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John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble: A Blessing

Mark Corroto By

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I heard the news today oh boy, four thousand holes in the jazz canon. And though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Carnegie Hall.

With apologies to Lennon/McCartney (and the Michael Jackson corporation that owns the music), John Hollenbeck and his Large Ensemble release a recording of "what the hell is that" music. The drummer/composer and leader of the Claudia Quintet and Quartet Lucy assembled this eighteen-piece aggregation to play not big band music, but big music by a band of small gestures.

The sixteen-minute title track sets the table with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, a frequent collaborator of Hollenbeck, reciting "An Irish Blessing over the the very gentle piano of Gary Versace, bass, and bowed vibraphone. Bleckmann's extraordinary four-octave voice welcomes you as the other players step forward and the piece opens up. The music gains momentum, but Bleckmann's voice always remains in the mix wordlessly singing the progression.

The Muhal Richard Abrams tribute "RAM tames a pack of hungry brass instruments into a swinging affair. Hollenbeck displays a keen sense of arranging a traditional big band here with an AACM Chicago blue collar feel. He ends the track with a multi-spoken babble of voices just to remind you that you are in his altered universe.

The Kermit Driscoll electric bass opening of "Abstinence gives way to the wordless Bleckmann vocals and some nice (uncredited) trombone work. The lazy track beginnings morph into unstructured horns and a clever shift into an 1950s big town pulse. Hollenbeck plays with the heavy beat and the power of his eighteen musicians, flexing muscle and dropping notes onto your chest. By the piece's end, the wall of sound he conjures is quite impressive.

His mix of Jamaica and swing in "April In Reggae helps to explain Hollenbeck's musical motivations. If there are ingredients out there to make a tasty stew, he utilizes them, like Chris Speed's clarinet with a dash of raggae pulse. And, of course the wordless vocals of Bleckmann.

Oh boy, I'm glad to count them all.


Track Listing: A Blessing; Folkmoot; Ram; Weiji; Abstinence; April in Reggae; The Music of Life

Personnel: Dave Ballou (Trumpet); Theo Bleckmann (Voices); Tom Christensen (Soprano, English Horn, Tenor Sax); Kermit Driscoll (Bass); Alan Ferber (Trombone); Laurie Frink (Trumpet); Jacob Garchik (Trombone); John Hollenbeck (Drums); Robert Hudson (Trombone); Tony Kadleck (Trumpet); Ben Kono (Alto, Flute, Soprano sax); Matt Moran (Mallets); Jon Owens (Trumpet); Chris Speed (Clarinet); Gary Versace (Piano)

Title: A Blessing | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: OmniTone


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