You are never really allowed to leave the music of Florian Hoefner once you have listened to it. The pianist has a knack of taking possession of your sensibilities, making the notes of melodies leap off the page and into you.
The music of First Spring is no different. Setting out to capture the splendor of music swirling around in his mind, the pianist has succeeded in relocating the ethos of traditional songs and the high and lonesome sound off bluegrass to the landscape of jazz. In the collision of these musical realms, something truly remarkable and miraculous emerges that gives new meaning to the definition of “beauty” and becomes central to Hoefner’s aesthetic credo. He demonstrates that the heart of tradition lies in innovation. If Hoefner remains in the tradition, he also soars – and in doing so – also sets the music on this 2019 album exuberantly free.
The music and style of First Spring is a marked departure from earlier releases. “First of all,” says Hoefner, “I wanted to create something different from the music on my quartet albums. As much as I love the sound of the quartet and hope to return to that medium soon, I was looking for something fresh and a new challenge. In recent years, I have been listening more and more to records by folk and country artists like Sam Amidon, Levon Helm and Chris Thile. I explored what made this music so compelling and how I could transfer it to the setting of a jazz piano trio without losing its original vibe. A common denominator in a lot of this music is the sound of the fiddle. It occurred to me that with the double bass I have a string instrument in the trio that I can use for exactly this purpose. So I started arranging some of my favourite songs for piano, bass and drums, often using the bowed bass as an additional melody instrument.” The often swinging and sometimes sedate pulsating heartbeat for this music is provided here by drummer Nick Fraser while Andrew Downing brings his contrabass – frequently wielding his magical bow as he plays con arco – to augment the rhythmic realm and join Hoefner in exploring the melodic content of the music as a kind of second lead-voice.
On First Spring, for the first time, Hoefner ‘the composer’, plays second fiddle to Hoefner ‘the arranger’ as he relocates music from traditional and folk music sources, in his own voice, to his highly personal soundscape of jazz. Of the nine tunes here, six are reimagined versions of some of his favourite music and three are original compositions. As always, each takes us unexpectedly into another. The musicianship everywhere is exceptional. In sheer colour and variety, in the depth of its characterization and the exceptional range of refinement of its pianism, Hoefner imparts a power and exceptional stature to the opener, “Hound’s Tune”, a re-imagination of the legendary Rufus Guinchard’s fiddler-on-the-rock masterpiece. Hoefner’s version is one which no amount of ‘bigness’ (the usual route taken by adapting musicians) can achieve. Here Hoefner’s cause is masterfully aided and abetted by Downing’s extraordinary con arco playing, a thing of beauty that few bassists playing today could hope to master. On “Calvary,” we hear Hoefner as a master of mood and atmosphere, coordinating colour and structure to a rare degree as he – together with Downing and Fraser – reveals his exceptional versatility and resourcefulness. Moreover, at every turn Hoefner offers us an enticing opportunity to open our minds. This is especially true in these traditional and folk metaphors, which allow us to listen to melodies in a completely new light. He brings, for instance, a simple brilliance to his first original composition, “First Spring,” showing that he can be supremely playful even in the most unassuming melodic lines.
“The Maid on the Shore” is a spirited and finely nuanced reading of a traditional Scottish folk song that Hoefner and the trio bring to life. “Winter in June,” the second of the originals is full of glinting lights and mysterious depths like the shadows of a dark, quasi-Mendelssohnian scherzo. And the variety and stylishness of the rest of the programme is matched by the performances throughout. Hoefner imbues the melancholia of the Armenian folk song “Loosin Yelav” with a bittersweet lightness and transparency of texture. This is followed by “Short Life”, a composition by Sam Amidon that sets the text of the bluegrass tune, “Short Life of Trouble”. Here Hoefner, together with Downing displaying his magical bowing technique and a softly reticent Fraser, bring lyricism and fluidity to their recasting of Amidon’s colourful work. “Solstice”, Hoefner’s third and final original, is a model lesson in the very essence of style. Its filigreed arpeggios and dazzling runs are played with buoyant, aristocratic grace. Hoefner brings an almost joyful effortlessness and debonair virtuosity to his pianism, complemented by Downing and Fraser’s equally virtuosic performances. The programme concludes with a highly evocative recasting of the folk song, “Rain and Snow”.
“In this music I hope to capture the laid-back vibe, pure harmonies and melodicism that keeps me coming back to folk and traditional music, while infusing them with the interplay and rhythmic language of a jazz trio,” Hoefner adds. But he does much more on First Spring. He raises the music to a level that, in many respects, displays his extraordinarily forward-thinking pianistic vision and artistry. We, as listeners will feel privileged to be invited along for the ride.