Some people might say that hard bop and bebop albums are a dime a dozen. Certainly there is a plethora of artists out there who continue to mine the wealth of commonly-played material. Harder to find are artists like pianist Paul Hofmann, a performer/composer/educator who chooses to examine lesser-known tunes by artists including Herbie Hancock, Sonny Clark and Herbie Nichols. On Topsy Turvy
, his eighth album as a leader for his own MHR Records, Hofmann elegantly blends the old and the new; the known and the less known into an engaging programme, showing that there are still valid ways to examine a style that, for some, has become tired and worn.
By mixing things up with tracks that feature himself solo, in duet with either drummer Michael Melito or bassist Paul Gill, in a traditional piano trio form, and in quartet with saxophonist Grant Stewart, Hofmann keeps things varied and interesting. Hofmann bookends the set with his own “Hi-Ya” and Monk’s “Bye-Ya,” both duets with Melito. From the outset Hofmann demonstrates an economical style that belies a deeper facility. His touch is light, and he swings unabashedly on tunes like Bud Powell’s “Topsy Turvy.” He is a humble accompanist, always leaving plenty of space for Stewart on the five quartet tracks.
Like Hofmann, Gill and Melito are relaxed players who provide a confident anchor, whether it be on the swinging “Ivy,” the Latin-tinged “Listen to My Heart," or the tender Ellington ballad, “Do Not Disturb.” Also, like Hofmann, they are concise players; not a single note is wasted.
Hofmann’s own compositional style melds perfectly with lesser-known material like Herbie Hancock’s “Tribute to Someone” and Sonny Clark’s “Nicely,” both played together as “Blue Note Medley,” reminding us how strong a hard bop player Hancock was when he recorded for that label in the ‘60s. Hofmann’s own composition, “Blues for Red,” a tribute to Red Garland, fits so comfortably beside the Hancock and Clark tunes that it could easily have come from the same period.
The album doesn’t break any new ground, but that is not Hofmann’s intention. Instead, he demonstrates that there is a way to merge new material with old; while there is a firm sense of tradition here, the recording also feels completely modern, and proves that mainstream jazz doesn’t have to be about pushing the envelope. It can be about capturing a sense of time and place, giving it a contemporary spin that ensures that the tradition is kept alive.
Topsy Turvy asserts that there is still a place for this music; whether it be in the concert hall, the club or the comfort of one’s own home. As long as there are artists like Hofmann who are prepared to explore lesser-known paths while, at the same time, paving new roads in the same direction this music will always be relevant.
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Paul Hofmann (piano), Grant Stewart (tenor saxophone), Paul Gill (bass), Michael Melito (drums)