John Hollenbeck's September Songs

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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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.
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