Fighting jetlag on my recent run through Boston, I tossed my sleep cycle into the shredder, hopping the “T” one night to take in a jazz show at the “Y” on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge.
Guitarist Eric Hofbauer is a young guy with a casual and charismatic stage presence, and his Infrared Band was worth staying up for. Its compositions are jazz at heart, with the occasional free-form diversion and some adventurous soloing. Very nice outside-in stuff, fronted by Hofbauer’s jazz guitar but drafted with ample soloing space for everyone.
“The Chump Killer” is a standout of their playbook. You can’t miss it. Hofbauer explaned that the Chump Killer is a hero who searches the earth to go defeat evildoers and generally nasty people (“chumps”), and not necessarily in violent ways. After a cool, overlapping call-and-response theme between sax and guitar, the music took an extended break for saxophonist Kelly Roberge to play the roles of the Chump Killer and the Chump, using electronically enhanced, cartoony voices. His dialogue had the Chump Killer taunting the Chump but then winding up in some sort of trap. Pretty funny stuff (inspired by a kung fu movie, it turns out). The rest of the mini-suite followed, and given its chipper nature, you have to assume things turned out OK.
There were also some tunes at once catchy and tricky, like “Pocket Chops.” Hofbauer explained how the term arose in conversation, when someone asked him — I can’t recall the story exactly, but I think he was telling someone about the contrast of playing in Boston versus somewhere else. “Oh, man, you gotta have pocket chops,” he said at the time. Of course, Hofbauer had no idea what that meant, but he rode with it and, years later, wrote it up as a piece.
In the rental car the next day, I took a quick sampling of the CDs I’d bought at the show: The Infrared Band’s Myth Understanding and Hofbauer’s solo acoustic American Vanity. Not the best listening environment, but it was the one available to me, and I thought a car listen would be an interesting blogging experiment.
Parts of Myth Understanding (Creative Nation Music, 2008) had been played at the show, so I had an idea what to expect. It made nice driving music, with the comforting sound of jazz guitar sometimes veering into some good, adventurous soloing. Roberge’s sax took the lead more often against the roar of asphalt. Car listening isn’t so good for the more complex “puzzle pieces,” especially the show “Molecular Mischief,” which sets 5/2 and 5/4 rhythms against each other. (That’s from the liner notes; it would have taken a while for me to decipher the numbers.)
Three tracks are flagges as puzzle pieces, which is good because you wouldn’t recognize them as such otherwise. “Flex Flux,” in particular, sounds like a straightforward inside-out jazzy piece with lots of tempo changes — but it turns out the changes, and the piece’s transitions in general, are triggered by band members on the spot.
American Vanity (Creative Nation Music, 2002) is a lot more fun than you’d think. The CD booklet includes a scathing — but ultimately uplifting — little essay where Hofbauer explores the nature of hubris and ego in American society and media, saying the recording “mocks, scolds and celebrates us” for it. Interesting concept.
The record itself, if you’re in a car and not looking at the track listings, is full of surprises. It opens with some tough, scrabbly improvisation (“The Fad”), but soon opens into a fluid, melodic piece (Satie’s “Gnossienne #1”). “Greensleeves” makes a surprise appearance ruddy, dissonant cross-melodies, a nice effect that sounds difficult to play. It’s followed by a combo of “Ode to Joy” and “Little Drummer Boy” that I didn’t catch at first in the car; like one of those optical-illusion pictures, I heard the Beethoven but missed the Christmas carol. What an ingenious piece.
“Dukes of Hazzard” is the TV theme played as straight acoustic finger-pickin’ country blues, a real improvement on the original. VU’s “Femme Fatale” likewise gets a bluesy treatment, but in a more warped and abstract way, with lots of notes sliding up and down messily. It’s a meaty take.
Back to the Infrared Band show: I didn’t get to see the opening band on the bill, Dead Cat Bounce. (Apparently, the “8:00 p.m.” time listing referred to eight o’clock. In the Bay Area, probably in L.A. too, an 8:00 show usually begins at 8:30 or 9:00.) That’s OK. I was out enjoying downtown Boston — the part called Back Bay, I think (Boylston Street and Newbury Street).
I found the show, by the way, by trolling the Boston Phoenix site and coming across the daily editors’ picks. While that served me well, I notice Boston has another weekly called Dig, which I suppose I should tap as well, next time.