John Hollenbeck: Exploring the Boundaries, Part 1-2

Paul Olson By

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I'm constantly trying to look for textures that have their own sonic universe, their own little place, and they don't get in people's way.
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Composer/percussionist/bandleader John Hollenbeck doesn't so much cross musical boundaries as ignore them. Combining elements of jazz, classical, post rock, chamber music—although he is openly indifferent to musical category—his 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 first of two parts.

All About Jazz: Let's start really early in your life as a musician. Tell me what got you started playing music and what kind of music you played first.

John Hollenbeck: Well, my brother is a percussionist, Pat Hollenbeck, so I saw him playing. He was in college when I was growing up and he would come back in the summers and practice. So I would go into his room and sometimes play a little tambourine or something while he was practicing, and there was definitely something that got me excited about it. And we both had a great old teacher named Russ Black, and he was just a real old-style musician, percussionist. So I studied with him because my brother had him and for a while I kind of followed in my brother's footsteps.

AAJ: So if you had kind of an old-style teacher, you had to work on the paradiddles and whatnot.

JH: Exactly. The rudiments. And I've just recently found out from teaching that that's not the way it is for everybody. I had thought that everyone started out like that but some people don't get a heavy rudimental background. And, well, some people could use it and they didn't get it early on.

AAJ: So what kind of music were you actually playing? Were you playing in bands?

JH: Yeah, I was playing classical music and while I was in high school I played in a couple percussion concertos with orchestra. But I was definitely thinking more about jazz. I grew up with a couple of guys who are now out there playing and we kind of had a steady gig. One of them is Steve Davis, and he plays trombone. He's played with Art Blakey, Jackie McLean and Elvin Jones. Chick Corea, I think, is his last kind of big gig. And then there was a tenor player, Kris Jensen, and we were all around the same age—Tony Kadleck and Dena DeRose were also there. We all went to the same high school and I was lucky in we always had a good band and we had a steady jazz gig every Monday. We would learn tunes for that and that really helped early on; it was a really good experience.

AAJ: Moving ahead, you've played in a lot of remarkable bands, both small and large groups, and with some great artists. I'm going to unfairly mention just two of the people you've worked with and I'm going to ask you to tell me what you might have learned from that person in particular, or some specific impression they made on you. The first is Bob Brookmeyer.

JH: Well, Brookmeyer is a very special case because he's still really important in my life. He's always been a big supporter, teacher, and friend. And you know, at first I was maybe seeing him from a compositional place, or looking at his own playing, and once I started playing in his band, then I got a whole other thing about him. He's a great composer, of course, and I've learned a lot from him: some from playing and studying with him, but I got the most from playing his pieces over and over and over again. You get so you can just hear what's going on without even knowing exactly what he's doing. He's actually a great conductor, and there's not that many great jazz conductors. Someone was just mentioning that to me who saw us play, someone who was a conductor themselves. If you're into conducting, or interested in getting a band to really work on subtle things, Brookmeyer is really great with that. Also, with rehearsing the band. These days, he doesn't really need to rehearse as much, but early on, we did tons and tons of rehearsal. And he's really great at rehearsing a band. So I have learned a lot just watching him do that.

AAJ: You got a chance to sort of repay the favor and write a thing or two that featured him, didn't you?

JH: Yeah, I did a couple pieces for what we called his birthday CD, which was when he was seventy. Ed Partyka, a guy in the band—he's kind of the leader of the band, besides Bob—he decided he wanted to do this project where everyone would write music for Bob. So I wrote a piece for Bob where he is playing (not improvising), but in the second part he is reciting a poem. He leaves really nice messages on my answering machine and I often play them for my girlfriend and remark on how he has a great voice. It could be a great radio voice. Plus, the poem is "Desiderata," which is a poem written from the standpoint of an older guy who wanted to give some other people some advice, so it kind of sounded to me like Brookmeyer.

AAJ: The next name I'm going to mention is Meredith Monk.

JH: Well, Meredith—along with Bob—is kind of the other important figure in my musical life. I got to know her through Theo Bleckman—he was in her ensemble. She used to work with Colin Walcott and when he passed away, she stopped working with percussion. That was fifteen, maybe twenty years ago. So it was a big deal for her to use a percussionist again; when I came in it was a really emotional experience for her. I never worked with anyone who listened to music on such a sensitive, emotional level. I would just come in and play, improvise, and she would sometimes cry a little. It was very moving for her and for me. She's a really intuitive musician. She's just now writing some pieces for orchestra and string quartet where things are not so loose and they're written down, but for the most part she works collaboratively, so we kind of just get together and improvise. Then through that, pieces come out. There's usually some sort of theater involved in it and it's really interesting. It's not jazz-like at all. It's really completely different from everything else I do. I'm working mostly with singers in the group, which is very interesting, and I'm singing a little bit myself. We have a piece that's about half-done, and in that piece, the musicians are onstage, and sometimes the whole ensemble does things together. I may be involved in some theater.

AAJ: You're getting more and more known as a composer and bandleader. But you've certainly been a sideman with a lot of people and you still do a lot of sidework. You're on the new Fred Hersch CD and you're playing right now in Europe with the Nenad Vasilic Ensemble. At this point in your career, is it different to be drumming for other people? Do you find your playing is different than it is when you're leading your own groups?

JH: When I'm a sideman I can be a little bit freer and actually concentrate much more on the drumming, so it tends to be more creative. When I'm leading my own band there's a lot of other things that are going on so I tend to just try to hold things together and maybe direct things, but I don't have enough room in my head to work creatively as much as I can when I'm a sideperson. When I'm a sideperson I really don't have to worry about anything else but the music. So it's really nice to have a balance; I just did two weeks with my quintet, and now I'm doing two weeks as a sideman and it's really great to have to only worry about the music for a few weeks.

AAJ: Let's talk about composing. A lot of your compositions are pretty dense, and they often have several sections with a lot of different things going on. When I listened to them, I found myself becoming curious about your composing process. How do you begin to write a song like "Abstinence?" What's the kernel the song begins with?

JH: Some composers find some sort of code, some sort of system, and they write a series of pieces following that system. I respect that but I've never been attracted to that method. I really try to make each piece its own thing, its own universe. I think I'm pretty successful at that, but even if I weren't, it's more important that the process of each piece be different. So with each piece, the process of writing it has to be different in some way for me. So with "Abstinence," for instance, I was working with this technique where you take a word and then you transfer the letters of that word to pitches. So, for instance, Bach did it a lot, he put his own name into his pieces a lot—composers have done this for a very long time. So "Abstinence" basically came from looking at that word and just noticing the way it looked: there's some repetition, and some letters are next to other ones, and it seemed like an interesting word. So I put it to some pitches and came up with a little phrase that sounded nice to me. From there, the piece flowed pretty quickly. There are two sections: an A section and a B section, and the A section is based completely on that, and the B section is based on the pitches that aren't used in the A section. Also I was thinking of the way a pop tune would have a little refrain, so it more or less has a little verse, and then a little refrain. That's the basic version of "Abstinence"; I recorded that with my quintet, and then arranged it for big band with a bunch of other sections that are still really just coming from the original A section/B section.

AAJ: Some of your songs like "Folkmoot" and "A Blessing" are commissioned pieces. I want to know how something like that comes about. And when you write something on commission, are there any parameters stated that you have to follow?

JH: Well, yes. It's similar to what an architect might be involved in; an architect wants to do this but a client says, "Actually, I need this and this and this." Those two pieces were commissioned for IAJE [International Association of Jazz Educators], which is more or less a competition: you send a tape of some other pieces and whoever wins has to write a piece for a debut for the next year for the convention. But I've also written a few commissioned pieces for some groups over here in Germany and some of them have been much more specific where they say, "here's the title of the piece, here's the melody," something like that. And sometimes I have to say, "wait a minute, hold on, I need to title my own piece, and I may be able to use that melody, but maybe not"—to me, it's like when I read about Frank Lloyd Wright or some other architect working with a client. It's a creative process but there are practicalities to be thought about. Usually, when you do a commission, it's almost always for a certain amount of time: "we need an eight-minute piece." Some of these pieces I've written for German ensembles, they say, "we need a ten-minute piece and it's going to be played after a Stravinsky mass." Then they might go into some detail about what they think would be a good idea to happen there. So they have the whole program already and they're telling you where your piece is going to be in the program. I don't really have a problem with that; it's kind of interesting for me. Sometimes all that structure makes more freedom for me to move around within that structure.

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...

AAJ: ...pull it back in.

JH: Exactly. J.C. goes to see my quintet all the time so he understands my music, he likes it, and it's really easy for him to get in there. I'm really happy I found him.

AAJ: With the Claudia Quintet, but also with the Large Ensemble, which has much more instrumentation, you always manage to keep the sounds crisp, light, and very discernable, even on dense passages like the slow, coalescing intro of "RAM," or "Weiji,"—which sounds very thick, very Charles Ivesy—all the instruments have their own identity and it sounds really clean and accessible. How do you manage that?

JH: Well, that's what I do in my own playing. I'm constantly trying to look for textures that have their own sonic universe, their own little place, and they don't get in people's way. Therefore I can do whatever I want because it's not hurting anything else. So I'm thinking about that all the time; I'm talking about that all the time. Collective improv to me is a very dangerous thing; the first person I think I heard talk about this was Roscoe Mitchell. He was talking about improv where there are four or five people and they're all improvising, and everyone's listening, but no one is really reacting to the other people. They're all playing something really strong. And he was saying, if five people are playing something really strong, then the audience has a choice of listening to all five, or two, or one. They can let their attention go from one to another because everyone's playing something really strong. So that is something I talk about all the time and it's probably also reflected in my writing. A lot of time the writing is not so ensemble-oriented, it's very individualistic: in a piece like "Weiji," everybody comes together sometimes, but usually they're just on their own. So everyone has to really make their part count and really play in the right place and with the right sound, so it can be heard beside all this other stuff that's going on. Every little thing that I write, I really want it to be heard. Same thing in the beginning of "RAM": each person has their own cell and it's really important that you can hear those cells. If you wanted to hear sixteen things at the same time, they're there.

AAJ: I really love the little melodic tag that ends "Weiji." After all the other stuff that goes on in that tune, it just really hits the spot.

JH: Sure. The definition of "weiji" that I use is "crisis and opportunity." So the whole first part of the piece is crisis, and that last section is just the opportunity that can happen from the crisis.

AAJ: The Large Ensemble album begins and ends with Theo Bleckmann singing or chanting two texts. The first is the traditional Irish blessing that starts the CD off, and the other is "The Music of Life" by Hazrat Inayat Khan. The way these bookend the CD gives them a sort of resonance. "The Music of Life" describes the positive, even essential effect of music on us physically and spiritually. Do you agree with this?

JH: Oh, totally. That's why it's there. It was very deliberate for me to start and end an album of what some people would call "big band" with pieces that were very un-bigbandlike. Also, pieces that are really talking about spiritual, soulful concepts.

AAJ: Which brings me to Theo Bleckmann. You two seem to have an especially close musical rapport and you collaborate with him a lot in a whole lot of groups. What do you like about working with him?

JH: First, Theo is a great guy. I just love hanging out with him, he's very funny, and very, very interesting. He's very individual and not afraid to really be himself when it comes to anything. He's very versatile when it comes to music; the reason I play with him so much is that we can play a lot of different kinds of things. We can play written-out jazzlike music, we can play free improv, we can play with Meredith Monk. I haven't found anything that he can't do. I would like to think that I'm the percussion version of Theo Bleckmann. The instrument that he's developed—it's amazing, the scope of what he can do. It seems like he can do anything: he's studied enough of all the different vocal traditions so he can really draw upon them, and within even one piece you can hear two or three very different vocal styles.

Have a question for John Hollenbeck? Ask him on the AAJ Bulletin Board.

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