As a solo jazz guitarist, Eric Hofbauer is in the midst of an epic American journey, but he still finds time to play with his friends at home and abroad.
Since the late 1990s, the Boston guitarist has honed a singular approach to solo recitals, marked by distilled melodies and expansive repertoire, ranging from Charlie Parker and Andrew Hill to Kurt Cobain and Van Halen. He’s deep at work on “American Grace,” the third volume in a trilogy that includes 2004’s “American Vanity” and 2010’s “American Fear!” (all released on his own label, Creative Nation Music).
When he’s not interrogating himself as a solo player, Hofbauer collaborates with some of the region’s most creative musicians. He performs Wednesday at Johnny D’s with his Infrared Band on a double bill with New York guitarist Michael Musillami’s volatile trio featuring bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller.
Formed in 2007, Infrared focuses on Hofbauer’s original tunes, clever, often playful compositions that feel conversational even when explicitly based on a musical problem (what Hofbauer punningly calls “puzzle pieces”). He reveals that mischievous sensibility with the very title of Infrared’s 2008 debut album, “Myth Understanding,” which is rendered on the CD cover with the word “standing” placed above “myth.”
Featuring tenor saxophonist Kelly Roberge, bassist Sean Farias, and drummer Miki Matsuki, Infrared has developed a group sound that’s freewheeling but utterly self-possessed. There’s the sense that the music can go anywhere, but only in relationship to what else is happening within the ensemble.
“Sometimes the bass or drums are playing the melody, or we break down into smaller units,” said Hofbauer, 38. “The idea of space is central. If there’s a mantra, it’s that we listen first and then react. Everybody’s really in everybody’s kitchen.”
Hofbauer’s most visible work in Boston was probably with American Repertory Theater’s 2008 production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” directed by Arthur Nauzyciel. Cast as a stand-in for the chorus, a trio with vocalist Marianne Solivan and bassist Blake Newman performed mood-setting standards on stage throughout the play.
Picked up by the Orleans theatre company Centre Dramatique Nationale, Nauzyciel presented the production (with French supertitles) on three tours throughout France from 2009-11. Hofbauer just returned from performing “Julius Caesar” in Colombia as part of the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá, the largest theatre festival in the world.
As an educator, he teaches jazz guitar, jazz history, and composition at Emerson College and the University of Rhode Island. His deep connection to the jazz canon is evident whenever he plays, but like his most significant creative partners, he wears the tradition lightly.
Completely comfortable in the outward-bound sojourns of saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase’s Explorer’s Club, Hofbauer also performs regularly with guitarist Garrison Fewell’s voluble Variable Density Sound Orchestra. He and Fewell, a dean of Boston jazz guitar, also perform regularly in a beautifully calibrated duo, which opens Outpost 186’s Junk Kitchen Concert Series on April 27.
They first bonded about 10 years ago, drawn together by a shared aesthetic shaped by an experimental ethos and a devotion to the clean, undistorted sound of the hollow body guitar. For at least 40 years, guitarists drawn to free improvisation and post-bop jazz have found inspiration in rock, playing effects-laden music on solid body instruments (think Marc Ducret, Marc Ribot or Fred Frith).
“We come from this other area of creative improvised music, where playing melody is OK, and playing in time is OK, too,” Fewell said. “You can groove, but you can also play free, out of time, and with no changes. It’s free jazz with melodic features, as opposed to complete blowing, or a barrage of sound.”
Born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., Hofbauer acquired his first electric guitar in his early teens, and spent several years concentrating on tunes by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix. Just when he started wondering what lurked beyond pentatonic licks, a guitar teacher turned him onto Miles Davis with the trumpeter’s classic 1967 album “Miles Smiles.”
“That record changed my life and melted my brain,” Hofbauer said.
After earning a degree in jazz performance from Oberlin Conservatory, Hofbauer moved to Boston in 1996 to study at New England Conservatory. By the time he graduated two years later, he had found two invaluable mentors, Ran Blake and Mick Goodrick.
“I was already delving deep into solo guitar, and Ran opened up a lot of different avenues, as far as personal voice and conception,” Hofbauer said. “With Mick, I always came in with a million questions. He’s the master of chord voicings, and he took me in the direction that bloomed into my individual approach.”
No other guitarist in jazz has developed a solo approach as rigorous, evocative, and thoughtful as Hofbauer. Recorded largely without overdubs, the American trilogy can be seen as political commentary on the nation post-9/11, but he’s charting internal landscapes as much as taking the country’s pulse.
“It’s autobiographical as well as topical, in the sense of commenting on my own development,” Hofbauer said. “This last one, ‘American Grace,’ reflects what grace is to me, my life and career, the need for community and family, reaching out to fellow musicians and friends.”Andrew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.