The fall of 2001 has seen the release of three new albums by local drummer and percussionist John Hollenbeck. A variation of the Quartet Lucy, spearheaded by Hollenbeck and Theo Bleckmann on vocals, played a short set to an enthusiastic Tonic audience celebrating the CD release. Hollenbeck's albums are very different from those put out by percussionists in the fusion-dominated '70's. He makes his impression through composition and choice of musicians rather than over-the-top pyrotechnics. The Quartet Lucy album features Hollenbeck equally on drums and piano. The material alternates between moody soundscapes recalling Oregon in texture and use of English horn to pieces exploring Middle Eastern and South American percussion traditions. The slower pieces provide the vehicle for Bleckmann's ethereal and superfluous vocals. The vocals prove distracting, as no song is that long and would keep the listener's interest without the digitally processed vocal track. The performance at Tonic exemplified this situation: vocals used as an equal instrument usually end up being dreary, or pretentious, or both. The trio of Hollenbeck's reserved but inventive drumming, Jonas Tauber's Indian-inspired droning cello and Dan Willis' English horn work would be more than enough for an evening. Those pieces on Quartet Lucy that were light on the vocals also tended to be the most interesting. "Forevas", "Constant Conversation" (played at the gig) and "Vira-Folha", each delved into a different region of world percussion. That Hollenbeck could effectively play each is a sign of his talent and maturity. Up-and-coming Icelandic bassist Skuli Sverrison added his virtuoso playing to great effect throughout, even contributing an invigorating bajo sexto solo on "Dreams for Tomorrow". The CD release gig displayed only a small part of Hollenbeck's eclectic vision. The Claudia Quintet and No Images are vastly different from each other and from Lucy.
The Claudia Quintet is most in keeping with modern trends of jazz. Mixing groove bass, traditional melody lines and exemplary rhythms by Hollenbeck, this group shares similarities with fellow open-minded bandleader Dave Fiuczynski's Kif, if more in vision than specific sound. Since Hollenbeck plays drums and percussion exclusively on this album, his abilities are more prominently displayed. The album also is more conventional in the solo space given to each musician within the stricter song formats. Reichman rescues the accordion from novelty status to make it an effective melodic instrument. Much like Lucy, the drums are not in the forefront here but neither is any one instrument. Hollenbeck has chosen musicians who come together to form a very even group, rather than one filled with rapidly emerging and receding personalities. The accordion and vibraphone mesh into a very pleasing texture, buoyed by firm acoustic bass. The album is a little inconsistent however as the slower numbers in the middle are not particularly compelling.
The earliest recorded of the three albums puts Hollenbeck in several free jazz contexts. Possibly drawing inspiration from the early '70's MPS sessions, which brought together several musicians on the same instrument, two tracks feature either three tenors or three trombones. In addition, there are two tenor and drum duets as well as a trio piece featuring percussion, Theo Bleckmann's vocals and Ben Monder's guitar. The album's release was delayed by the King family over the inclusion of a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King over the trombone trio and drum piece "The Drum Major Instinct". Thankfully, some settlement must have been reached. Clocking in at just under 25 minutes, the listener's attention never lags, as the three-trombone line improvised beautifully over the powerful words of King. "Bluegreenyellow", with tenor star Dave Liebman playing with two other tenors, recalls the glory days of Britain's SOS. The two tenor duets, one with Liebman and the other with Eskelin, never degenerate into aimless honking, and can even be called reflective. The album's only weak point is the trio with Bleckmann that is too spacey, especially in comparison with the strong improvising found on the rest of the album.
While Hollenbeck can be faulted for a being a little too eclectic, he is to be lauded for his reserved and tasteful playing and desire to create music, not just musical drum solos.
John Hollenbeck-No Images Blueshift/CRI 2002 Dave Liebman, Ellery Eskelin, Rick Dimuzio (ts); Theo Bleckmann (voc); Ben Monder (eg); Ray Anderson, David Taylor, Tim Sessions (trom); John Hollenbeck (drm, perc, autoharp) Tracks: Bluegreenyellow, Without Morning, Liebman/Hollenbeck Vignettes, The Drum Major Instinct, Eskelin/Hollenbeck Vignettes, No Images [Rec. Feb. 20 and Feb. 24, 1995; Feb. 11, 1996]