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Interviews

John Hollenbeck's September Songs

By Published: October 7, 2013
AAJ: I don't think anyone would confuse that with Wayne Shorter, but there is a similarity between Shorter's current quartet and the Claudia Quintet, and that's the remarkable empathy among the players that's the result of having played together for an unusually long time. That said, there are a couple of personnel substitutions on this record. Most notably, Red Wierenga on the accordion, and Chris Tordini for the great Drew Gress on bass. I'm curious how that changes the group dynamic, both in the preparation beforehand and also during the group performance. And also, is this a permanent change in the line-up of the Claudia Quintet?

JH: In the case of Red, the original accordionist Ted Reichman, he just couldn't do it anymore. He's responsible for child care, he has a son, and he moved to Boston, so between those two things he just couldn't really travel. It would be nice to still have him around, but he just couldn't do it anymore. Things like that happen. And so Red was a substitute for Ted for a while, and you know, he just fits in really well, he learned the music really well. He's much different than Ted as an improviser but I felt like I would be able to use that on the record. He's been playing with us probably for at least a year, maybe more. So at this point, you know, it's not like we've forgotten Ted, but Red feels like a member of the group. And then with Chris Tordini—you know, Drew is just one of the best bass players in the world and so he's basically double- to triple-booked most of the time. Claudia is a pretty high priority for him, but sometimes he just can't do it. So Chris is actually on the record because Drew couldn't quite make it at that time when we needed to record it. But also because Chris had already been subbing for Drew on a tour when we actually learned the Wayne tune. That was the first tune for the record that we learned. That was like the experiment to see—we were in France somewhere—to see, can I teach these guys a tune in two hours and can we play it tomorrow night? Some of the music Drew's never played. The tunes that Chris played on the record, Drew's never played before. Yet. He will, but he hasn't yet. Same thing, the tunes Drew played on the record, Chris has never played because those were on another session and that session was just a much more of a thing where I brought the music in the day before, we rehearsed it, and then we recorded it.

AAJ: And when you go out on tour in a week's time, who will be playing the bass?

JH: Chris. But just like the record, they're basically sharing it. On this tour, Chris is playing and then we're going to Nepal and Drew is playing. Then we're going to Europe and Drew is playing and then probably on the next European tour Chris is playing. Chris is basically our first call if Drew can't make it. They're not the same, but Chris gets into kind of the same place as far as the sound and the feel, so it feels pretty comfortable to play with Chris. It's not like it's drastically different.

AAJ: Another of the songs on September that has an immediate impact is "Me Warn You," using the cadences of a speech by Franklin Roosevelt. [The tune samples Roosevelt's address at the Democratic State Convention, Syracuse, N.Y., on September 29, 1936, warning convention delegates about GOP political strategies and defending the New Deal.] It's not the first time that you've tackled the musicality of spoken English. I'm thinking of what the Claudia Quintet did with the poetry of Kenneth Patchen on the astonishingly good What Is The Beautiful? (Cuneiform, 2011). But with FDR, you approach the recording the way a hip-hop producer might, there's a lot more chopping and going back and repeating phrases. Could you say a little bit more about the way you translate speech into music, and secondly, is there a political message in choosing that speech at this moment in American political life?

JH: I never had heard of the speech until it was of blasted all over the internet during the last election and everyone was more or less kind of saying, "Wow, this is extremely relevant, what he says here!" Definitely, I love the message and the way that he delivers it. I guess a lot of people have heard that speech, but maybe through the record a few more people will get to hear it and I think it's good for everyone to hear that message.

The speech was sent to me last September when I was writing this music and it wasn't my idea to write this piece. It came, and I started to transcribe his speech, not because I was going to write a piece, but just because I thought that it was very interesting, the melody and the rhythm of his speech. That was the reason that I did it, because I was interested in it. There was no piece in my head. But then after I did transcribe it, it was enough in my head that I started getting this idea that, you know, "Oh, maybe I could try something with the band with this speech." And we've never played that piece live because of that technical part of it, but when we recorded it, we recorded it live, even those things that are all chopped up, those were just me, I was just doing that live. So it was a fun piece to play. If we're in a space where they have real good monitors and everything, we could play the piece, but if we're playing in a more acoustic spot, it's kind of hard, because we need to hear the speech really well in order to perform it. One of the things I'm doing this week is trying to figure out if we can play that piece live (laughs).


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