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John Hollenbeck: Exploring the Boundaries, Part 1-2

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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.

Part 1 | Part 2

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