John Hollenbeck Steps Out

AAJ Staff By

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John Hollenbeck is like a spider at the drum kit. For each tune he builds a web of sound with its own characteristic architecture, based on the connections he hears in the music. And his spider legs are long enough to move around the music with ease during improvisation: tightening up here, loosening there, redesigning where necessary.

Despite appearances, there's nothing "easy" about Hollenbeck's playing. Part of his talent lies in camouflage: he's always quietly building and responding while other players go about their business. While he's responsible for most of the compositions here, he refuses to take a starring role during performance. When a particular approach is required, he quietly steps in to fill the niche. Some of these tunes swirl, others swing, and others reflect ancient tribal roots. Hollenbeck has worked in various settings ranging from duo to big band, leaving a conspicuous trail of recordings as a sideman going back to his 1988 work with the Eastman Jazz Ensemble. (Hollenbeck got degrees in percussion and composition at Eastman.) Some of his most notable efforts since then include his tenure with Bob Brookmeyer's New Art Orchestra, where he replaced the late Mel Lewis and hitched a ride to widespread recognition and respect.

At long last, Hollenbeck has stepped out on his own to lead groups on three new recordings. On all of this material, he straddles the boundary between composition and improvisation. Notably, there's no group here larger than a quintet. Hollenbeck's recruits represent some of the most creative voices in improvisation. (Interestingly, several of these players made their voices heard on the Songlines label—which has, over time, revealed itself to be quite a channel for new talent.)

The defining pattern on no images is a lack of pattern. The personnel constantly shift; the tunes head in radically different directions; and Hollenbeck's style of playing covers a wide gamut from swinging fluidity to punchy free expressionism. Of course, the title is ironic: each piece here conveys a strong sense of image and motion. The opener, "bluegreenyellow," features a tenor trio improvising interlaced solos, each portraying a color explicitly built into the compositional framework. The drummer adjusts to shifting contexts as the other three voices change and evolve. Subsequent pieces on this disc include duo improvisations ("Vignettes") with saxophonists David Liebman and Ellery Eskelin (whose conversational style blends wonderfully with Hollenbeck's own quick-witted approach).

Songlines allies Theo Bleckmann and Ben Monder join forces on "without morning," which heads into mellow, consonant territory. Bleckmann's fluid wordless vocals bring a sense of discovery and openness to the piece, while Monder keeps his own voice quiet and subtle. Hollenbeck steps in halfway through the piece, and then things tangle up into a knot—lending a sense of dramatic contrast to the tune.

By all standards the finest and most moving piece on no images is "The Drum Major Instinct," conceived by Hollenbeck while at Eastman. Built around a taped sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr., this piece offers meaning at a variety of levels. First, there's the obvious ironic twist between the theme of unbridled ego and Hollenbeck's ever-supporting role on the drum kit. The percussion and three trombones on this tune evolve through moods of anticipation, restlessness, accent, and ecstatic revelation as the sermon builds to climax. The theme eventually comes full circle as King emphasizes the importance of wanting to be first in love, generosity, and moral excellence—bringing the music and the spoken words to a region of deep confluence. This piece is revelatory at the highest level.

no images deserves respect for its openness to new compositional approaches and bright, fresh improvisations. The disc may sound a bit scattered, but each of the shifting contexts allows Hollenbeck to explore his abundant versatility. And "The Drum Major Instinct" alone justifies every note on this disc.

In contrast to the restlessness of no images, Quartet Lucy anchors itself solidly in a meditative, tribal spirit. Hollenbeck holds back quite a bit to allow the interwoven voices of vocalist Theo Bleckmann and horn player Dan Willis to rise and fall with a pensive, tidal flow. When the drummer steps in, he performs a subtle supporting role as colorist or (more frequently) settles neatly into blocky North African-influenced tribal rhythms. The combination comes across as a natural integration of these players' jazz experience.

Vocalist Bleckmann, who is perhaps the most prominent member of Quartet Lucy, leads with legato harmonies and supports Willis's horn improvisations with harmony lines. At times the two players trade roles without notice, leaving almost no gap in between. Most of the tunes on Quartet Lucy are short (3-6 minutes), emphasizing the collage aspect of this record. It's as if Hollenbeck has assembled a series of brief vignettes with a common wafting, ethereal sound. Bassist Skuli Sverisson paces his playing, supporting the leaders but staying strictly out of the limelight. On "ethel," Hollenbeck plays piano and lends an organic simplicity to the tune (but his piano efforts fall far shy of his work at the drum kit). Bleckmann (who otherwise sticks to wordless vocals) delivers Hollenbeck's lyrics on the melancholy "dreams for tomorrow," while Hollenbeck goes at it on the berimbau (a one-stringed Brazillian fiddle) with a decidedly offbeat percussive emphasis. By stringing together this collection of downtempo, reflective pieces, the drummer has created a body of work with its own decidedly mellow and grounded sound. Compared to the other two recent Hollenbeck releases, this one stands out as most suitable for meditation and reflection.

The Claudia Quintet grew out of the Refuseniks, a collective trio performing weekly in the East Village. With the departure of bassist Reuben Radding, Hollenbeck reconvened this group as a sextet, adding three new players to complement his voice on the drums and Ted Reichman's understated approach to the accordion. The group retains a cohesive spirit as they pass from subtle downtempo pieces ("Love Song for Kate") through mellow percolating energy ("Thursday 7:30pm") and gentle mystery ("Thursday 11:14am") straight into propulsive rhythms ("after a dance or two...") and all-out free improvisation—sometimes packaged together in the same tune ("a-b-s-t-i-n-e-n-c-e").

The strength of the Claudia Quintet derives from the individual voices of its members. While Hollenbeck's compositions usually specify moods or changes, the other members of the group give them form and substance. Reichman's supportive voice is omnipresent, but clarinetist/saxophonist Chris Speed regularly steps in to lend a spark or color. As in Quartet Lucy, the bassist (Drew Gress) plays a remarkably restrained role. When Matt Moran steps up to the vibes, he provides an effective counterpoint to Hollenbeck's voice on the drums while assembling higher-order harmonic and melodic structures. But the task of integrating these spirited performers lies in the leader's realm, and he manages to achieve a great group sound while leaving enough space for players to shift around quite freely. We even get a rare extended drum solo from Hollenbeck at the start of the penultimate tune, where he edges around the kit and shifts patterns until they become quite abstract. Overall, The Claudia Quintet presents a nice balance and a good mix of tunes: perhaps more suitable for a modern jazz audience than Quartet Lucy.

Visit John Hollenbeck on the web.

no images (Blueshift/CRI, 2001)

Tracks: bluegreenyellow; without morning; Liebman/Hollenbeck Vignettes; The Drum Major Instinct; Eskelin/Hollenbeck Vignettes; no images.

Personnel: John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion, samples, autoharp with portable fan; David Liebman: tenor saxophone; Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone; Rick DiMuzio: tenor saxophone; Theo Bleckmann: voice; Ben Monder: guitar; Ray Anderson: trombone; David Taylor: trombone; Tim Sessions: trombone; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: voice on tape.

Quartet Lucy (Blueshift/CRI, 2001)

Tracks: Vanishing Lucy; ethel; Foreva; materna; dreams for tomorrow; Constant Conversation; Chapel flies; jazz envy; Vira-folha; The Music of Life.

Personnel: John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion, piano, composition, berimbau (5); Theo Bleckmann: voice, piano (5); Dan Willis: English horn, tenor and soprano saxophones, flute; Skuli Sverisson: electric bass, bajo sexto (5); Jonas Tauber: cello (7,9).

The Claudia Quintet (Blueshift/CRI, 2001)

Tracks: meinetwegen; a-b-s-t-i-n-e-n-c-e; Love Song for Kate; Thursday 7:30pm (holy); Thursday 11:14am (grey); Thursday 3:44pm (playground); Burt and Ken; after a dance or two, we sit down for a pint with Gil and Tim...; No D; Visions of Claudia.

Personnel: John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion, composition; Drew Gress: bass; Matt Moran: vibraphone, percussion; Ted Reichman: accordion; Chris Speed: clarinet, tenor saxophone.

Visit Blueshift/CRI on the web.

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