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Eric Hofbauer - American Grace Rating: 3-5 out of 5 A profoundly personal journey that touches many musical bases yet still presents a unified whole. There's a quiet intensity to Hofbauer's work that gives it considerable emotional impact.

Eric Hofbauer

“American Grace”

(Creative Nation Music CMN 022)

I recently reviewed “ReContraDoble”, an album on the Creative Nation Music record label by Argentinian born, Boston MA based pianist and composer Pablo Ablanedo. The guitarist on that session was the label’s founder Eric Hofbauer who has just released the solo guitar album “American Grace”, a follow up to his previous solo recordings “American Vanity” (2004) and “American Fear” (2010).

Hofbauer’s three solo albums can rightly be considered as a trilogy, a set of recordings that have explored various aspects of American popular music and the American psyche itself. Hofbauer has covered a broad scope of musical styles ranging from jazz standards, bebop tunes and free jazz through blues and country to pop. He describes “American Grace” as being a collection of “choice tunes and hymns arranged for and performed on solo guitar by Eric Hofbauer”.

The guitarist regards “American Grace” as the final step on the journey he began with the release of “American Vanity” back in 2004. He declares that the new album is about “acceptance of who we are - coming to terms with the internal and external world”.Fellow guitarist and sometime collaborator Garrison Fewell’s informative liner notes shed further light on Hofbauer’s creative processes and he also undertakes a full analysis of each of the nineteen short tracks, some of them little more than vignettes, that make up this record.

Fewell notes Hofbauer’s use of polytonality and polyrhythm to denote duality and from the outset it’s obvious that here is a guitarist blessed with immense technical ability. The album’s notes make it clear that all the tunes were first takes and that absolutely no overdubs are deployed on the recording. Even the passage on the closing “Idumea” featuring guitar and piano was recorded with Hofbauer playing both instruments simultaneously.

The material on “American Grace” is the familiar mix of Hofbauer originals alongside outside material ranging from jazz standards to Ornette Coleman to The Beatles plus the hymn alluded to in the title. The programme begins with Hofbauer’s own “Kid Justice” which espouses Hofbauer’s philosophy that “we all have to be our own heroes in order to survive”. Here Hofbauer essentially spars with himself, but, crucially in this case ,without the aid of overdubs.

The brief crackle of a vinyl LP introduces Hofbauer’s take on “Dear Prudence”, the second track on The Beatles’ “White Album” and serendipitously the second piece here. It’s a delightful instrumental version of the song with the guitarist playing in the style of Mississippi John Hurt as well as touching other bases. He also throws in sly quotes from the folk hymn “I’ll Fly Away” and the jazz standard “Cherokee”.

“American Incantation” actually edges close to flamenco before being succeeded by a version of the old Louis Armstrong war horse “West End Blues!”. Hofbauer retains the essential blues soul of the piece even when sliding into Derek Bailey style abstractions.

“Beat The Drum” exploits the percussive qualities of the guitar, sometimes almost sounding like a kalimba or mbira. “It’s an obvious title” explains Hofbauer before pondering “but what do we beat the drum for? Communication, celebration, danger, battle - all of the above and more”. For the listener it’s an all too brief cameo, I’d have liked to have heard these possibilities taken further.

“True Colours” is Hofbauer’s interpretation of the old Cyndi Lauper hit, the guitarist deploying elements of polytonality to illustrate the colours of the “rainbow” of the lyrics. Like much of the music on this often delightful album it’s almost impossible to believe that this is the sound of just one instrument and just one pair of hands.

“Mileage” is another beguiling vignette. Perhaps not surprisingly the title references Miles Davis with Hofbauer describing his boppish musings as “theme and variation on a random Miles Davis riff that was in my head. I can’t even recall from what solo”.

“Cheer Up Charlie” is from the movie “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Hofbauer plays it first as a jazz ballad before adding an extra element of swing. Fewell highlights Hofbauer’s prodigious technique in playing “precise single note jazz lines with simultaneous chord accompaniment and a walking bass line”. He compares Hofbauer to the late great Joe Pass and the latter’s “Virtuoso”  series of recordings for Pablo Records.

“In Memoriam” (I suspect that this might be dedication to the late John Tchicai) sounds suitably reverent and features Hofbauer making effective use of the spaces between the notes. It’s the gateway to “Pocket Chops”, a piece previously recorded by Hofbauer’s four piece Infrared Band, but here the subject of “stream of consciousness improvisation”. Making good use of space and dynamics it’s highly effective and offers an emotional experience that extends beyond mere technique.

Next comes “God Moves On The Water”, a piece about the Titanic disaster first recorded in 1929 by the bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. It’s a slide guitar fest but eschews the blues’ traditional twelve bar form. Again it’s a highly effective piece of music which Fewell memorably equates as being where “free jazz meets the Delta”. Hofbauer describes the piece as being about “human frailty”, the inability of technology to totally master nature and “the cycle of life and death”.

“New American Psalm” is a loaded title. Fewell informs us that the word psalm comes from the Greek meaning “Music of the lyre” or “to play upon a stringed instrument”. It’s appropriate then that Hofbauer’s guitar should provide “my personal offering to a country in need of a new psalm or song of thanks”. At one and a half minutes it’s a typically pithy Hofbauer vignette, a modern folk hymn with the guitar sounding almost like an autoharp.

Hofbauer visits Ornette Coleman’s classic 1959 album “The Shape Of Jazz To Come” for “Peace”, another highly effective reading with Hofbauer making good use of space to express something of the serenity implied in the title. His own “Today, All Day” is much busier, a joyful miniature dedicated to the joy of living in the moment.

“Stella By Starlight” is a much visited jazz standard and is here subtly re-harmonised by Hofbauer.
Again the subject of “duality” which informs so many of these pieces is crucial. Hofbauer reveals that the pretty melody was “originally used as the main theme in a movie about a ghost, a haunted house, and a possessed girl who keeps trying to leap off a cliff”. I’m no movie buff so this was news to me. I’ll probably never listen to the tune in quite the same way again!

The largely improvised Hofbauer original “Ghost In The Machine”, another minute and a half vignette, finds the guitarist delighting in wringing highly improbable sounds from his instrument via the use of extended techniques. For serious guitar students Fewell’s notes give a rather more detailed explanation of the process.

The ballad “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry” is a tune associated with both saxophonist Dexter Gordon and vocalist Frank Sinatra, two giants of American music. Hofbauer de-constructs the piece giving it a highly contemporary feel of spaciousness that Fewell compares to Derek Bailey’s solo recording “Ballads”.

The title of the Hofbauer original “And So It Goes” alludes to the “gentle acceptance of struggle”  with the main melody an expression of the repeated phrase “and so it goes, and so it goes”.

Finally we hear the 18th century sacred harp hymn “Idumea”, subtitled “And Am I Born To Die?” from a phrase in the first line of the lyrics. It’s only a minute and a half long but is profoundly moving, the stark, dramatic melody clearly sourced from early American church music. Fewell also reveals the secret of the simultaneous guitar and piano. Apparently Hofbauer placed two microphones inside his studio piano and held down the sustain pedal to create the overtone wash which accentuates and punctuates his guitar lines. This ghostly, ominous effect is meant to symbolise a glimpse into the next world. It’s a striking conclusion to a frequently thought provoking album.

Although part of a trilogy “American Grace” is a highly effective piece of work in its own right. It’s a profoundly personal journey that touches many musical bases yet still presents a unified whole. Hofbauer’s blend of jazz and Americana is notable for sounding nothing like Bill Frisell, something of an achievement in itself in my opinion. Spikier than Pat Metheny he’s probably closer in spirit to Ralph Towner, especially through his use of space but there’s also an extra element of improvisatory gristle in there, hence the Derek Bailey references. On a less obviously jazz note there’s something of John Fahey in there too.

Hofbauer is an astonishing technician but he puts these abilities to good use, this isn’t an album about grandstanding or technique but there’s a quiet intensity to Hofbauer’s work that gives it considerable emotional impact. Even the briefest pieces leave a substantial emotional imprint. The solo guitar format may not suit every listener but in its own quiet way “American Grace” represents something of a low key triumph.     

 
 

American Grace

Eric Hofbauer

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

3-5 out of 5

American Grace

A profoundly personal journey that touches many musical bases yet still presents a unified whole. There's a quiet intensity to Hofbauer's work that gives it considerable emotional impact.

Eric Hofbauer

“American Grace”

(Creative Nation Music CMN 022)

I recently reviewed “ReContraDoble”, an album on the Creative Nation Music record label by Argentinian born, Boston MA based pianist and composer Pablo Ablanedo. The guitarist on that session was the label’s founder Eric Hofbauer who has just released the solo guitar album “American Grace”, a follow up to his previous solo recordings “American Vanity” (2004) and “American Fear” (2010).

Hofbauer’s three solo albums can rightly be considered as a trilogy, a set of recordings that have explored various aspects of American popular music and the American psyche itself. Hofbauer has covered a broad scope of musical styles ranging from jazz standards, bebop tunes and free jazz through blues and country to pop. He describes “American Grace” as being a collection of “choice tunes and hymns arranged for and performed on solo guitar by Eric Hofbauer”.

The guitarist regards “American Grace” as the final step on the journey he began with the release of “American Vanity” back in 2004. He declares that the new album is about “acceptance of who we are - coming to terms with the internal and external world”.Fellow guitarist and sometime collaborator Garrison Fewell’s informative liner notes shed further light on Hofbauer’s creative processes and he also undertakes a full analysis of each of the nineteen short tracks, some of them little more than vignettes, that make up this record.

Fewell notes Hofbauer’s use of polytonality and polyrhythm to denote duality and from the outset it’s obvious that here is a guitarist blessed with immense technical ability. The album’s notes make it clear that all the tunes were first takes and that absolutely no overdubs are deployed on the recording. Even the passage on the closing “Idumea” featuring guitar and piano was recorded with Hofbauer playing both instruments simultaneously.

The material on “American Grace” is the familiar mix of Hofbauer originals alongside outside material ranging from jazz standards to Ornette Coleman to The Beatles plus the hymn alluded to in the title. The programme begins with Hofbauer’s own “Kid Justice” which espouses Hofbauer’s philosophy that “we all have to be our own heroes in order to survive”. Here Hofbauer essentially spars with himself, but, crucially in this case ,without the aid of overdubs.

The brief crackle of a vinyl LP introduces Hofbauer’s take on “Dear Prudence”, the second track on The Beatles’ “White Album” and serendipitously the second piece here. It’s a delightful instrumental version of the song with the guitarist playing in the style of Mississippi John Hurt as well as touching other bases. He also throws in sly quotes from the folk hymn “I’ll Fly Away” and the jazz standard “Cherokee”.

“American Incantation” actually edges close to flamenco before being succeeded by a version of the old Louis Armstrong war horse “West End Blues!”. Hofbauer retains the essential blues soul of the piece even when sliding into Derek Bailey style abstractions.

“Beat The Drum” exploits the percussive qualities of the guitar, sometimes almost sounding like a kalimba or mbira. “It’s an obvious title” explains Hofbauer before pondering “but what do we beat the drum for? Communication, celebration, danger, battle - all of the above and more”. For the listener it’s an all too brief cameo, I’d have liked to have heard these possibilities taken further.

“True Colours” is Hofbauer’s interpretation of the old Cyndi Lauper hit, the guitarist deploying elements of polytonality to illustrate the colours of the “rainbow” of the lyrics. Like much of the music on this often delightful album it’s almost impossible to believe that this is the sound of just one instrument and just one pair of hands.

“Mileage” is another beguiling vignette. Perhaps not surprisingly the title references Miles Davis with Hofbauer describing his boppish musings as “theme and variation on a random Miles Davis riff that was in my head. I can’t even recall from what solo”.

“Cheer Up Charlie” is from the movie “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. Hofbauer plays it first as a jazz ballad before adding an extra element of swing. Fewell highlights Hofbauer’s prodigious technique in playing “precise single note jazz lines with simultaneous chord accompaniment and a walking bass line”. He compares Hofbauer to the late great Joe Pass and the latter’s “Virtuoso”  series of recordings for Pablo Records.

“In Memoriam” (I suspect that this might be dedication to the late John Tchicai) sounds suitably reverent and features Hofbauer making effective use of the spaces between the notes. It’s the gateway to “Pocket Chops”, a piece previously recorded by Hofbauer’s four piece Infrared Band, but here the subject of “stream of consciousness improvisation”. Making good use of space and dynamics it’s highly effective and offers an emotional experience that extends beyond mere technique.

Next comes “God Moves On The Water”, a piece about the Titanic disaster first recorded in 1929 by the bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. It’s a slide guitar fest but eschews the blues’ traditional twelve bar form. Again it’s a highly effective piece of music which Fewell memorably equates as being where “free jazz meets the Delta”. Hofbauer describes the piece as being about “human frailty”, the inability of technology to totally master nature and “the cycle of life and death”.

“New American Psalm” is a loaded title. Fewell informs us that the word psalm comes from the Greek meaning “Music of the lyre” or “to play upon a stringed instrument”. It’s appropriate then that Hofbauer’s guitar should provide “my personal offering to a country in need of a new psalm or song of thanks”. At one and a half minutes it’s a typically pithy Hofbauer vignette, a modern folk hymn with the guitar sounding almost like an autoharp.

Hofbauer visits Ornette Coleman’s classic 1959 album “The Shape Of Jazz To Come” for “Peace”, another highly effective reading with Hofbauer making good use of space to express something of the serenity implied in the title. His own “Today, All Day” is much busier, a joyful miniature dedicated to the joy of living in the moment.

“Stella By Starlight” is a much visited jazz standard and is here subtly re-harmonised by Hofbauer.
Again the subject of “duality” which informs so many of these pieces is crucial. Hofbauer reveals that the pretty melody was “originally used as the main theme in a movie about a ghost, a haunted house, and a possessed girl who keeps trying to leap off a cliff”. I’m no movie buff so this was news to me. I’ll probably never listen to the tune in quite the same way again!

The largely improvised Hofbauer original “Ghost In The Machine”, another minute and a half vignette, finds the guitarist delighting in wringing highly improbable sounds from his instrument via the use of extended techniques. For serious guitar students Fewell’s notes give a rather more detailed explanation of the process.

The ballad “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry” is a tune associated with both saxophonist Dexter Gordon and vocalist Frank Sinatra, two giants of American music. Hofbauer de-constructs the piece giving it a highly contemporary feel of spaciousness that Fewell compares to Derek Bailey’s solo recording “Ballads”.

The title of the Hofbauer original “And So It Goes” alludes to the “gentle acceptance of struggle”  with the main melody an expression of the repeated phrase “and so it goes, and so it goes”.

Finally we hear the 18th century sacred harp hymn “Idumea”, subtitled “And Am I Born To Die?” from a phrase in the first line of the lyrics. It’s only a minute and a half long but is profoundly moving, the stark, dramatic melody clearly sourced from early American church music. Fewell also reveals the secret of the simultaneous guitar and piano. Apparently Hofbauer placed two microphones inside his studio piano and held down the sustain pedal to create the overtone wash which accentuates and punctuates his guitar lines. This ghostly, ominous effect is meant to symbolise a glimpse into the next world. It’s a striking conclusion to a frequently thought provoking album.

Although part of a trilogy “American Grace” is a highly effective piece of work in its own right. It’s a profoundly personal journey that touches many musical bases yet still presents a unified whole. Hofbauer’s blend of jazz and Americana is notable for sounding nothing like Bill Frisell, something of an achievement in itself in my opinion. Spikier than Pat Metheny he’s probably closer in spirit to Ralph Towner, especially through his use of space but there’s also an extra element of improvisatory gristle in there, hence the Derek Bailey references. On a less obviously jazz note there’s something of John Fahey in there too.

Hofbauer is an astonishing technician but he puts these abilities to good use, this isn’t an album about grandstanding or technique but there’s a quiet intensity to Hofbauer’s work that gives it considerable emotional impact. Even the briefest pieces leave a substantial emotional imprint. The solo guitar format may not suit every listener but in its own quiet way “American Grace” represents something of a low key triumph.     

 
 


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