Eric Hofbauer Quintet: Prehistoric Jazz Volume 1: The Rite of Spring
Creative Nation Music

Eric Hofbauer Quintet: Prehistoric Jazz Volume 2: Quintet fot the End of Time
Creative Nation Music

Eric Hofbauer Quintet: Prehistoric Jazz Volume 3: Three Places in New England
Creative Nation Music

Perhaps the first question the listener coming to this extraordinary trio of recordings is whether it's more classical or jazz—not that it's necessarily one or the other, but still. In speaking about his Prehistoric Jazz series (the quote appears in David Adler's liner notes to the Ives chapter), the intrepid artist behind the project, Boston-based guitarist Eric Hofbauer, had this to say about it: at its heart is “the idea of the past as a shining beacon or solid foundation upon which to continue searching for new perspectives and new sounds. Sounds like jazz to me.” The story's a whole lot more complicated than that, of course, but there's no denying that Hofbauer and his partners, Jerry Sabatini (trumpet), Todd Brunel (Bb and bass clarinets), Junko Fujiwara (cello), and Curt Newton (drums, percussion), do invest these canonical classical works with a jazz sensibility.

The name for the series originated, incidentally, from an 1987 video clip that shows Leonard Bernstein rehearsing a European student orchestra for a performance of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring); growing frustrated and demonstrating with his body the punch of the asymmetric rhythms he wants from the percussionists, he says to the group, “And I don't feel this prehistoric jazz. It's a kind of elephantine jazz. Very Russian. ... I don't feel the jazz, man.” Bernstein's words helped crystallize for Hofbauer the essence of his own projected approach to Stravinsky's opus.

Multiple treatments of the work exist, including an 1983 version for solo acoustic guitar by Larry Coryell and, the one most contemporaneous with Hofbauer's, an album-length version by the piano trio The Bad Plus. There are some obvious reasons why the piece offers such interpretative appeal to contemporary jazz artists: conceived as a ballet score, it's grounded in rhythm, and its ravishing melodic content offers wonderful raw material with which to work. What makes this latest treatment so satisfying is that Hofbauer hasn't simply grafted soloing onto the compositional structures; instead, having thoroughly dissected and absorbed the score, he found a way to integrate the two, such that the jazz and classical elements co-exist and the solos emerge out of the material in natural manner and at appropriate junctures. The guitarist notes, for example, that the twelve-bar blues treatment given to “Mystic Circle of the Young Girls” wasn't arbitrarily imposed but rather directly suggested by Stravinsky's melodic and harmonic writing. In collapsing genre boundaries so fluidly, his quintet's version manages to be both faithful to the original while at the same time inventing it anew with infusions of jazz and blues.

Distilling the score into a quintet arrangement was one of many challenges for the leader, though in some instances the process proved more straightforward than others. The group's drummer, cellist, clarinetist, and trumpeter stand in for the orchestra's percussion, strings, woodwinds, and brass sections, respectively, which leaves the guitar as something of a wild card: in Hofbauer's own words, “I play the role of rogue interloper, assimilating into each family when they need an extra voice, or gluing components together by providing a rich harmonic palette of chords.” While attending carefully to the score as it advances, both Hofbauer and Newton add spontaneous textural commentary to it as they go. The transition from a full orchestra to quintet brings with it other ramifications, too: as the quintet executes those savage, cut-throat rhythms in “The Augurs of Spring, Dances of the Young Girls,” for instance, the chamber-like presentation begins to evoke the sound character of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale as much as The Rite of Spring.

The boldness of Hofbauer's treatment is asserted immediately in “A Kiss of the Earth: Introduction” when that famous bassoon melody, voiced in this case by Brunel's bass clarinet, is preceded by an extemporized, minute-long cadenza, the gesture single-handedly serving notice that the quintet's approach to the material will be both respectful homage and daring re-invention. It's merely the first of many such moments on what turns out to be a consistently captivating performance: during “Ritual of Abduction,” Newton and Fujiwara swing with aplomb while Sabatini and Brunel move seamlessly between solo expressions and melodic quotations, the trumpeter splattering elephantine bray across the quasi-rhythm section's backdrop; in “Spring Rounds,” on the other hand, the group sticks closely to the score, for this section largely eschewing soloing to collectively voice the dirge-like themes.

Unaccompanied solo spots emerge, too, three of the most memorable the cello turn Fujiwara takes during “The Exalted Sacrifice,” the dazzling one delivered by the leader (on his Guild Artist Award archtop) in “The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One,” and the plunger-drenched episode by Sabatini in “Evocation of the Ancestors.” What the five get up to in representative parts such as “Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes” and “Procession of the Oldest and Wisest One” is marvelous, specifically in the way the quintet melds the fundamental swing (and occasional raucousness) of jazz with the core melodic material of Stravinsky's composition. The musicians shift from quiet, heartfelt cadences to bravura declamations on a dime, both hewing closely to the original and straying from it as they stamp their personalities completely and unreservedly on it, and even at its most irreverent, the affection the musicians feel for the work in question is evident.

Compared to the Stravinsky set, the quintet's rendition of Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), arguably presents an even greater challenge, given its largely funereal tone—we're talking, after all, about a piece its composer wrote during his internment at a Nazi P.O.W. camp after being captured at Verdun; adding to its incredible history, the work's premiere performance took place at that same camp in 1941, with the composer on piano and the cello part essayed by Etienne Pasquier. Yet despite having arisen in such bleak conditions, the material exudes a stoical steadfastness that conveys the indomitable spirit of humans enduring seemingly impossible circumstances; it's ultimately a work suffused with hope, no matter how dour it might appear in isolated moments. While the two works are profoundly different in tone and arrangement (as Hofbauer notes, changes in The Rite of Spring often occur rapidly, whereas they happen more slowly in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps), a spiritual dimension is common to both, albeit of a different kind: whereas Stravinsky's deals with “a pre-Christian Slavic world” (as Adler characterizes it in his liner notes), Messiaen's “venerates Jesus.”

Given such a backstory, an additional challenge Hofbauer wrestled with involved finding a way to preserve the work's spirit while also not letting it become too constraining as far as interpretative license is concerned. Put simply, can one inject such a work with moments of levity without betraying it? One answer arrives at the work's center when the brief “Intermède” swings deliciously, and elsewhere in those moments when Messiaen's phrases provide gateways for rhythm-charged episodes of varying kinds. Adding to such challenges is the fact that Messiaen's piece lacks the primal rhythmic thrust of Stravinsky's; it's also generally quieter in pitch, more ponderous and ruminative, its attack less visceral, its arrangement less dense.

Similar to the Stravinsky treatment, the Messiaen re-imagining sees Hofbauer identifying sections within the score that naturally lend themselves to elaboration. A twelve-bar blues episode emerges within “Vocalise, pour l'ange qui annonce la fin du temps,” for example, but does so in a way that feels like a logical outgrowth of the original score, and the guitarist also emerges as an improvising secondary voice to the respective solo turns taken by clarinet and cello on “Abîme des oiseaux” and “Louange à l'éternité de Jésus.”

Admittedly, that the original was created in a chamber music form would seem to make the step from Messiaen's work to Hofbauer's re-imagining a less arduous undertaking when such a blueprint is available. And to that end, he does, in fact, follow the composer's arrangement in having certain instruments hew to the notated score while granting other instruments a freer role; he notes, for instance, that while cello and clarinet are already in the original, the trumpet and guitar stand in for the violin and piano parts, with drums and percussion appearing as a fifth element. During the opening “Liturgie de cristal,” one hears the cello and clarinet parts directly referencing Messiaen's score; the guitar and trumpet by comparison roam more freely, or at least appear to do so.

Whether to adhere or deviate from the score is a move directed by it: with the cello voicing the movement's lead melodies, “Louange à l'éternité de Jésus” assumes a suitably meditative, even reverential tone as it sticks closely to the original score. The thematic material in “Danse de la fueur, pour les sept trompettes,” on the other hand, lends itself naturally to a robust, jazz-styled treatment marked by infusions of percussive colour and syncopated swing. Near the end of the piece, there are even moments where Sabatini's playing calls to mind Don Cherry's during his stint with Ornette's original quartet. Messiaen's well-known penchant for birdsong is present, too, most audibly during “Abîme des oiseaux” in the clarinet part.

Following on the heels of those seminal European works, the quintet travels stateside for Charles Ives's Three Places in New England, which the composer completed in 1914 and revised in 1929. In spirit and approach, it's consistent with the other volumes, with one noticeable difference arising in its first two movements: as Adler notes, while Hofbauer's versions of the composers' works generally hew time-wise to the originals, the quintet's renderings of “The ‘St. Gaudens' in Boston Common” and “Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut” expand dramatically upon the standard presentation, their seventeen-minute durations far exceeding the nine- and six-minute lengths presented in a typical orchestral recording.

That difference turns out to have a major impact, as the extended improvisations the quintet presents in the opening movement in particular make it feel less like the quintet's rendering of Ives and more like a pure quintet performance rooted in Ives but not overly determined by it. But just as he has done elsewhere, Hofbauer has been careful to not sever too completely ties to the original work, such that in this case he devised “instructions to help keep the improvisations on track and connected to the stories and emotional places of each movement.” A passage illustrating that occurs four minutes into “The ‘St. Gaudens' in Boston Common” when a section featuring clarinet and trumpet solos concludes with a return to the structural form of Ives's writing. Regardless of whether the group is adhering to the composer's guidelines, dishing out a slinky blues, or improvising freely, its playing on this third volume feels even more cohesive than on the first two, and a comfort level and ease emerges that makes for endlessly pleasurable listening.

The title of the work itself and its parts refer to Revolutionary and Civil War monuments (the opening movements' titles reference a sculpture in Boston Common, the oldest park in the U.S., that commemorates the first African-American unit to fight in the Civil War, and Putnam Memorial State Park, where the remains of a winter encampment used by General Israel Putnam and the Continental Army in 1779 is preserved) plus natural locales in and around Ives' native Connecticut. But Ives didn't choose the movements' titles solely for their evocative power (though they have that): each movement carries with it ties to key moments in American history, and as one would expect the musical associations Ives and the quintet integrate into their structures reflect that history.

Without question, the treatment retains key hallmarks of Ives's original: the presence of plantation songs, folk tunes, military marches, and other vernacular materials within the compositional framework; and the interlacing of different melodic patterns that lends the work its distinctive character. As astutely noted by the guitarist, if there's dissonance in the work (and depending on whose ears are hearing it, there is or isn't), it's not in the melodies themselves but in the way they butt up against one another when performed together.

Of the three movements, it's the high-spirited “Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut” that's the most rousing; there's a free-wheeling vibe present, too, in the way the group rapidly shifts gears throughout the seventeen-minute ride. In a presentation sure to delight American music historians and trainspotters alike, the movement references a catalogue of tunes (among them, “Yankee Doodle,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” and “St. Thomas,” and even a nod by the guitarist to Albert Ayler's “Ghosts”), and much pleasure can be derived from the simple rhythmic charge Fujiwara and Newton bring to the material.

By now it should be obvious that each of these volumes thoroughly repays one's time and attention, despite the obvious differences between them. Each has something unique to offer, while at the same time providing deeply satisfying examples of the quintet in action. And the fact that the soon-to-arrive fourth volume is a recording of Duke Ellington's 1935 work Reminiscing in Tempo indicates that the range of possible choices for future volumes appears endless. On that count, it would appear that Hofbauer and company could carry on with the project as long as they see fit.

February 2017