John Hollenbeck: Exploring the Boundaries, Part 2-2
“ During the concerts I try to talk a lot, to explain the pieces as much as I can in kind of a funny way just to make everyone at ease and try to help the audience as much as possible because I know it is new music. ”
Part 1 | Part 2
Composer/percussionist/bandleader John Hollenbeck doesn't so much cross musical boundaries as ignore them. Combining elements of jazz, classical, post rock, chamber musicalthough he is openly indifferent to musical categoryhis music manages to be challenging and experimental; at the same time, it is utterly unintimidating and accessible. Hollenbeck's sidework with a plethora of groups led by the likes of Bob Brookmeyer, Fred Hersch and Cuong Vu coexists with his own bandleading projects; perhaps the most celebrated of these is the Claudia Quintet, whose second CD, I, Claudia , was released in 2004 to widespread critical acclaim. I spoke with Hollenbeck about his playing, composing, the Claudia Quintet, and his big-band project (he dislikes the term) the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and its brand-new album A Blessing. This is the second part of our interview.
AAJ: Let's talk about the Claudia Quintet. First, how did you arrive at a quintet of drums, bass, vibes, accordion and mostly clarinet? Were these elements that you specifically wanted to incorporate in your group, or did it come out of the fact that those are the instruments that these guyswith whom you wanted to playplayed?
JH: It was a combination. I was definitely looking for something that I could call my own, instrumentation-wise. Then it just kind of happened within a year or so that I met these people that played these instruments that, for different reasons, I really liked playing with. And I thought, "What if I put them all together? That would be interesting. The clarinet with the accordion: that's interesting because they have a reed thing going on, and the accordion with the vibraphone: that's a nice sound. The vibraphone with the clarinet: that's something I've heard before and I like that a lot. And the acoustic bass, too. It was all just an experiment, but it was the combination of all the right people playing the right instruments. It sounded unique. Every once in a while you come upon a place and you feel like: ahhhh. I've arrived: this is me. This is my group.
AAJ: That's a good feeling.
JH: Yeah. It feels very natural, like this was just meant to be.
AAJ: A lot of Claudia songs, like, say, "Just Like Him, sound very composed in the best way, where everything interlocks and all the parts are absolutely where they have to be. You write the songs; are the arrangements also yours?
JH: Yeah. Well, half the time I come in with a finished arrangement; the other half of the time I kind of have an idea, but I change it once I hear it. Or once I hear someone do something that maybe I didn't intend for them to do, I realize it's actually much better. But I basically am arranging the music; usually it's arranged and composed at the same time.
AAJ: Is there such a thing as a Claudia Quintet song, meaning a song that you wrote specifically for this group?
JH: Oh, yeah, most of them are written for that group. Almost all of them, and then [after writing them for the quintet] I have adapted some for, say, the big band.
AAJ: Like "Abstinence.
JH: Yeah, "Abstinence, and I have a big-band version of "Just Like Him, but it's the same arrangement; it's just for big band. "Abstinence wasn't originally written for the Claudia Quintet, but ninety percent of the music we play was written just for them.
AAJ: When I was casually listening to the song "Opening, on I, Claudia , before I paid a lot of attention, the first timeit sounded terrifically modern, even electronic. The intro reminded me of Brian Eno. But as I really listened to the music I realized: the vast majority of Claudia Quintet music is completely acoustic, is it not? There's nothing on I, Claudia that can't be completely reproduced live.
JH: On that record, there's a few teeny-weeny things. Like on that piece, we put a tiny little slow filter on the accordion, and on "How Can You Get Through This Life With a Good Heart when the bass comes in towards the beginning with kind of an improv thingwe put a strange little fuzzy thing on the bass. All that stuff is carefully thought about, because it has to really make sense to do it. For the first record, I really like that when we played live, it really sounded exactly like the record. For the second record, I really went for a different thing. We really worked on getting a higher-fidelity thing happening, so there are some little tricks to help us get that. Basically though, it's acoustic. I play a couple electronic toy things, but there are no effects otherwise on everyone. On a piece like "Opening, we're emulating electronic instruments a lot. It's a reverse influence now: now acoustic musicians are influenced by electronic music.
AAJ: I'm usually pretty good at figuring out time signatures in music, but some of the Claudia Quintet stuffsome of the signatures leave me lost. I can't figure out kind of count they're in, and something like "Arabic seems especially polyrhythmic. When you and Drew Gress play together, those rhythms can get pretty intense. I am wondering how these complex rhythms affect your audience, and in general how your audience generally responds to your shows.
JH: The response is usually really, really great because, well, people tend to think the music's going to be a lot weirder and a lot less accessible than it actually is. So the responses are usually great. I was just listening to a concert we did in Santa Fe and that was like a rock concert audience; they were just going nuts, dancing, and for us that's the absolute best. It cannot get any better than that. During the concerts I try to talk a lot, to explain the pieces as much as I can in kind of a funny way just to make everyone at ease and try to help the audience as much as possible because I know it is new music. And it still might be a little scary for people. But without watering down the music, I do everything I can to make it as accessible as possible.
AAJ: Some of it may be daunting or intimidating, but that song you mentioned, "Good Heart, is a total groove where the players feel really connected and the level of locked concentration is pretty powerful. I can't imagine an audience not responding to that one.
JH: Yeah, because of the way it ends there's always a good response. But I know that the first part of that piece is difficult for some people. There's actually a Morton Feldman- type section, and a Joni Mitchell sectionthough it doesn't have that much to do with Joni Mitchellso the people who like and have heard new music like the first section. And the people who have never heard new music before like the second section. Hopefully, by blending those two elements you can kind of help people grow a little. Most of the music is very, very rhythmic, and that is a place where almost everyone can access music. If it has a groove. When we played in Brazil, I know those weren't sophisticated audiences by jazz standards, but they were great; they were totally into it because most of the music has a pretty strong groove and they can just access it from that level.
AAJ: Some guys like me waste time trying to figure out if a song is in nines or elevens, but I don't think most people do that to enjoy music and I don't think they should; I don't think I should.
JH: Well, I used to do that when I would hear Steve Coleman's stuff. Musicians do that and I still do that. I just try to do it as fast as possible and get it over with.
AAJ: Does the Claudia Quintet still have to rehearse a lot or have you reached a point where you've got a rapport without having to rehearse all the time?
JH: No, when I bring in new music it still takes a while to really get it. I think the guys in the band would say that it's just getting harder and harder. It takes them a lot less time to get the vibe of the piece, but to actually play it correctly and to get it to a place where everyone is comfortable playing itthat still takes a long time. Maybe less time in rehearsal, but we still have to play the pieces for a while to really get them feeling comfortable.
AAJ: It's not the kind of music that's going to come off well played loose.
JH: No, you can still get the general gist of it; there are some pieces that might work like that, but a lot of it's very exact. The problem is if we're playing it and it's not anywhere near where I want it to be I have a hard time just actually playing. It's better if it's somewhat like I intended.
AAJ: Just to give you an example: "A Cloud of Unknowing, also on I, Claudia. I found it reminded me of baroque music and the Modern Jazz Quartet at the same time. I've read various articles about the Claudia Quintet and this group's music reminds people of so much different stuff; do their notions of what they think it sounds likewhat kind of music it issurprise you?
JH: It doesn't really surprise me that much becausewell, I don't know why it is but people want to grab something to hold on to it. So they have to put it into a little category or place that they already know, to say, "This is like Tortoise, because they know Tortoise, and they find some similarity. But I think really it's its own thing; I was talking to Barre Phillips about ECM music. I told him that nowadays ECM music is thought of as a style. This record label's output has become stylized and codified to some extent. In the beginning, when you heard records on ECM, what could you really say? Eurojazz, or something; you couldn't really compare it to very much, it was kind of its own thing. Bill Milkowski in his review of us, wrote, "what the hell is it? That kind of sums it up.
AAJ: John Hollenbeck music.
JH: I'm really not into genres or styles so it's just eclectic; it has a little bit of everything in there and it's not really one thing.
AAJ: What's on the horizon for the Claudia Quintet? Do you have new tunes, recording plans?
JH: We just recorded a couple weeks ago. We did the new music in Europe in November and did a southeast tour, and the recording is pretty much done. The hard stuff is still to come: the mixing and all that, but it's been recorded. One thing about the Claudia Quintet is that sometimes the instrumentation of the group is kind of emphasized. A lot. And because of that, and also just to cleanse the palate we're going to go into the studio and do some very short pieces that I'm going to link to the pieces we've already recorded and in these pieces we're going to play other instruments. Not any Claudia Quintet instruments.
AAJ: Any plans to present the Large Ensemble live?
JH: I don't right now, but I am hoping the record will give us some opportunities. We've had some really nice gigs at the Jazz Standard in New York, and I would always be up for a gig there if they'd give us one. Mark Christman, in Philliewho has presented the Claudia Quintet a couple timesis writing a grant to bring us down there. I'll be applying for a gig at the IAJE convention in New York. A big band, you know, is pretty much an economic nightmare.
AAJ: Well, I had a question here that you've just answered, which is, "Is it possible to tour with big bands?
JH: Not really. If I were to win a MacArthur grant or something like that, then yes. Not at my level. The Lincoln Center Orchestra has a lot of support, so maybe they can do it. But they're one of the only ones that I know of. If you want to treat your musicians well, it's just really hard. If we were backing up Björk, well, then maybe we could. Even Maria Schneider's not doing as much as you would think with her own band; she does a festival here and there but not many tours from what I can see. And the Bob Brookmeyer band, it's just a constant struggle to get anything going on. We try and try and try and once in a while we get a little thing. A week a year is about as much as we can do. I have a second big band record that's coming out in August and that's with a band called Jazz Big Band Graz, from Austria, and we're doing some gigs in April and some in November, and I was just talking with those guys last night. It's just really hard to get any gigs with a big band and do any kind of touring. It's almost impossible but there are a few of us that are still trying.
AAJ: There is a link to Vipassana Meditation on your website. Do you practice that and does it inform your work in any way?
JH: Yeah, definitely. I wish I could do more and I will do more, but yes. When I was growing up and checking out musicians, I would hear some of them talk about meditation. After a while, I realized a lot of them had checked it out, at least, and a lot of them do it. When I teach I have this one exercise, really my core exercise, the most important exercise I give someone. It's basically teaching them how to meditate without calling it meditation and we're doing it on the drums, but it's all of the things you go through when you meditate. I think meditation is the most important thing that anyone can do. If everyone was meditating, wellshit would be different.
AAJ: You get the impression from the way things are going in the world that everybody is definitely not meditating.
JH: [Laughter.] Yeah, but you can only worry about yourself. Hopefully, I will inspire some people through the music and then maybe they'll find out about meditation through the music. Hopefully, when people hear this music they'll feel like I did when I heard John Coltrane and realizedwell, I am sure he had a sense of humor, but he's a serious dude. There is something serious going on.
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John Hollenbeck Steps Out (2001)