by Piotr Michalowski
The jazz and popular music drum set is deceptively difficult to play; you can quickly learn to bash it, but to do it justice and create music requires as much practice and creativity as any other instrument. The great jazz drummers have a sound and style that is immediately identifiable, just like the individualistic saxophonists' or trumpeters', and a good number, among them Tiny Kahn, Louie Bellson, Max Roach, and Shelly Manne, have been accomplished composers and arrangers. Among our younger contemporaries, it is drummer, composer, arranger, and bandleader John Hollenbeck who best continues this tradition.
Hollenbeck began to appear on the scene as a sideman three decades ago. His first major musical impact came in 2001 and 2002; with degrees in percussion and composition from the Eastman School of Music under his belt, he quickly released four impressive recordings. Three included the extraordinary vocalist Theo Bleckmann, while one featured the debut of his Claudia Quintet. The very next year, he and Bleckmann performed at Edgefest in Ann Arbor, both as a duet and with the U-M Jazz Band. Over the last decade he has continued to work as a sideman, in a number of duets, and with his acclaimed quintet, which functions as a vehicle for his ever-growing book of compositions. He writes music for many different contexts and occasions, including chamber works and percussion scores for Meredith Monk's performances.
Whenever he can, however, Hollenbeck performs with his Large Ensemble. The music that he has written for the big formation is perhaps his most ambitious to date, and requires top-notch reading and improvisational skills from all involved. The core of the ensemble is the traditional jazz big band, with trumpet, trombone, and saxophone sections, but the way Hollenbeck uses these resources bears little resemblance to conventional jazz writing. Following in the path of his teacher Bob Brookmeyer, Hollenbeck mixes instruments from different sections and requires his woodwind players to double on multiple instruments, allowing him to create
many different ensemble timbres and colors. He also adds other sounds, from various percussion and electronic instruments, or from less traditional instruments such as the English horn. His compositions rarely swing in the accepted manner; rather, unusual layered rhythms, propulsion, and drive are built up with walls of sound, pulsation, and repetition. He occasionally includes the human voice as an element of the ensemble, singing or reciting poetry or even prose, such as excerpts from the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan's teachings on sound. The two existing recordings of this music demonstrate the progress of his orchestral concepts, and the most recent, Eternal Interlude, was even unexpectedly nominated for a Grammy last year, a rare accomplishment for such ambitious music.
Saturday, October 2, the last day of this year's Edgefest, will be a virtual Hollenbeck-fest as he plays with Curtis Hasselbring's combo, leads the U-M Big Band in performances of his Large Ensemble compositions, and then appears with his Claudia Quintet.
[Originally published in September, 2010.]