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John Hollenbeck: Exploring the Boundaries, Part 2-2

Paul Olson By

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During the concerts I try to talk a lot, to explain the pieces as much as I can in kind of a funny way just to make everyone at ease and try to help the audience as much as possible because I know it is new music.
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 second part of our interview.

AAJ: Let's talk about the Claudia Quintet. First, how did you arrive at a quintet of drums, bass, vibes, accordion and mostly clarinet? Were these elements that you specifically wanted to incorporate in your group, or did it come out of the fact that those are the instruments that these guys—with whom you wanted to play—played?

JH: It was a combination. I was definitely looking for something that I could call my own, instrumentation-wise. Then it just kind of happened within a year or so that I met these people that played these instruments that, for different reasons, I really liked playing with. And I thought, "What if I put them all together? That would be interesting. The clarinet with the accordion: that's interesting because they have a reed thing going on, and the accordion with the vibraphone: that's a nice sound. The vibraphone with the clarinet: that's something I've heard before and I like that a lot. And the acoustic bass, too. It was all just an experiment, but it was the combination of all the right people playing the right instruments. It sounded unique. Every once in a while you come upon a place and you feel like: ahhhh. I've arrived: this is me. This is my group.

AAJ: That's a good feeling.

JH: Yeah. It feels very natural, like this was just meant to be.

AAJ: A lot of Claudia songs, like, say, "Just Like Him, sound very composed in the best way, where everything interlocks and all the parts are absolutely where they have to be. You write the songs; are the arrangements also yours?

JH: Yeah. Well, half the time I come in with a finished arrangement; the other half of the time I kind of have an idea, but I change it once I hear it. Or once I hear someone do something that maybe I didn't intend for them to do, I realize it's actually much better. But I basically am arranging the music; usually it's arranged and composed at the same time.





AAJ: Is there such a thing as a Claudia Quintet song, meaning a song that you wrote specifically for this group?

JH: Oh, yeah, most of them are written for that group. Almost all of them, and then [after writing them for the quintet] I have adapted some for, say, the big band.

AAJ: Like "Abstinence.

JH: Yeah, "Abstinence, and I have a big-band version of "Just Like Him, but it's the same arrangement; it's just for big band. "Abstinence wasn't originally written for the Claudia Quintet, but ninety percent of the music we play was written just for them.

AAJ: When I was casually listening to the song "Opening, on I, Claudia , before I paid a lot of attention, the first time—it sounded terrifically modern, even electronic. The intro reminded me of Brian Eno. But as I really listened to the music I realized: the vast majority of Claudia Quintet music is completely acoustic, is it not? There's nothing on I, Claudia that can't be completely reproduced live.

JH: On that record, there's a few teeny-weeny things. Like on that piece, we put a tiny little slow filter on the accordion, and on "How Can You Get Through This Life With a Good Heart —when the bass comes in towards the beginning with kind of an improv thing—we put a strange little fuzzy thing on the bass. All that stuff is carefully thought about, because it has to really make sense to do it. For the first record, I really like that when we played live, it really sounded exactly like the record. For the second record, I really went for a different thing. We really worked on getting a higher-fidelity thing happening, so there are some little tricks to help us get that. Basically though, it's acoustic. I play a couple electronic toy things, but there are no effects otherwise on everyone. On a piece like "Opening, we're emulating electronic instruments a lot. It's a reverse influence now: now acoustic musicians are influenced by electronic music.


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