John Hollenbeck's September Songs

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AAJ: I'm reminded of the last movement of saxophonist John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964), where he's playing and it sounds like he's saying a prayer, and I didn't learn this till much later, but he is saying a prayer, if you read the liner notes, he's playing the prayer in those liner notes. And you could almost imagine this piece without the spoken words. The implicit musicality of the speech is so powerful that I think even without that, your FDR piece would work.

JH: Yeah, yeah, in the piece toward the end there's a bass solo and then we actually play the speech—like the melody of the speech. It's the only time we play it without him [FDR], and then he comes in like halfway through, so that also proves what you just said, that it's really a great melody.

AAJ: Anytime anybody writes anything about the Claudia Quintet, they always remark on the unusual instrumentation—accordion, and clarinet, and vibes. For me, there's a kind of spare-ness. Oftentimes the part that the accordion plays suggests what another orchestrator or arranger might have expressed with a full complement of strings or a horn section. The vibes, instead of the piano, there's less sustain. There's a kind of austerity in the combination, especially when Chris Speed plays the clarinet rather than the saxophone. There's a kind of austerity, and it highlights the depth and the mystery that's actually behind the musical idea, like the use of simple but powerful language in the poetry of Yeats. Would you bristle if someone described the instruments as "austere"?

JH: (Laughs). Well, I've never heard that one before. I think that if a lot of people hadn't heard the music, and you described it as austere, they wouldn't be tempted to go check it out (laughs)!

AAJ: I don't want to give that impression!

JH: The word that I would use would be transparent. And part of it comes from the vibraphone and the accordion. Their pitches are fixed, you can't change them. So if the sounds of the instruments are basically good—which usually they are— then each pitch is always exactly the same. And then Chris Speed has a really unique way of getting inside those sounds. I think of it like a sandwich, he gets in the middle of them, he creates a hybrid sound; to me, it sounds like a hybrid instrument. I think about that a lot when I'm writing a piece. I think of an instrument, a synthetic instrument, that would be formed by the combination of those instruments. They could be like a giant kalimba, if you think of a kalimba this big, you know. Something like that, just kind of think of an instrument that doesn't really exist and see if you can use that to help you think of how you could combine those three instruments.

AAJ: It seems to be a combination that works. This innovative instrumentation shows no signs of exhausting itself. I'm not sure if you could have predicted this when the first Claudia Quintet album came out! What other projects, beyond Claudia, are on the horizon?

JH: I've been trying to pick out some pieces for—I'm not sure what the title will be, but at this point it's kind of Songs I Like A Lot, volume 2. We actually recorded three other pieces which couldn't fit on the record so we have three already. I'm trying to pick out a couple more. We don't have a recording session set; we have a gig where I'm going to bring some new music in February. Hopefully, next year we'll find a recording date for that. Yeah, that was a lot of fun, so we want to get at least the pieces that we already recorded and then a few more that I'd like to do.

I may also do a DVD using a lot of that material with my own band in New York. That's something that I've wanted to do. The feedback that I'm getting all the time is that for better or worse, people really need the visual and so I want to tackle that so that people could see the band. Right now, I don't even have any really good video of the band anyway, and people are almost every day asking me for it.

What I've been doing this month, one of the major things is trying to write my first orchestral piece. I don't have an orchestra to play it at this point, but I am thinking of doing it, writing the piece first, and then seeing if I can get someone to play it, at least bringing it to a reading session. That's something that I've always wanted to do, although I have a lot of issues with the orchestra, so it's taken me a long time to get to this point. But it's a really huge undertaking also—just the amount of people and instruments, it's just overwhelming. I've gotten a lot of this piece done, and I hope to have the piece finished by the end of the year.

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