Jazz and contemporary composition, playfulness and prayer, intensity and sweetness: in the musical world of composer/percussionist John Hollenbeck and on the brand new CD by his Large Ensemble, A Blessing, all these elements mingle. Fans of Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet or any of his other groups (Quartet Lucy, Bleckmann/Hollenbeck Duo) will be prepared for just how well those ingredients mix, but newcomers to his work may be in for a pleasant surprise. This is ambitious, modern big band music, brilliantly arranged and deftly performed and recorded.
Many of Hollenbeck's regular musical collaborators appear on A BlessingClaudia Quintet cohorts Chris Speed and Matt Moran, Quartet Lucy saxophonist/English horn player Dan Willis, vocalist Theo Bleckmannbut the emphasis is the group sound (even Bleckmann's voice blends into the ensembles like another woodwind). At the same time, no matter how dense the partseven in the thick, coalescing, coming-together of the entire ensemble of "RAM" or the Charles Ives-style xenochrony of "Weiji it is possible, even easy, to pinpoint specific players. Notable, too, are the trademark Hollenbeck complex, shifting rhythms: the steady pulse of "Folkmoot switches into a powerful math groove; "April in Reggae alternates swing time and reggae riddims. Somehow, it all sounds natural, right; these are not academic exercises. They are songs.
Hollenbeck has created a sonic universe where a sort of focused spirituality and a deep sense of play are interwoven. The CD is bookended by two pieces (the epic title track and "The Music of Life ) that contain lyrics sung by Bleckmann. "A Blessing is the familiar Irish toast ("May the road rise to meet you... ) and "The Music of Life is an excerpt from Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan on the beneficial, even essential role of music on our bodies and our spirits. Both songs are stunningthe swirling, Celtic figures near the end of the sixteen minute-long "A Blessing seem somehow magical and gravity-defyingbut they also wrap the album in a benign envelope of intelligent, restorative positivity that neither cloys nor condescends. It couldn'tnot when the music combines themes and motifs so playfully.
There are plenty of memorable individual moments. Bleckmann's amazing throughouthis voice sounds like a theremin on "Abstinence, and its wordless keening on "The Music of Life defies description. Tom Christensen's soprano solo on "A Blessing rises above its surroundings like a kite, and Gary Versace's skittering piano break on "RAM" is similarly remarkable. Hollenbeck's crisp, deeply musical drumming is always a great pleasure to hear. The overall impression, though, is of ensemble playing.
And originality: one may hear a score of musical influencesGil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, even Stan Kentonbut Hollenbeck's music is his own. His composing and arranging skills naturally lend themselves to writing for a large ensemble, and the results are an unqualified success. A Blessing is an album that, I suspect, many of us will be absorbingand enjoyingfor months to come.
Track Listing: 1. A Blessing 2. Folkmoot 3. RAM 4. Weiji 5. Abstinence 6. April in Reggae 7. The Music of Life
Personnel: Ben Kono: flute, soprano sax, alto sax; Chris Speed: clarinet; Tom Christensen: tenor sax, soprano sax, English horn; Dan Willis: tenor sax, soprano sax, English horn; Alan Won: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Rob Hudson, Kurtis Pivert, Jacob Garchik, Alan Ferber: trombones; Jon Owens, Tony Kadleck, Dave Ballou, Laurie Frink: trumpets; Kermit Driscoll: bass; John Hollenbeck: drums; Gary Versace: piano; Matt Moran: mallets: Theo Bleckmann: voice; J.C. Sanford: conductor