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John Hollenbeck has made several small-group recordings, but a large ensemble suits his advanced compositional voice especially well. With A Blessing, he documents the inspired large-group work he has showcased live over the last three or so years (most recently at the Jazz Standard CD release gig on January 25th). The drummer/bandleader's music is a bit more abstract than that of Maria Schneider and her forebearers (Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, et al.), but it drinks from nearby streams and it has a personal quality that haunts the imagination well after the album ends. The opening title track and the closing "The Music of Life feature vocalist Theo Bleckmann singing prepared texts the former a prayer read at the funeral of Hollenbeck's grandmother, the latter a meditation on music and spiritual healing from Hazrat Inayat Khan. At 16 minutes, the first piece is a rubato dreamscape that builds to a soaring tangle of melodies over a challenging harmonic rhythm. The last piece makes use of lyrical drones and monotones, with dissonant flute and low brass textures and occasional throat-singing from Bleckmann.
"Folkmoot, commissioned for a 2003 IAJE premiere in Toronto, begins in a bright, driving tempo which later gets underlined by electric bassist Kermit Driscoll. "Ram, inspired by Muhal Richard Abrams, finds pianist Gary Versace and vibraphonist Matt Moran sparring in between gruff announcements from the horns. "Weiji, with its insistent tom-tom patterns, hints at Ellington's Africanist tendencies but winds down with a much lighter, straight-eighth melodic theme. "Abstinence, the second-longest piece, has a restrained, rock-like feel and something of a spy movie flavor, with curious electronic elements at the end. "April In Reggae (which opened Hollenbeck's first set at the Jazz Standard) contains a buried reference to "April In Paris. Hollenbeck takes a stark six-note theme and elongates it, until it coils around itself.
One complaint: Horn soloists are not identified on the recording. The reeds are Tom Christensen, Ben Kono, Chris Speed, Dan Willis and Alan Won. The trombonists are Rob Hudson, Kurtis Pivert, Jacob Garchik and Alan Ferber. The trumpeters are Jon Owens, Tony Kadlek, Dave Ballou and Laurie Frink. Hollenbeck, tied up behind the drum kit, enlists JC Sanford as his conductor. Many of these players were at the Standard, where Hollenbeck rolled out several new, non-album arrangements, including a vivid "Four In One by Thelonious Monk. Even when interpreting canonical jazz, Hollenbeck goes about his art with startling originality and vision.
Track Listing: A Blessing; Folkmoot; Ram; Weiji; Abstinence; April in Reggae; The Music of Life
Personnel: Dave Ballou (Trumpet); Theo Bleckmann (Voices); Tom Christensen (Soprano, English Horn, Tenor Sax); Kermit Driscoll (Bass); Alan Ferber (Trombone); Laurie Frink (Trumpet); Jacob Garchik (Trombone); John Hollenbeck (Drums); Robert Hudson (Trombone); Tony Kadleck (Trumpet); Ben Kono (Alto, Flute, Soprano sax); Matt Moran (Mallets); Jon Owens (Trumpet); Chris Speed (Clarinet); Gary Versace (Piano)