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John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble: A Blessing

John Kelman By

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One clear benefit of the global community we live in, with its inherently broad reach, is that many artists have developed into stylistic integrators. On a smaller scale, even people who live within the boundaries of the United States can experience greater artistic diversity than ever before. Only a century ago, people living in small rural towns would have no way of knowing what kind of music was developing in larger urban centres; now, with the broad reach of the internet, it's possible that someone who lives in the most remote town can not only hear what's going on outside their relatively small physical universe, they can incorporate the experience into their own musical development.

That's one of the reasons why the definition of jazz is such a slippery slope. Reductionist thinking aside, the very assimilation of a multitude of cultural and stylistic concerns is what keeps jazz alive and well, living and breathing and, most importantly, constantly evolving. Drummer/composer John Hollenbeck has proven over the course of his relatively short career that it's possible to blend a multitude of approaches while working within an idiom that's still somehow indefinably jazz. His latest release, A Blessing, expands on the stylistic melange of his smaller Claudia Quintet with an eighteen-piece ensemble that offers greater textural possibilities and a grander vision.

The recording explores the almost unlimited possibilities of one voice, five woodwind players, four trombonists, four trumpets, and a rhythm section that—in addition to the more traditional piano-bass-drums triumvirate—also includes a variety of mallet instruments. There's nothing excessive or bombastic about Hollenbeck's approach, which isn't afraid to let smaller subsets do the talking. Nor is Hollenbeck averse to finding organic ways to emulate ideas that other artists have developed through looping and other electronic means.

All kinds of trace elements can be found scattered throughout A Blessing. The sixteen-minute title track unfolds gradually, beginning with Gary Versace's simple piano arpeggios, Matt Moran's bowed vibraphone, and Kermit Driscoll's bass creating a subtle ambient backdrop of gentle beauty for vocalist Theo Bleckmann's crystal pure evocation of "An Irish Blessing. The piece builds slowly, with Hollenbeck's drums developing an ever-strengthening forward motion underneath horn lines that start as long tones, but ultimately evolve into repetitive patterns that take on a rhythmic life of their own, resolving into a kind of post-minimalist Steve Reich-meets-Maria Schneider vibe.

Elsewhere there are elements of primal jungle rhythms ("Weiji ), Brian Eno ambience that builds into a free cacophony before heading for straight-ahead swing ("RAM ), and a kind of free jazz reggae ("April in Reggae ). While it's difficult to single out any one player, Bleckmann's voice—while most often integrated into the overall texture of the ensemble, rather than standing out—ranges from pristine beauty to percussive panting, and even some miraculous throat singing over the stasis of "The Music of Life.

Captivating and compelling from a larger narrative perspective, A Blessing is continued evidence of Hollenbeck's unfailing instincts and endless imagination. A masterpiece.

Visit John Hollenbeck on the web.


Track Listing: 1. A Blessing 2. Folkmoot 3. RAM 4. Weiji 5. Abstinence 6. April in Reggae 7. The Music of Life

Personnel: Ben Kono: flute, soprano sax, alto sax; Chris Speed: clarinet; Tom Christensen: tenor sax, soprano sax, English horn; Dan Willis: tenor sax, soprano sax, English horn; Alan Won: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Rob Hudson, Kurtis Pivert, Jacob Garchik, Alan Ferber: trombones; Jon Owens, Tony Kadleck, Dave Ballou, Laurie Frink: trumpets; Kermit Driscoll: bass; John Hollenbeck: drums; Gary Versace: piano; Matt Moran: mallets: Theo Bleckmann: voice; J.C. Sanford: conductor

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


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