Large Ensembles: John Hollenbeck & Nicholas Urie

Kurt Gottschalk By

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John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble
Eternal Interlude
Sunnyside Records

Nicholas Urie Large Ensemble
Excerpts From an Online Dating Service
Red Piano

In 1965, Duke Ellington asked the question (by way of album title) "Will the big bands ever come back?" As the New Thing was beginning to take hold, it may have seemed a bit of bemoaning from a man whose time (it might again have seemed) had passed. As Ellington himself had proven already in his own career, however, (he could have asked the same question a decade earlier, before his watershed Newport appearance) big bands don't go away, no matter how hard of times they suffer. They might not be financially viable very often, but they persevere, if only because writing charts for a stage full of players is how a composer with an ear for jazz can show chops.

While popular tastes seem to prefer such signifiers as 'orchestra' or, in the case of the groups led by John Hollenbeck and Nicholas Urie, 'large ensemble,' the big band still manages to survive. Satoko Fujii, Barry Guy and William Parker all help to sustain its scale, but it's inspiring to see less established artists approaching the bandstand and doing so with lineups rivaling the size of Ellington's glory days.

Percussionist John Hollenbeck, originally a New Yorker but now based in Berlin, has demonstrated a strong ear for arrangement with his Quartet Lucy and Claudia Quintet and he premiered his Large Ensemble with the 2005 release A Blessing. The group's second recording, Eternal Interlude, is a striking piece of work, a cinematic outpouring of delicacy and strength. It's almost shocking to hear such untempered feelings laid bare across 20 instrumentalists. The six pieces presented here (totaling over an hour) manage to be intriguing, challenging even, but without any disruption or dissonance. Hollenbeck keeps tight control over the assemblage, making for the kind of music that works as both fore- and background—an impressive achievement given the sheer number of players involved.

Nicholas Urie uses his Large Ensemble to create an oratorio of online loneliness with his Excerpts From An Online Dating Service, an impressive debut from the Boston-based composer and conductor. As the title suggests, Urie's source material is posts from internet dating sites, creating a work of voyeurism without titillation. Following a formalist overture, Urie sets the agenda on the upbeat "About Me," with Christine Correa intoning persistently "I want to meet you and have sex." The bluntness is cold and unerotic, making for a portrait of detached, modern life. In this sense, Excerpts From An Online Dating Service is reminiscent of the journalistic operas of John Adams, Virgil Thomson or even Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Correa's musical theater delivery might not be to all tastes, but it serves the material well; she is articulate and not overly emotive. Urie's music, too, is clear and straightforward. Excerpts From An Online Dating Service is not just a remarkable first effort, it is a strong and imaginative depiction of a very real aspect of contemporary culture.

Tracks and Personnel

Eternal Interlude

Tracks: Foreign One; Eternal Interlude; Guarana; The Cloud; Perseverance; No Boat

Personnel: Ben Kono, Jeremy Viner, Tony Malaby, Dan Willis, Bohdan Hilash, Ellery Eskelin: reeds; Rob Hudson, Mike Christianson, Jacob Garchik, Alan Ferber, Tony Kadleck, Jon Owens, Dave Ballou, Laurie Frink: brass; Kermit Driscoll: bass; John Hollenbeck, Matt Moran, John Ferrari: percussion; Gary Versace: keyboards; Theo Bleckmnn: voice; JC Sanford: conductor; Theo Bleckmann, Mike Christianson, Jacob Garchik, Bohdan Hilash, John Hollenbeck, Rob Hudson, Ben Kono, Jon Owens, Dan Willis: whistling.

Excerpts From an Online Dating Service

Tracks: Overture; About Me; Holidaze Bad Girl?; Interlude #1; Wayne; Interlude #2; Cougar Seeks Prey; Afternoon

Personnel: Nicholas Urie: conductor; Christine Correa; voice; Jeremy Udden, Aaron Kruziki, Bill McHenry, Kenny Pexton, Brian Landrus: reeds; Bijon Watson, Jeff Clausen, Dave Smith, John Carlson, Lolly Bienenfeld, Randy Pingrey, Matt Plummer, Michael Christianson: tuba.

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