Issue 151, interview with Eric Hofbauer

Though I didn’t realize it right away, I’ve been reviewing Eric’s wonderful (and at times, challenging) guitar work for quite a few years now, mostly with other groups… I recently established some closer contact with him, and it only made sense to get some more intimate perspectives from him… please spread word of this most comprehensive & revealing look at a jazz artist/composer/teacher you’re sure to love to all your friends!!!

Zzaj: You’ve been performing guitar work for many years now. Please give us a spontaneous, “off-the-cuff” bio sketch that tells my readers where you came from, how you got to where you are in your career now, and where you see yourself 5 years from now.

Eric: I am originally from Rochester, New York, but Boston has been my home for the last 18 years. I started playing the guitar at age 16 after having played the saxophone since third grade. What got me into jazz was the Miles Davis recording, Miles Smiles. My guitar teacher at the time recommended I check out some Miles fusion records to help me make my move from improvising on the just the blues scale to more advanced approaches. But at the record store I picked up Miles Smiles because I liked the cover. It was, needless to say, a mind altering experience. I blame the way I play now entirely on the album. Undergrad was at Oberlin Conservatory where I was well grounded in the jazz language and its rich traditions. I received my masters at New England Conservatory where I first began to explore solo guitar techniques and the ‘jazz avant garde’. I have a myriad of influences and inspirations but my two original ‘mentors’ were Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy, which I think explains the balance of tradition and freedom or experimentation in my playing. Once in Boston I started working with various colleagues on the scene. The first real ‘break out’ recording was the self-titled Blueprint Project featuring my friends Jared Sims on sax and Tyson Rogers, piano, with Cecil McBee on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. It really did jump start my career in terms of press and a presence in the jazz world. From there highlights along the was include the American Trilogy (American Vanity, Fear and Grace) of solo guitar recordings, tours in France, a feature performance on the BBC and most recently the release of Prehistoric Jazz Volume 1 & 2. My hopes in the next 5 years is to record Volume 3 of Prehistoric Jazz and my latest trio called Pocket Aces. Hopefully with the positive reception Prehistoric Jazz has gotten in the press here and abroad (including a featured piece on NPR’s Fresh Air) I can book the band for more college performances and festivals in the US and abroad.

Zzaj: I’ve listened to (and reviewed) your work in a variety of groups… some more “straight-ahead” jazz (Joel Yennior Trio) and more than a few that are based in improvisation (Kakalla)… which type of work do you prefer, or will you play anything, anytime, anywhere?

Eric: This definitely can be traced back to my diverse jazz upbringing (being as much Miles as Dolphy), I am comfortable in both settings, my favorite being a synthesis of both straight ahead elements and free concepts. I love them both and truly believe jazz musicians creatively thrive when fluent in all the languages and styles of jazz. Usually the rest of the jazz world does not agree with me… but audiences seem to, I have had plenty of straight ahead fans still dig my more ‘out’ playing and vice versa.

Zzaj: Do you have any recommendations for jazz guitarists who are just starting out? Any particular brand of guitar, or other equipment, that might be of value to someone wanting to become a professional?

Eric: My biggest recommendation is to listen, listen, listen to the music, to all instruments and all types of players of various styles. Jazz is a language and so much of the feel and phrasing and life of it can’t be expressed or learned entirely in a book or class or youtube instructional video. Like any language, immersion is the best way, getting the sound of it in your ears and in your body and mind’s ear will take you deeper into playing creative jazz than just learning all the tools (like scales and chords etc… all essential of course but useless without the proper context and application).

I am a fool for Guild guitars, I’ve been playing them forever, I have two, a 1970 Manhattan X-175 and a 1974 Artist Award, so I will always just recommend them, they play and feel amazing and usually one can find a Guild at a fair price without the Gibson style mark-up for name. Getting a good amp is a key as well and that is usually a personal choice, and can be influenced by the way one plays. I like a tube amp (traynors are my choice) because the mellow out just a bit my very hard percussive style of playing.

Zzaj: Since you’re also a guitar teacher, can you tell us, please, what makes you feel best in the teaching arena?

Eric: I believe as a teacher it is my role to act as a mentor or guide to students, to show the a path or several paths they can take to discover what works for them terms of style and creativity. I very rarely ‘give the answers’ but make students puzzle them out on the instrument. In a way it is kind of like that movie Karate Kid (as lame as that may sound) but that is the closest comparison I can think of at the moment. So these students will work out these musical issues, maybe some technique or some concept on a tune, and like the movie, just when they think all they learned was just a bunch of ‘chores’ (like in the movie with washing cars and painting fences etc) students have this epiphany type moment where seemingly unrelated concepts sudden synthesis and they can play on a tune or in a key in a way they wouldn’t have imagined. Just last week a student said, “I started out the month cursing you and this week realized how genius this approach is, I can actually do (X,Y and Z) so easily now!” That made my week for sure.

Zzaj: Who are some of your favorite folks to perform with? Don’t just “name names”, give us some insight regarding why you most enjoy playing with them, please.

Eric: My favorite people to perform are the ones who have a unique voice and a rule breaking spirit. In addition to that, the deepest connections I have had with players has to due with listening and interacting. Not just communication and call and response but a type of synchronicity where whomever I am playing with and myself play as if we are one voice, one instrument. I like to call it ‘future ears’ when you are so in the moment and in touch with the other player you can hear how phrases will play out in the future and know how each other will react. Very few players can I get that level with, but there are some notable exceptions. Guitarist Garrison Fewell is one of the most special playing relationships I have, we get to a place where we don’t know who is playing which note. I have also had experiences like that playing with Han Bennink and with my new trio, Pocket Chops, with drummer Curt Newton and bassist Aaaron Darell.

Zzaj: Your latest works with your Eric Hofbauer Quintet (EHQ) delve deeply into what you call “prehistoric jazz”… give us some thoughts about what that is, and why it’s pertinent in today’s jazz scene.

Eric: Prehistoric Jazz is a term I ‘borrowed’ from Leonard Bernstein who used it to describe a certain section of the Rite of Spring. It thought it was a perfect term to help define what I think is a lingua franca between jazz and 20th century classical music techniques and concepts. Often these two musical worlds are miles apart in approach and attitude but when the genre style definitions are stripped away what is left is a music DNA of specific rhythmic techniques and intervallic development which links quite strongly I think, certain modern classical pieces with certain vocabulary fundamentals in jazz. For example.. I chose The Rite of Spring and Quartet for the End of Time because their specific use of syncopated rhythms and pol-rhythms, intervals such at tri-tones and minor thirds, and harmonic progressions which include altered dominant chords and bi-tonality. All of those elements are the bedrock of modern jazz and they acted as an entre for me as a composer and improviser to tackle those pieces not as something to treat reverently but to really deconstruct to the bare essentials and then reassemble as something full of the spirit of the original but completely transformed by improvisation and other jazz DNA elements.

Zzaj: Do you get heavily involved in the “techie” aspects of your recordings, or do you primarily leave that up to the “gearheads”?

Eric: I am very very involved in every aspect of the recording process from the set up in the session to the mixes, mastering… you name it down to the liner notes, art, the publicity even. I love being involved in all the parts of the creative process, I always learn a lot and since my recordings are very theme or concept driven, my intimacy with every aspect of the project insures that my goals and creative vision for the project is expressed in each phase. It bums me out to hear a great CD with disconnected artwork or poor mixing or without liner notes. It is a competitive world out there and jazz is already an underdog, so my goal is to present it as best as possible in all aspects from start to finish.

Zzaj: Who are some of your “jazz heroes”, past or present (or even future, if you’d like).

Eric: Over my career I have had so many heroes or mentors and they have been crucial in the different phases of my career. I think everyone has a laundry list of classic jazz heroes, like Miles, Coltrane etc.. for me it is those two for sure but add in Ornette, Dolphy, Monk, Mingus and Duke. But the longer my career stretches on the more I contemplate the influence and am inspired by my teachers. Musicians like Wendel Logan, Don Walden and Robert Ferrazza from undergrad and Ran Blake, Lee Hyla, Paul Bley and Mick Goodrick from grad school, all of them put me on the path I am on now and I can never thank them enough. Several of them are no longer on this planet and I regret not getting more chances to share my successes with them and let them know just how much they shaped my life.

Zzaj: What are your plans for the next year or so? Will you be touring, doing more studio recording, or just staying in your “current groove”?

Eric: My hope is the EHQ can get into the studio to record Prehistoric Jazz Volume 3 which will be my new jazz arrangement of Charles Ives “Three Places in New England’’. I also would like to get in the studio with a new trio called “Pocket Chops” which is a trio of guitar, bass and drums. I am also working hard to put together more performance opportunities for the EHQ at colleges domestically and hopefully some festivals or clubs in Europe.

Zzaj: Many of our readers are aspiring performers. Please give them whatever words of wisdom you may have about a career in music? Is it just “ups”, “downs” & a “few in-betweens”? Is it struggle? Is it worth the effort?

Eric: This is not an easy question, because a life in music is not easy and not for everyone. I would not have changed a thing about my path but if I was a young player now, perhaps I would reconsider or diversify my options. The digital and internet revolutions have been less friendly to jazz than other genres. Live performance opportunities have dropped considerably in the last decade or so. I recently read a piece in the Atlantic Magazine about the death of the American artist. It basically said forget about your 10,000 hours of practice for mastery, the marketplace demands diversity and a sort of new dilettante entrepreneur of the arts who can do many things ‘pretty well’. That goes directly against the philosophy of jazz which demands demands demands mastery and individuality. But it is true, there is a huge need to be a good publicist, designer, audio engineer, booking agent, social media gadfly etc.. in addition to being just a great musician these days just to barely get noticed. Who can possibly have time to do all of that, let alone master their instruments and develop a unique voice on it. It is a conundrum, one I struggle with daily as I teach the next generation of jazz musicians. I actually encourage them all to be double degree majors so they can have a day gig in a non music field (even the classic jazz day gigs of teaching, either at schools or colleges don’t pay enough to make a living these days) which can pay the bills so they can focus on creative music and developing a style they love to play. That way when they play they will always love what they do with it. If music is not full of passion and personality it can turn into the worst ‘job’ anyone can have… soul draining. I suppose the best true advice is… doing what you love takes time, work, practice and dedication to master… it will one day be a wonderful craft to share with the world even to the point one can make some good money with it. But… do not count on it as the sole (or soul) means to make a living, too much craft and too much creativity may get compromised in a ‘music day gig’ that saps all your passion, leaving you exhausted and not much to show for it in your bank account. I think there is room for American artists but the model is not the tortured or absent-minded genius who flames out… you know the Charlie Parkers of the world, there is no room for them in the 21 century, they will crash out before anyone will hear of them. The new model of the artist or professional musician needs to be more like Charles Ives or Charles Mingus (who often had day jobs, like working for the post office so he could compose his own way), both musicians who had to make ends meet with a non music day job which actually enabled them to rise to great creative heights. I think my advice still adheres to that ‘work hard and follow your dreams’ American adage but adds just a dash of 21st century pragmatic vision in light of the changing music and arts industry.