Eric Hofbauer Takes On Stravinsky, Messiaen

Nov 14, 2014

Boston jazz guitarist Eric Hofbauer's quintet has two new CDs out, playing 20th-century classics. One is the year's second jazz version of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, following the Bad Plus' trio version. The other is Olivier Messiaen's very unjazzy Quartet for the End of Time. Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead likes them a lot.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Boston jazz guitarist Eric Hofbauer's quintet has two new CDs out, playing 20th century classical music pieces. One is the year's second jazz version of Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring" following The Bad Plus's version. The other is Olivier Messiaen's very un-jazzy "Quartet For The End Of Time." Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead likes him a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC HOFBAUER QUINTET SONG)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Easy to hear why jazz musicians have taken to "The Rite Of Spring." Stravinsky's pulsing rhythms, thick bitonal harmonies and catchy little themes are jazz ready-mades. Eric Hofbauer's compact quintet makes that plain while recalling the village band from Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale." That's Hofbauer on guitar with the fine drummer Curt Newton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC HOFBAUER QUINTET SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Eric Hofbauer's quintet hit on all of Stravinsky's themes, giving them jazzy articulation and timing. They open them out for improvisations that stay true to the material. The players never fight it. It helps to have musicians comfortable in both worlds. And clarinetist Todd Brunel, trumpeter Jerry Sabatini and cellist Junko Fujiwara, who sometimes mimics a swinging bass player, their Stravinsky sounds surprisingly Ellingtonian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC HOFBAUER QUINTET SONG)

WHITEHEAD: "The Rite Of Spring" is one of two volumes of Eric Hofbauer's so-called "Prehistoric Jazz" - that title taken from a comment Leonard Bernstein once made about The Rite. Volume two is more daring - a recasting of Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet For The End Of Time." Hofbauer's "Quintet For The End Of Time" is for the same versatile band.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC HOFBAUER QUINTET SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Playing the Messiaen requires delicacy. The quartet's inseparable from the circumstances of its creation. It premiered and was mostly written at a German POW camp where Messiaen was being held in 1941 and played by captive musicians, including the composer on piano. The quartet deals with time, but not in a pounding Stravinskian in way. The slow tempos seem to take the listener out of time - music for prisoners. Messiaen borrowed some timeless melodic material from blackbirds and nightingales - symbols of freedom outside the barbed wire.

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WHITEHEAD: Messiaen wasn't the only wartime detainee contemplating birds. Ezra Pound saw how birds sitting on wires outside his detention camp looked like notes on a musical staff. There's no guitar in Messiaen's Quartet. And Eric Hofbauer's six-string can sound jarring when he shadows a written solo line. You can think of guitars' parallel wires as standing in for the camp fence looming in the background.

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WHITEHEAD: Once in a great while, Eric Hofbauer's "Quintet For The End Of Time" sounds almost jubilant. Messiaen, after all, did play his way out of prison like Lead Belly. A sympathetic guard forged some papers and got him released months after the Quartet's premier. Hofbauer's two smartly arranged, impeccably played volumes of "Prehistoric Jazz" are all the more remarkable because the whole project's such a long shot. To pull off the Stravinsky is tricky enough. To jazz up the Messiaen without messing up - now that is a great escape.

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DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Wondering Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz?". Eric Hofbauer's CDs are on the Prehistoric Jazz label. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Foxcatcher." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.