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John Hollenbeck & Jazz Bigband Graz: Joys & Desires

John Kelman By

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Only days into the new year, and there's already a strong contender for 2006 "best of lists. That it comes from John Hollenbeck—a drummer who, in recent years, has emerged as one of the most distinctive composers in and out of jazz—is no surprise. After all, last year's—A Blessing (OmniTone), with his Large Ensemble, and Semi-Formal (Cuneiform), with the Claudia Quintet—were critically acclaimed, genre-busting albums with roots in jazz, but equally drawn from other styles too numerous to count.

Joys & Desires, with Austria's Jazz Bigband Graz, shares much in common with the broadly-textured A Blessing. The ensembles are about the same size, with roughly the same instrumentation. Hollenbeck even brings along Theo Bleckmann, whose creative approach to voice was a defining characteristic of A Blessing. But Hollenbeck is far too creative a writer to repeat himself, with Joys & Desires representing an even greater cosmopolitanism than that clearly evident on A Blessing.

Joys & Desires may consist of seven distinct pieces—including the three-part mini-suite of the album's title—but there's a narrative arc underlying the entire disc, making it more unified whole than collection of discrete parts. It's nothing as obvious as repeated motifs. Instead it's a matter of the music's ebb and flow feeling like one long journey, with even the pauses between tracks feeling a part of the emotional current.

"The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws revolves around a simple two-note percussive motif that evokes images of tropical rainforests, with all manner of whistles, electronics and horns imitating natural sounds. The hypnotic rhythm may be static, but Hollenbeck layers long, languid horn lines reminiscent of bassist Eberhard Weber's writing, interacting with Bleckmann's recitation of Wallace Stevens' highly visual verse.

"Just Like Him also revolves around a repeated rhythmic pattern, this time more complex as Hollenbeck's drums and Oliver Kent's piano create an irregularly-metered foundation for multi-layered and canonical horn lines ultimately converging into a unified theme. Things reduce even further until everything drops out but the horns and Bleckmann's voice, contrapuntally alternating between two notes that create an ambient-like segue into a riff-based solo section featuring clarinetist Robert Friedl and saxophonists Heinrich von Kalnein and Klaus Gesing.

Hollenbeck's writing seamlessly integrates his diverse influences, making episodic pieces like the 11-minute "Abstinence —with its almost collage-like blend of modern rhythms, orchestral drama, In a Silent Way-like ambience, pure swing and chaotic free- play—a self-contained history lesson on modern music. "Jazz Envy runs the gamut from maelstrom-like directed themes to a synthesizer solo by Uli Rennert, over a strong groove by bassist Henning Sieverts and Hollenbeck, that's reminiscent of Canterbury progressive players including National Health's Dave Stewart and Soft Machine's Mike Ratledge.

In the hands of lesser artists, the seemingly infinite reference points of Joys & Desires would sound like nothing more than a clutter of disjointed ideas. But Hollenbeck's genius is his ability to link often widely-disparate contexts together into compositions that bear an unmistakable logic and sense of purpose.

Visit John Hollenbeck and Jazz Bigband Graz on the web.

Track Listing: The Bird With The Coppery, Keen Claws; Just Like Him; Abstinence; Joys & Desires #1: Jazz Envy; Joys & Desires#2: After A Dance Or Two, We Sit Down For A Pint With Gil And Tim; Joys & Desires #3: The Garden Of Love; Maxfield.

Personnel: Theo Bleckmann: vocals, electronic effects; Christian Bachner: tenor and soprano saxophones, flute; Robert Friedl: alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet; Klaus Gesing: tenor and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet; Martin Harns: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Heinrich Von Kalnein: alto and soprano saxophones, flute; Jorg Engels, Axel Mayer, Karl Rossman, Horst-Michael Schaffer: trumpets, flugelhorns; Robert Bachner, Wolfgang Messner, Hans Radinger, Reinhard Summerer: trombones; Oliver Kent: piano; Uli Rennert: keyboards; Henning Sieverts: bass, cello; John Hollenbeck: drums, compositions.

Title: Joys & Desires | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Intuition

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