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John Hollenbeck: Exploring the Boundaries, Part 1-2

By Published: March 2, 2005

AAJ: Your compositions tend to have more than one—even multiple—motifs or styles that coexist more or less peacefully in a song or even playfully compete with each other, like in the Marian-McPartland-versus-Jimmy-Giuffre themes in "Folkmoot," or—also from the Large Ensemble CD—"April in Reggae." Do you have any idea why you enjoy doing this sort of thing in your music?

JH: You mentioned style, and I am just totally not into the concept of style. I don't have a problem with mixing things that haven't been mixed before if in the end it sounds organic and it seems to work. Also I think in those cases it's the mixing of the two things that creates a new hybrid, makes something that in itself is its own thing.

AAJ: A synthesis.

JH: Yeah. It's not as brainy as it might seem; it's more intuitive. When I wrote "April in Reggae" I wasn't thinking about "April in Paris": it just popped up.

AAJ: It doesn't sound intellectual to me, it sounds playful. "April in Reggae" doesn't evoke "April in Paris" to me, but I do hear jazz themes that contrast with the reggae bits.

JH: Well, I was definitely trying to start in a reggaeish thing. I recently read an article by a consummate studio reggae musician who said that they would play reggae in the studios in the day and at night jazz gigs. They were jazz players and to them reggae wasn't that different from jazz. Sometimes the reason I write a piece is that I want to explore something: what if I start off a piece with a kind of reggae thing and it gets more jazz-like as it goes on? Just to explore that boundary, just to see how far you can go: keep the reggae but go back and forth with it, and see how close they really are. There's not that big of a difference, really, between the two. But at the end of the piece there is an "April in Paris" quote that kind of came up naturally.

AAJ: Incidentally, with "Folkmoot" I thought it was interesting that Jimmy Giuffre's part was symbolized by Dan Willis on English horn instead of Chris Speed on clarinet.

JH: I guess clarinet would have been the obvious choice.

AAJ: Maybe too obvious.

JH: When I originally performed this piece it was for IAJE, it wasn't with my own band. And to be honest, I don't remember how that came up. English horn, to me, kind of brings up an Eastern European folk-like vibe, and when I think of Jimmy Giuffre I think of folk jazz. It's kind of chambery, kind of folky, and the English horn lies in that area of chamber music, folk music. I love Chris Speed, and if he had been available, that might have been an option, but he wasn't. And I just love the English horn. Any opportunity I can get, I use it.

AAJ: Here's another question about composing. Your whole sound blends different pitches and timbres of instruments very well and very interestingly; that almost seems like one of your trademarks. It makes me wonder if you—the obvious example being Duke Ellington—write for individual players.

JH: Oh, of course. I do as much as possible. If that's all I could do, I would always do that, but sometimes it's not possible. If I am not writing for my own band, I try to find out who the players are; if I know them already, I have an idea, and if not, I get some of their recordings. I definitely try to write for specific people as much as I possibly can. It makes a huge difference. Even Duke Ellington's music played by the people it wasn't written for is, well, not as great as when it's played by the musicians it was written for.

AAJ: Yeah, I can't get quite the same enjoyment out of a big band performing his stuff now as I do listening to the old Duke Ellington records.

JH: Right. You mentioned Chris Speed, and there is nobody to me that has this sound that Chris has and so now I have that [sound] in my head and I can really deal with that. Matt Moran, too, in my quintet—there's nobody that plays the vibraphone like him and now I have those sounds in my head. I know what these musicians can do and it makes things go a little quicker these days.

AAJ: Those are great ingredients to get to work with. Let's talk about the new Large Ensemble CD, A Blessing. First, the group sounds really well-rehearsed. Is this true?

JH: Not really, no. We did a gig where we played three pieces: "A Blessing," "Folkmoot," and another piece. And then probably a year or a year-and-a-half later, we got together and rehearsed just once. Then we recorded. I wish we could have done more but the results are good. At the time I couldn't get anything happening unless I recorded the music. So I had to go for it.

AAJ: Were the tunes recorded in their entirety live or did you record them in sections?

JH: No, they were recorded all the way through.

AAJ: J.C. Sanford conducted the group—which included you drumming—during the sessions. Was that difficult or unusual for you? Did he have any conducting input or was he pretty much carrying out your ideas?

JH: J.C. is great, he's really great. He's a composer also and I play in his band, so we're on the same wavelength. I don't really have to tell him that much and his conducting really reflects my intentions. If I could be up there, I would be, but I can't. Like I said before, when I'm leading these groups, it's sometimes hard to just play, and having J.C. there, I can step back and say, okay, maybe some things won't go perfectly right with the composition but I'm not going to worry about it. J.C.'s conducting, he's taking care of business and I can just play. It really helps me be the drummer. On the CD he was pretty much doing what I was telling him to do, I guess, but he did a great job. It took me a while to find the right person to do that; we did some things that involved free improv and so in those situations the conductor's the one making the big creative decisions whether to go on or...

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