June 24, 2024


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CD review: Eric Hofbauer’s Five Agents – Book of Water 2019: Video, CD covers

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.

It was at some point in 2017 that guitarist/composer Eric Hofbauer began weighing the idea of a long-term, multi-ensemble project in five parts, or books. Each book, he decided, would be comprised of five movements, or chapters.
The Chinese philosophical construct of Wu Xing, or Five Elements (also known as Five Agents), was not necessarily on his mind, though he’d long been an informal student of mythology and world religions. It was hard to deny the perfect fit: five books, one for each of the conceptual pillars of Wu Xing: wood, fire, earth, metal, water.

The Book of Water, recorded live before a studio audience, features a freewheeling, improvisatory aesthetic but also rigorous compositional detail. It’s the first in a series that is above all for Hofbauer a process of inquiry. “The five agents are not absolutes,” he explains, “but their characteristics serve as ways to navigate, organize and explain relationships in nature, between people, in medicine, decorating, design and music. It’s about a balance between elements, yin and yang, embracing chaos and order, understanding impermanence and the natural patterns and cycles of all things interconnected. In a way that’s exactly what I’ve spent my entire career trying to do: figure out who I am as an artist and deal with those ‘meaning of life’ conundrums that humans have valiantly tackled for millennia through religion, art, philosophy, and that have manifested for me in improvised music. The Five Agents seemed like the logical next project, a way to interconnect all my influences and interests while continuing to search and study.”

Instrumentation for the remaining Five Agents projects will vary widely, but The Book of Water involves a time-honored jazz sextet lineup with three horns: tenor saxophonist Seth Meicht, trombonist Jeb Bishop and trumpeter Jerry Sabatini. On a superbly polished film of the entire live performance, you can see the horn players in action, arrayed across from Hofbauer, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Curt Newton. The deftly played parts, the subtle cues and flowing transitions, the exertion of the solos, the intimate focus on sound (particularly from Hofbauer’s close-miked archtop guitar): the way these things translate on film bring the listener that much deeper into the moment.

1. Water Understands Civilization Well 9:53
2. It Wets, It Chills 11:38
3. It Is Not Disconcerted 10:25
4. Well Used, Adorning Joy 9:41
5. Ill Used, Will Elegantly Destroy 16:51

Jerry Sabatini – trumpet 
Seth Meicht – tenor sax 
Jeb Bishop – trombone 
Eric Hofbauer – guitar 
Nate McBride – bass 
Curt Newton – drums 

Image result for Eric Hofbauer's Five Agents - Book of Water
Image result for Eric Hofbauer's Five Agents - Book of Water
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