Paul Hofmann is on a mission. He wants to prove that musical creativity is not reserved for a small group of geniuses.
In his Community Education classes at the Eastman School of Music, Hofmann's students enter with a wide variety of musical backgrounds. But, before long, all of them are sitting at the piano composing their own works. The class is called "Spontaneous Composition" and it's open to everyone, even if they can hardly read music.
"I have my students sit down and say play something and I record it," says Hofmann. "There are a few rules: Make sure you end on D if you're in the key of D. I write it down and replay it and I tell them to add harmony. The last step: Throw out the original melody and write a new melody over the harmonies. The end result is little pieces that you spontaneously create by just getting your hands in the clay and doing it without worrying that it's got to be like Mozart or Bach."
Sounds too easy? Hofmann says it should be. Only our fears get in the way.
"Nobody worries about this when we're speaking," he says. "Nobody stops and asks, 'Is that an adjective?' When we're kids we hear our parents speak and we pick it up. There are many more words in English than there are notes in music. It's much harder, you would think, to be fluent in any language than in music."
Hofmann should know. He grew up in a household where the language of music was spoken eloquently.
"I heard music from when I was in the womb," he says. "From the age of four I remember hearing my parents practicing and playing records. So I never was scared of music. I never thought, 'Yikes, how do people make this up? You have to be a genius.' I just thought it was a normal thing to hear music like you hear speaking. I thought all houses were like this. You heard music and you created music."
Hofmann, who was born in Buffalo in 1962, grew up in Fredonia, where his father taught organ at the state university. As a child he listened to his parents practicing and also heard a great deal of the school's top-notch jazz ensemble. His mother was his first piano teacher.
Later, when his father was a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music, the elder Hofmann would write small piano pieces for his son. Hofmann thought "maybe I can do that," and began composing at the age of nine.
Early heroes were Erroll Garner and Chick Corea, whose Now He Sings, Now He Sobs album had a particularly strong effect on him. While he didn't quite grasp what Corea was doing, he knew he wanted to do something like it. By the age of 14, Hofmann was transcribing Charlie Parker heads from records and beginning to see a link between classical, jazz, and pop music.
"I was influenced as a young kid by Chicago, the rock band," he says. "Along with Bach and Chick Corea. It sounds funny but those early albums were so creative and so well done. It's amazing for rock guys to be so musically literate. What I got from that band as a kid was that quality music could be really successful on the radio."
He laments the fact that radio stations are now fragmented to the point where a child today would have a hard time hearing different kinds of music on one station anymore.
Hofmann picked up another important lesson from his heroes.
"What I learned from these great artists --- Chicago, Chick Corea, Weather Report --- they would release albums every year that were always different but musically great," he says. "So I thought, 'I want to do this some day.' Since 1990 I have tried, at least once a year, to release something so I leave a recorded legacy."
He started MHR Records (the initials stand for melody, harmony, and rhythm) primarily to release his own albums. The label's website (www.mhrrecords.com) publishes information about the albums and many thoughtful articles Hofmann has written over the years for Jam magazine, an online jazz publication.
Hofmann first came to Eastman as an undergraduate student in 1979. Over the years he has worked in a variety of musical settings, eventually forming Inside Out, a fusion band in the vein of Weather Report and Chick Corea. The group recorded one album, produced by Jeff Tyzik, but broke up before it could be released.
He met his wife while playing a gig in Rochester. They live in Brighton with their 6-year old daughter.
In the early 1990s, Hoffman spent several years in Kansas City, where his wife had taken a job as advertising director for Sprint Corp. Hofmann immersed himself in the very healthy jazz scene there, playing with singers Karrin Allyson and Kevin Mahogany among others. He recorded a PBS special with Mahogany and collaborated on songs like "Three Little Words."
Aside from offering lyrical jazz, Hofmann's discs have reflected every twist and turn in his life. Although he is not Jewish, his deep empathy for Jewish people is reflected in Hashoah Lamentations: Lamenting the Holocaust. When his daughter was born he put out A Child Is Born: Jazz ballads and lullabies.
In addition to 10 of his own albums, Hofmann's MHR label has released two excellent albums led by Mike Melito. Hofmann, who has worked with Melito on his own albums, has nothing but praise for the drummer.
"He's a world-class drummer," he says. "For him to still be in Rochester is a little weird." Hofmann's future plans include a duet album with another excellent local musician, guitarist Bob Sneider
For Hofmann, recording quality albums is not the difficult part.
"The marketing is the bear because there's no market for chamber jazz or hard bop. So you do it just because you love it."
On his latest MHR album, New Inventions, he practices what he preaches, using the system described above to compose small, Bach-like pieces in every major and minor key. That might sound academic, but the album is consistently inventive and engaging.
The 79-minute solo CD, with liner notes by jazz pianist and Eastman professor Harold Danko, also includes a piece by Mike Metheny and three of the short pieces composed for Hofmann by his father in the early 1970s.
Hofmann sees the album, and a recent solo concert at Kilbourn Hall, as a chance to inspire his students to explore their own creative potential. He also hopes it helps to knock down the walls between classical music and jazz.
"A hundred years ago there were not walls," he says. "Classical composers like Debussy were using jazz-like chords. On the other side you had Ellington doing classical-like things. And then you had Gershwin in the middle. In that era you had all these great musicians from the classical and jazz world listening to each other and using each other's ideas all the time. These days everything is fragmented."