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Music Review: Amos Hoffman – Evolution

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Have you ever been fairly certain about an upcoming performance and/or record only to have your expectations turned upside down? That happened to me back in the early '90s. A friend and I had tickets to see Ginger Baker play at a small local club. I can't remember exactly what I thought the music would be like but I was not expecting a lineup consisting of only Baker, a second percussionist, and two bass players. One of the bassists was the great Jonas Hellborg, sporting a midi rig that took care of everything from evil noise to the keyboard parts. The music was groove-oriented with various African elements. It was stunning.

One thing it was not was Cream.

Listening to Amos Hoffman's Evolution induced strong memory pangs from that evening because, even though the promo material said it, the idea of the Middle Eastern oud taking a trip though jazz land just didn't register with me. Sure enough, Hoffman enlists Ilan Katchka (percussion), Ilan Salem (flute), and bassist Avishai Cohen to bring his Middle Eastern/African/jazz concept to life.

At first listen, the opening track "Enayim" doesn't grab you as something too far removed from the target instrument's roots. It's when Hoffman drops back to give Cohen a bass solo — one that dovetails perfectly into the oud's melodic lines as well as the chattering percussion — that you begin give Hoffman credit for a masterfully subtle weave.

Throughout the album, the ear is surprised by unexpected shifts in musical behavior. On "Miss T," Hoffman creates a searching duet with Avishai Cohen (who switches to the piano). Mid-song, a little blues shuffle kicks in before they drop back, take a breath, and then lurch forward into a much faster section full of speedy piano passages and tricky rhythms. "Hamsa" finds Hoffman wending his way through a dark theme accompanied by bass and percussion. About two-thirds of the way though, the tempo suddenly increases and Hoffman takes an angular guitar solo over his own rolling arpeggios. "Sweet Eden" plays with formats by starting out with oud and flute in near unison, followed by a flute solo, finally switching to oud and flute sliding through some moody descending parts.

Some of this approach was foreshadowed as early as the second track, "Exploration." After Hoffman and Salem state the theme, Cohen takes a bowed bass solo that both transforms and enhances the theme. The tempo the jumps an order of magnitude and "Exploration" takes off, almost sounding like a modern twist on "Caravan." Truly inspiring stuff.

I did not expect that the first few bars of Evolution would flower into such a textured and unpredictable musical statement. I'll take a surprise like that any day of the week.

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