By Chris DiGirolamo
To take on the labels "composer , "drummer , "percussionist and "bandleader means being a busy man for John Hollenbeck. Maintaining his composition practices while leading The Claudia Quintet and his Large Ensemble, Hollenbeck this year alone has also toured and/or will soon be touring with vocalist Meredith Monk, pianist Fred Hersch, Jazz Big Band Graz, Bob Brookmeyer's New Art Orchestra and with the many sidemen who share his musical passion such as saxophonist Tony Malaby and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring.
With a vast performance range, he has played in a myriad of varied settings ranging from duo to big band. And working in a variety of styles reveals it is not all about jazz for Hollenbeck who, in addition to an array of traditional music settings, uncovers his versatility in Klezmer music as well as his work with Argentina's (pianist and Astor Piazzolla protégé) Pablo Ziegler. His ingenuousness as a musician has laid the foundation for the development of his musical idiom. Suffice to say, John Hollenbeck is in demand, expanding both his own body of work and his experience with others.
Keeping in motion with his contribution to several simultaneous projects, Hollenbeck's latest focus is the new release of The Claudia Quintet's Semi-Formal
(Cuneiform). Featuring Drew Gress (bass), Matt Moran (vibraphone), Ted Reichman (accordion) and multi-reedman Chris Speed, the quintet performs a fascinating body of work as an intriguing unit which makes up one of the most exciting jazz ensembles to come along in sometime. From the diversity in his drumming to the extra surprises that are perfectly placed, this latest Hollenbeck project speaks on its own merit. Produced and written by the composer/drummer/ percussionist/bandleader, the music gives you the sense of Hollenbeck as someone who is breaking boundaries and moving away from the customary jazz quintet sound. "I never start the composition process of any piece the same way...I always end up somewhere completely different, states Hollenbeck of his philosophy to composition. He stands by it as a method that he simply and convincingly says "works for me.
To listen to his drumming on any recording, one would have to wonder where his style influence developed, as Hollenbeck can be as versatile as any drummer you have heard recently. When asked about his growth as a player he credits his brother Pat as the one who turned him on to a wide variety of music: "My older brother would always come home from college with stacks of records... I remember making mixed tapes which would include Aaron Copland, Anthony Braxton and Stevie Wonder. It was clear that my interests were broad. Born in Binghamton, New York, by his early teens Hollenbeck had taken his love of music to the drum set: "My brother would practice the drums and I would play tambourine along with him. It was the start of what I now do .
Without short changing where he was raised in quiet upstate New York, which didn't allow him the same exposure to music as a music metropolis such as New York, Hollenbeck instead gives much credit to Binghamton University which offered him the many opportunities to grow and learn as a young musician. "I was very lucky to attend the one-week jazz workshops at the University. It offered me an opportunity to stretch out to listen and study, says Hollenbeck who also tells a story of how the university radio station would bring in jazz legends like Art Blakey and Ahmad Jamal among others. And when these acts would stop by they usually didn't have a drum set so they would use his. "This was amazing because it allowed me to meet these musicians first hand. They were playing my drum set! They would teach in the day and play a concert at night. Hollenbeck is quick to mention that these experiences turned hobby into passion. Believing in the importance of study habits he was taught as a young aspiring drummer, Hollenbeck proudly admits, "I'm surprised that some young drummers of today are not taught the rudiments.
Though his love of music was built on rhythm and the love of the tambourine sessions with his older brother, Hollenbeck additionally deserves to be recognized as an equally effective composer having shaped a still young body of work that challenges all limits. Creative and versatile, Hollenbeck continues to pen a new musical language that goes where few composers have gone or are comfortable to go. When asked about entering into the world of composition and keeping it as important as his playing Hollenbeck says, "I always saw one with the other. To me if you were going to be a musician you should know how to compose music. His "never want to write the same piece twice philosophy has Hollenbeck working and composing not only at the piano, but with drums, voice or computer as a starting point on any given day. "There are a lot of failures in the process, he says. "It is very experimental...I always found popular music growing up sounding the same [and] I do not want that for my music. I want each piece to have its own universe.
The recipient of a B.M. in Percussion and a M.M. in Jazz Composition from the Eastman School of Music, Hollenbeck has received many awards and commissions including a National Endowment grant to study composition with Bob Brookmeyer (1994), winner of the Jazz Composers Alliance Composition Contest (1995 and 2002) and a grant from Arts International to travel with The Claudia Quintet to Brazil (Spring 2002). His list of accomplishments goes far and wide from there.
As an accomplished bandleader who understands his place, Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble is under the watchful eye of conductor J.C. Sanford (in the past he had tried being both drummer and conductor!), allowing him to move away and focus on being the ensemble's drummer. Similarly, the approach he maintains with his Quintet is all about communication between the players. To get the most out of both bands is what Hollenbeck strives for and the end result of both these projects shows how successful he is as bandleader - defining what a bandleader is and what a bandleader should and could be. It is without question that on any of his releases and live performances, Hollenbeck flies under the radar knowing how to make his impact on the music. Recommended Listening:
· John Hollenbeck - The Claudia Quintet (Blueshift-Composers Recordings, 2001)
· John Hollenbeck - No Images (Blueshift-Composers Recordings,2001)
· Bob Brookmeyer/Kenny Wheeler - Island (Artists House, 2002)
· John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble - A Blessing (OmniTone, 2003)
· John Hollenbeck - I, Claudia (Cuneiform, 2004)
· John Hollenbeck - Semi-Formal (Cuneiform, 2005)
John Hollenbeck Steps Out
Exploring the Boundaries
Catching up with John Hollenbeck.