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John Hollenbeck's September Songs


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John Hollenbeck's productivity would be astonishing in its own right, but the uniformly high quality of this high output places the drummer among the top tier of jazz (and not only jazz) musicians. Hollenbeck's recordings, compositions and performances defy certain expectations. He can be as seriously intellectual as a stereotypically stuffy classical musician, but his music is interlaced with humor and fun. As befits a 21st century drummer, he is rhythmically complex but the music is underlain with a deep groove. He borrows ecumenically from a diversity of musical (including the rhythms of the spoken word) sources and manages to synthesize those varied resources into a coherent creative expression. Some critics have labeled Hollenbeck's music "post-jazz": vague but somehow accurate, given that what he does springs fundamentally from jazz, but gives a clear sense of having moved forward from jazz.

Hollenbeck's flagship project is the Claudia Quintet. The current line-up includes, in addition to the leader on drums, accordionist Red Wierenga (replacing long- time member Ted Reichman), clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed and vibraphonist Matt Moran. The bass chair alternates between Chris Tordini and Drew Gress. With September (Cuneiform, 2013), the quintet's output rises to "7. 3 albums" (Hollenbeck reminded us during the interview that in addition to seven Claudia albums, his Rainbow Jimmies (GPE, 2009) also featured the quartet on "about 30% of the record"). The emotional centerpiece of September is likely the album closer, "12th—Coping Song," an act of non-violent creativity opposed to the violence of the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Hollenbeck spoke with All About Jazz about the process of creating September and about the idiosyncratic instrumentation of the Claudia Quintet. He also briefed us on upcoming projects—including his first symphonic work and a follow-up to the critically acclaimed Songs I Like A Lot (Sunnyside, 2013); finally, he shared some thoughts on the late trombonist/pianist/arranger Bob Brookmeyer.

All About Jazz: First of all, congratulations on the new Claudia Quintet album, September. It has a lot of things that people who have been following the group will expect, in terms of the innovative instrumentation, the dynamic variation, but there are a few surprises, too. It would be useful to start with a few words about just what this new album is all about.

John Hollenbeck: Last September, I was at a residency in Italy and what I came up with there was to try to write some music for the band that I could teach them without the written music. So that was kind of the task that I gave myself. I had actually been thinking about that for a long time, like maybe two or three years. But because of what I like to hear in music, I couldn't seem to figure it out: how could I write something that would both be what I want to hear, but also could be teachable by rote? So that was the task and I wrote the music in September. If I do a residency where I'm just trying to compose, it's almost always in September. The first one I did was in 2001, in the Adirondacks, and I went up there the day before September 11. So on September 12, I wrote this song, "The Coping Song."

I had this idea to start with the data files I have on my computer, they just tell the date when I wrote the piece, or at least when I started it. And what I realized is that whenever I see a date that has September in it, I always think about September 11; it's still there. So I had this idea to use the dates as the titles, and then I have these working titles or subtitles. Because I was writing all these pieces at the same time, so that I knew, "Oh, that's that piece, and that's that piece." So I just kept those, they're not great titles, but I kind of wanted the process to be a little bit not finished. And that's how the pieces actually had to be, too, I realized. If I was going to teach them to people, it can't be totally finished in a way that I would normally finish something, because then it would get too complicated and I wouldn't be able to teach it to them.

AAJ: There's a number of things we could say about each of the songs on the record. This piece called "Wayne Phases," for example, is (according to your description in the press release) supposed to be inspired by saxophonist Wayne Shorter's playing, but not to sound anything like Wayne Shorter. Could you say a little about that particular piece?

JH: What I think of as the melody, in my head, I wrote with Wayne Shorter's sound, and the way he plays melodies. His melodies are—he has a lot of bass, he puts a lot of bass in his melodies and they're very free sounding. Not necessarily his melodies, but when he plays phrases. I think that piece started out as "Wayne's Phrase," and then it became something else, and it became "Wayne's Phases" at the end. That was just, you know, keep that piece in its little box. It's not a Wayne Shorter piece, and I would never want it to sound anything like Wayne Shorter. But that kind of helped me keep it in its own little drawer. I mean, I love Wayne Shorter.

AAJ: I don't think anyone would confuse that with Wayne Shorter, but there is a similarity between Shorter's current quartet and the Claudia Quintet, and that's the remarkable empathy among the players that's the result of having played together for an unusually long time. That said, there are a couple of personnel substitutions on this record. Most notably, Red Wierenga on the accordion, and Chris Tordini for the great Drew Gress on bass. I'm curious how that changes the group dynamic, both in the preparation beforehand and also during the group performance. And also, is this a permanent change in the line-up of the Claudia Quintet?

JH: In the case of Red, the original accordionist Ted Reichman, he just couldn't do it anymore. He's responsible for child care, he has a son, and he moved to Boston, so between those two things he just couldn't really travel. It would be nice to still have him around, but he just couldn't do it anymore. Things like that happen. And so Red was a substitute for Ted for a while, and you know, he just fits in really well, he learned the music really well. He's much different than Ted as an improviser but I felt like I would be able to use that on the record. He's been playing with us probably for at least a year, maybe more. So at this point, you know, it's not like we've forgotten Ted, but Red feels like a member of the group. And then with Chris Tordini—you know, Drew is just one of the best bass players in the world and so he's basically double- to triple-booked most of the time. Claudia is a pretty high priority for him, but sometimes he just can't do it. So Chris is actually on the record because Drew couldn't quite make it at that time when we needed to record it. But also because Chris had already been subbing for Drew on a tour when we actually learned the Wayne tune. That was the first tune for the record that we learned. That was like the experiment to see—we were in France somewhere—to see, can I teach these guys a tune in two hours and can we play it tomorrow night? Some of the music Drew's never played. The tunes that Chris played on the record, Drew's never played before. Yet. He will, but he hasn't yet. Same thing, the tunes Drew played on the record, Chris has never played because those were on another session and that session was just a much more of a thing where I brought the music in the day before, we rehearsed it, and then we recorded it.

AAJ: And when you go out on tour in a week's time, who will be playing the bass?

JH: Chris. But just like the record, they're basically sharing it. On this tour, Chris is playing and then we're going to Nepal and Drew is playing. Then we're going to Europe and Drew is playing and then probably on the next European tour Chris is playing. Chris is basically our first call if Drew can't make it. They're not the same, but Chris gets into kind of the same place as far as the sound and the feel, so it feels pretty comfortable to play with Chris. It's not like it's drastically different.

AAJ: Another of the songs on September that has an immediate impact is "Me Warn You," using the cadences of a speech by Franklin Roosevelt. [The tune samples Roosevelt's address at the Democratic State Convention, Syracuse, N.Y., on September 29, 1936, warning convention delegates about GOP political strategies and defending the New Deal.] It's not the first time that you've tackled the musicality of spoken English. I'm thinking of what the Claudia Quintet did with the poetry of Kenneth Patchen on the astonishingly good What Is The Beautiful? (Cuneiform, 2011). But with FDR, you approach the recording the way a hip-hop producer might, there's a lot more chopping and going back and repeating phrases. Could you say a little bit more about the way you translate speech into music, and secondly, is there a political message in choosing that speech at this moment in American political life?

JH: I never had heard of the speech until it was of blasted all over the internet during the last election and everyone was more or less kind of saying, "Wow, this is extremely relevant, what he says here!" Definitely, I love the message and the way that he delivers it. I guess a lot of people have heard that speech, but maybe through the record a few more people will get to hear it and I think it's good for everyone to hear that message.

The speech was sent to me last September when I was writing this music and it wasn't my idea to write this piece. It came, and I started to transcribe his speech, not because I was going to write a piece, but just because I thought that it was very interesting, the melody and the rhythm of his speech. That was the reason that I did it, because I was interested in it. There was no piece in my head. But then after I did transcribe it, it was enough in my head that I started getting this idea that, you know, "Oh, maybe I could try something with the band with this speech." And we've never played that piece live because of that technical part of it, but when we recorded it, we recorded it live, even those things that are all chopped up, those were just me, I was just doing that live. So it was a fun piece to play. If we're in a space where they have real good monitors and everything, we could play the piece, but if we're playing in a more acoustic spot, it's kind of hard, because we need to hear the speech really well in order to perform it. One of the things I'm doing this week is trying to figure out if we can play that piece live (laughs).

AAJ: I'm reminded of the last movement of saxophonist John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964), where he's playing and it sounds like he's saying a prayer, and I didn't learn this till much later, but he is saying a prayer, if you read the liner notes, he's playing the prayer in those liner notes. And you could almost imagine this piece without the spoken words. The implicit musicality of the speech is so powerful that I think even without that, your FDR piece would work.

JH: Yeah, yeah, in the piece toward the end there's a bass solo and then we actually play the speech—like the melody of the speech. It's the only time we play it without him [FDR], and then he comes in like halfway through, so that also proves what you just said, that it's really a great melody.

AAJ: Anytime anybody writes anything about the Claudia Quintet, they always remark on the unusual instrumentation—accordion, and clarinet, and vibes. For me, there's a kind of spare-ness. Oftentimes the part that the accordion plays suggests what another orchestrator or arranger might have expressed with a full complement of strings or a horn section. The vibes, instead of the piano, there's less sustain. There's a kind of austerity in the combination, especially when Chris Speed plays the clarinet rather than the saxophone. There's a kind of austerity, and it highlights the depth and the mystery that's actually behind the musical idea, like the use of simple but powerful language in the poetry of Yeats. Would you bristle if someone described the instruments as "austere"?

JH: (Laughs). Well, I've never heard that one before. I think that if a lot of people hadn't heard the music, and you described it as austere, they wouldn't be tempted to go check it out (laughs)!

AAJ: I don't want to give that impression!

JH: The word that I would use would be transparent. And part of it comes from the vibraphone and the accordion. Their pitches are fixed, you can't change them. So if the sounds of the instruments are basically good—which usually they are— then each pitch is always exactly the same. And then Chris Speed has a really unique way of getting inside those sounds. I think of it like a sandwich, he gets in the middle of them, he creates a hybrid sound; to me, it sounds like a hybrid instrument. I think about that a lot when I'm writing a piece. I think of an instrument, a synthetic instrument, that would be formed by the combination of those instruments. They could be like a giant kalimba, if you think of a kalimba this big, you know. Something like that, just kind of think of an instrument that doesn't really exist and see if you can use that to help you think of how you could combine those three instruments.

AAJ: It seems to be a combination that works. This innovative instrumentation shows no signs of exhausting itself. I'm not sure if you could have predicted this when the first Claudia Quintet album came out! What other projects, beyond Claudia, are on the horizon?

JH: I've been trying to pick out some pieces for—I'm not sure what the title will be, but at this point it's kind of Songs I Like A Lot, volume 2. We actually recorded three other pieces which couldn't fit on the record so we have three already. I'm trying to pick out a couple more. We don't have a recording session set; we have a gig where I'm going to bring some new music in February. Hopefully, next year we'll find a recording date for that. Yeah, that was a lot of fun, so we want to get at least the pieces that we already recorded and then a few more that I'd like to do.

I may also do a DVD using a lot of that material with my own band in New York. That's something that I've wanted to do. The feedback that I'm getting all the time is that for better or worse, people really need the visual and so I want to tackle that so that people could see the band. Right now, I don't even have any really good video of the band anyway, and people are almost every day asking me for it.

What I've been doing this month, one of the major things is trying to write my first orchestral piece. I don't have an orchestra to play it at this point, but I am thinking of doing it, writing the piece first, and then seeing if I can get someone to play it, at least bringing it to a reading session. That's something that I've always wanted to do, although I have a lot of issues with the orchestra, so it's taken me a long time to get to this point. But it's a really huge undertaking also—just the amount of people and instruments, it's just overwhelming. I've gotten a lot of this piece done, and I hope to have the piece finished by the end of the year.

AAJ: That will be very exciting. You did an interview with All About Jazz in 2005, and Paul Olson, the interviewer, asked you what you learned from Bob Brookmeyer. [Hollenbeck was Brookmeyer's student, and collaborated with Brookmeyer's New Art Orchestra. After Brookmeyer's death in 2011, Hollenbeck dedicated his composition "Bob Walk" to his mentor; the piece was included on Shut Up And Dance!, his collaboration with the Orchestre National de Jazz of France (BeeJazz, 2011).], I was struck by your response: you didn't talk about him as a composer or arranger or musician. You said, "He really knew how to rehearse a band!" It was this logistical dimension of his work that you highlighted. It was really revealing, because for those of us listening to the records, it's easy for us to imagine that you're always in a log cabin composing, that it's always September for you, you're always composing great music and thinking great thoughts. But no, there's this huge logistical, administrative, organizational dimension, and that's probably multiplied by ten when it comes to writing for a symphony orchestra. Having mentioned Brookmeyer, if I could re- pose that question, what did you learn from him as a musician?

JH: Besides my brothers and my father, he's the most important man in my life. This is not an answer to your question, but I'm going to say it anyway. He's the only man, outside my family, who told me he loved me. That meant a lot. You know, he was a great friend. As a musician, I don't even know where to start. He's like the history of jazz. He was around and playing with everybody. He had an incredible, incredible sound. That's the first thing. He was also a great pianist, he has a couple of piano records, I absolutely love his piano playing...

AAJ: ...with Bill Evans [The Ivory Hunters, United Artists, 1959], that's a great record!

JH: ...yeah, but he also made a piano trio record, maybe ten years ago or so, it's really great, I love that record [(Holiday, Challenge, 2001), with bassist Mads Vinding and Alex Riel]. As a composer, he's extremely influential for a lot of people. Almost everybody who's writing successful big-band music at this moment studied with him. I can't think of anybody who didn't study with him. He was huge. I think I appreciated him when he was alive, but then once he died, I realized even more how great he was.

Selected Discography

Claudia Quintet, September (Cuneiform, 2013)
Claudia Quintet (featuring Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann), What Is The Beautiful? (Cuneiform, 2011)
Claudia Quintet (featuring Gary Versace), Royal Toast (Cuneiform, 2010)
John Hollenbeck, Rainbow Jimmies (GPE, 2009)
Claudia Quintet, For (Cuneiform, 2007)
Claudia Quintet, Semi-Formal (Cuneiform, 2005)
Claudia Quintet, I, Claudia (Cuneiform, 2004)
Claudia Quintet, Claudia Quintet (Blueshift/CRI, 2002)

Photo credits: Tomas Ovalle, Theo Bleckmann.


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