the understanding of duality. The changing tempos, and the use of form (12-bar blues) and no form (open modal sections), also speaks to a deepening understanding of balance. It is, after all, a revelation.
“Spy vs. Spy” features playful sparring between all four musicians—a structured improvisation that sounds, and specifically ends, as if it was composed. Each member tries to keep a motivic fragment in tact while the others attempt to deconstruct it. Like the old Mad magazine comic that uses one-upmanship to take things to the comic brink of the absurd, we use was we call “riff battles” to build tension to the brink of chaotic collective improvisation, only to pull back and discover resolution.
In “Ghosts and Giants”, the hints of the roots of jazz and blues (drums and guitar) are balanced with a more modern nod to the giants of Bebop and beyond (bass and saxophone).
The narrative concludes with “Pocket Chops”, the most playful of all the compositions. It explores the beautiful collision of jazz styles and how they compliment each other. Form, formlessness, harmony, open areas, time, and no time—they all work together, proving that style delineations in jazz, like in life, are limiting. Swing, Bebop and Free Jazz vocabularies mix with ease in this piece, which is part rhythm changes, part post-modal.
“You’ve got to have pocket chops,” I once told a friend. “What are those?” he asked. “Oh, you know,” I replied, stumbling for a deep response, “chops for playing both Bop and free at the ready, like in your pocket of course.” I later realized the idea of pocket chops was also all about balance.
– Eric Hofbauer
Creative Nation Music, CNM 020
Street Date: June 21, 2011
Eric Hofbauer, guitar
Kelly Roberge, tenor saxophone
Sean Farias, bass
Miki Matsuki, drums
1. These Two Things (5:59)
2. La Ligne de Chance (8:01)
3. Castor and Pollux (1:35)
4. The Faction (5:48)
5. Murder for a Jar of Red Rum (7:26)
6. Surely Some Revelation… (11:16)
7. Spy vs. Spy (0:55)
8. Ghosts and Giants (2:09)
9. Pocket Chops (8:01)
All compositions by Eric Hofbauer (Spice-E Music, BMI)
Recorded January and February 2010 at Notable Productions (Watertown, MA)
Physical distribution by City Hall Records
Digital distribution by IODA