It seems every time you turn around these days someone has a new jazz version of “The Rite of Spring” out. Possibly the recent 100 year anniversary of the piece has something to do with that. A certain high profile piano trio got a lot of attention recently for their rendition of “Rite”, but their version was turgid and unimaginative compared to this far better version by the less known guitarist Eric Hafbauer and his four creative band mates (Jerry Sabatini - trumpet, Todd Brunel - clarinet, Junko Fujiwara - cello, Curt Newton - drums). This version of “Rite” uses the melodies and structure of the original for some very imaginative improvisations that also manage to stay true to the integrity of Stravinsky’s original piece.
There are so many interesting cross-references at work here, Hofbauer seems to have thought of everything. First of all, the sound and approach of this ensemble often sounds a bit like 1920s jazz, which would have been the era in which “Rite” could have been first played as an experimental jazz piece. None of this is obvious or ‘museum like’ as Hofbauer also draws on many modern elements such as free improvisation and more. The 20s sound of the ensemble and the modern NYC eclectic influences blend seamlessly, the end result is a piece that fits well with the music of today, but could almost pass as an avant-garde piece from the 20s as well. The 20s was a very experimental time in jazz, with a lot of borrowing from modern composers, and its possible Hofbauer may be paying tribute to that.
The other interesting cross-reference comes when you notice that when “Rite” is played with this small ensemble, it sounds a lot like Stravinsky’s “History of the Soldier”. “History” was one of Igor’s follow-ups to the massive “Rite”, a small scale piece by contrast, “History” was one of his first pieces to show a strong influence from jazz, both in the instrumentation and in the music. Possibly the key to bringing all these elements together, the 20s jazz and the latter jazz influenced Stravinsky pieces, is the fact that there is a clarinet on board instead of a saxophone. Todd Brunel’s clarinet playing is what gives this rendition of “Rite” so much of its flavor. All of this may sound academic, but despite their sensitivity to nuance, Eric and his crew approach this music with sly humor and a sense of chaotic fun.
Eric Hofbauer’s version of “The Rite of Spring” never gets boring or predictable, the main melodies of the piece come and go while they mix with all manner of diversions and excursions. Eric is able to accent the modernist elements of this piece, both in the context of its time period and today, and show the connecting similarities in both decades. This rendition really brings new life to Stravinsky's creation, and I think Igor would have enjoyed hearing it. The added plus is Hofbauer’s guitar playing, which somehow can capture some of the color of Stravinsky’s original orchestrations.