There’s both a well-worn familiarity about this music and an attractive obliqueness.
Colin Buttimer 2011
Level is the second outing for Boston-based guitarist Eric Hofbauer's quartet after 2008's Myth Understanding. It explores the view of historian Joseph Campbell that the myths of the 21st century would be written in music and contains nine pieces that seek to investigate the duality of the universe. Although such a grand context would be invisible without the liner notes, Level is nevertheless an impressive contemporary jazz record full of space and fierce intelligence.
Level begins with clipped chords chopping out slices of melody until the band joins in, fleshing out the bones with tenor saxophonist Kelly Roberge formally defining the tune. Then a walking rhythm kicks in, Sean Farias' bass imparting a certain funkiness, Miki Matsuki's drums all soft cymbals. The track's tempo is a viscous affair, picking up and dropping off as the song demands. Its very fluidity – perhaps the most striking feature of opener These Two Things – is what both hints at and opposes the suggestion of M-Base's angular music of the 80s. There's both a well-worn familiarity about this music and an attractive obliqueness.
La Ligne De Chance begins in scratchier territory, sounding briefly like Derek Bailey-esque free improv, before a knowingness and tangential blues suggest something in the region of John Zorn. There's also that sense of melancholic occlusion that's often a characteristic of this type of music. Hofbauer's tone throughout is a pleasure, as is his playing: detailed and directed, measured and forceful when necessary.
The Faction proves the thesis that Hofbauer and his band embrace modernity over tradition, that very particular post-bop modern that can be traced from the Second Great Miles Davis Quintet and its offshoots through to such Dave Holland recordings as Extensions. The 11-minute Surely Some Revelation… begins in reflective mode with Hofbauer gradually picking out rhythm from sporadically plucked notes, which gradually increase in intensity like thoughts gaining momentum.
Ghosts and Giants is probably the most atmospheric composition on Level, awash with bursts of slide guitar like lost blues, sudden twists of sax and troubled bass. Closing track Pocket Chops suggests the wistful, blasted songs of Tom Waits circa Frank's Wild Years, sax blowing to and fro over walking bass and straight-ahead jazz guitar.