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.

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).
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