Classically Trained but Bebop-Ready


When flutist Holly Hofmann and pianist Bill Cunliffe team at Spaghettini tonight, they'll give the audience a glimpse of their upcoming recording, tentatively titled "Just Duet," which is scheduled for release in February.

Although the album's title may not be final ("the designer thinks it's too cute for the cover art she'd chosen," Hofmann said), the music is. "It's primarily a jazz album," she said in a phone call from her home in San Diego, "with a couple of classical pieces and several originals. But it's really more about the art of the duet than it is about jazz swing."

Both Hofmann and Cunliffe have large reputations among fellow musicians, though they may not yet be household names among the jazz audience at large. Hofmann is a muscular player who has stood toe-to-toe with the likes of saxophonist James Moody, trombonist Slide Hampton and others. Cunliffe won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition in 1989.

Hofmann says the two have a common background. "The thing that Bill and I have in common is extensive classical training. He's the only guy I know who has incredible classical ability and still swings as hard as any pianist I know."

The two demonstrated this shared experience when recording the new album, which includes an arrangement of Robert Schumann's Three Romances, written in 1849 for violin and piano. "We play a shorter version," Hofmann says, "but without any jazz in it at all."

But Hofmann, whose classical training began in her hometown of Cleveland when she was 5, doesn't want people to think that she and Cunliffe are traditional orchestral musicians who like to dabble in swing.

"We don't ever want to sound like classical players who do a little jazz," she says. "When we do bebop, we swing really hard."

Another quality Hofmann says she shares with Cunliffe is a desire to mix it up. "We both like to go in a lot of different directions. We don't like to limit ourselves to a certain musical style. We like to burn, but we also like to play sublime, studied duets."

The flutist first heard Cunliffe play in 1991, when the pianist worked with bassist John Clayton and saxophonist Jeff Clayton at the Horton Grand Hotel in San Diego, where Hofmann booked the music. Since then, Hofmann and Cunliffe have worked extensively together, including a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Cunliffe replaced pianist Kenny Barron when Hofmann played New York's Village Vanguard in April.

The appearance at the Vanguard, arguably the oldest and most distinguished jazz club in the nation, was a milestone in Hofmann's career. As the first flutist to lead a combo at the downstairs Greenwich Village club, Hofmann was seen in heady company that included not only Barron but also veteran bassist Ray Brown and drummer Victor Lewis.

But she's somewhat miffed about the press coverage she received.

"They all gave me backhanded compliments. Every piece started with a line something like 'What's a female flute player from the West Coast doing at the Vanguard?' The reviews were all positive, but what were they saying about females and West Coast players?"

Hofmann says it's been difficult to overcome the stereotype of the delicate female flute player.

"If there's one thing I've tried to do," she says, "it is to take the flute out of the 'chick flute player' category. I don't have that problem among my peers, but I've heard festival promoters say they don't want a chick flute player in their festival. That kind of stuff happens all the time. . . .

"I just want to be seen as another one of the horn players," she continues. Indeed, when Hofmann appeared in September at the West Coast Jazz Festival at the Irvine Marriott hotel, she was an integral part of the proceedings, sounding strong with the likes of saxophonist Rickey Woodard, trumpeter Conte Candoli and pianist Cunliffe.

"Things are better among my peers who have heard me play," she says. "When they hear you led a band at the Vanguard, they know you're not just a female flute player."

Hofmann, at the Horton Grand until last year, now books the jazz at the Bristol Court Hotel, also in downtown San Diego, with recent appearances from pianist Gene Harris, saxophonist Charles McPherson and the Great Guitars with Charlie Byrd, Herb Ellis and Mundell Lowe. In addition to stints at the Bristol, Hofmann's combo with bassist Bob Magnusson and pianist Mike Wofford appears most Thursdays at the Marine Room in La Jolla.

Hofmann says she and Cunliffe might not play any classical music when they appear at Spaghettini. "It's not necessarily a listening venue, so it'll depend on the crowd. But we'll certainly do some heavy jazz."

Yes, just duet.

* Holly Hofmann and Bill Cunliffe appear tonight at Spaghettini, 3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach. 7 p.m. No cover. (310) 596-2199.

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