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.
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 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.


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