By Gary Dalkin, editor, Film Music on the Web
North Carolina based musician, composer, songwriter Marc Hoffman may just be too talented for his own good. At least for a world which expects artists to do one thing, then keep doing it over with minimal variation equating to maximum commercial gain. Hoffman’s gifts range from contemporary classical composer to singer-songwriter via film composer, to say nothing of developing an acclaimed series of guitar tutorials and recently penning his first children’s book.
Jazz states its aim simply and definitively. It’s a jazz album delivering 11 Hoffman originals with the disc produced by Hoffman, who performs piano, keyboards, percussion and occasional vocals. Long Way Home (VH-04613), a solo piano disc which featured some jazz flavoured numbers is the closest precedent in Hoffman’s back catalogue, but here he presents a much more ambitious project with an accomplished band comprising John Sharp (guitars), Terry Peoples (bass guitar), Tim Gordon (sax), Gray Fallin (drums/percussion) and Mike Lanier (drums/percussion: two tracks only).
It’s worth taking note of these musicians, who may not be household names but are talents of a high order. It is testament to Hoffman’s music that he is able to attract the likes of John Sharpe, who has played or recorded with The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Jimmy Buffett, Brook Benton, The Diamonds, performed widely with various bands in Europe and released the well- received solo album Better Than Dreams. Sharpe shared a Grammy nomination for writing the title track of drums/percussion maestro Jim Brock’s album Pasajes, touring through the 1990’s with Brock’s band.
As well as being a permanent member of Nashville’s Mr Groove and a leading session musician for artists across America, Tim Gordon tours regularly with The Four Tops and The Temptations. Terry Peoples played bass for the jazz pianist Loonis McGlohan. In more recent years he has been an international freelance musician, recording with artists such as Mike Campbell and Eileen Farrell. Mike Lanier is an NC native most notably associated with The Breeze Band while Gray Fallin is a stalwart of The Brubakers.
From the onset Jazz is characterised by strong melody, concentrated rhythm and tight instrumental interplay, question and answer dialogues deftly shifting between piano, sax or guitar. Hoffman brings a light, fluid grace to his eloquent improvisations, the tone largely optimistic though shot through with an enquiring spirit which adds an intriguing melodic quirk to the disc. The opening two numbers, ‘Hefti’, in homage to Neil, and ‘G Min’ compliment one another as up-beat group pieces, ‘Introspective’ adding a touch of breezy melancholy to what is essentially a piano piece with percussion backing. ‘Dog Days’ is a very laid-back number, the relaxed guitar workout and electric piano moving into drivetime- smooth jazz territory.
Hoffman conducts a lyrical dialogue with himself on ‘Q’, the vibrant melody which is eventually picked- up by electric guitar having an almost cinematic sense of the freedom of wide open spaces. ‘Bender’, written in memory of a friend who died suddenly in the summer of 2007, celebrates a spirit as much as it mourns a loss, a tenderness running though the music which refuses to surrender to darkness. ‘Theme #2’ is virtually a solo piano piece accompanied by very low-key percussion and bass. Here Hoffman showcases a rich melody through a series of brief variations which have the quality of classic Americana, from old-time hymns to Coplandesque expanse. One can imagine this orchestrated as a the valedictory finale to an Oscar-nominated home-town drama. ‘Thumbs’ has a sassy syncopated swagger and feather-light lilt which suggests, at least for a moment, all is well in the world. Though Hoffman would never claim to be a Pat Metheny fan ‘Aila Leya’ bears the Metheny hallmarks of stratospheric, processed vocals over electric guitar (think of Metheny’s Imaginary Day period), the number morphing into the kind of synth workout one might expect from Bela Fleck on one of his band albums with Futureman, or perhaps Rick Wakeman grooving away on a 70’s Yes classic. Unfortunately its all over too soon, something which might be said of several tracks on this disc, which rather than outstay their welcome expire before they have reached their full potential. One might hope for Hoffman to push his material further into some really extended improvisations. ‘Curioso’ is an amiable stroll though classic piano, bass, drums jazz trio territory, while the closing ‘Pontified’ pays uplifting tribute to Jean Luc.
Jazz is a strong, diverse album which really demonstrates that, talented as Hoffman is in other areas, jazz is his true forte. A couple more discs like this, especially if he gains the confidence to develop some more expansive, exploratory tracks, and his infectious, melodic writing and polished musicianship will surely start to win him a serious following.