John Hollenbeck and the Claudia Quintet: Claudia's Main Man
While John Hollenbeck doesn't think of himself as a jazz drummer, he's one of the most inventive percussionists involved in the music, a bandleader who is actively expanding jazz's possibilities with his various ensembles. In a career marked by a deep commitment to musical exploration, he's collaborated widely with a diverse array of artists, such as multimedia performer Meredith Monk, klezmer clarinet master David Krakauer and the brilliant tango pianist Pablo Ziegler. Still, his ties to the jazz world are deep and strong, both through his work as an accompanist with creative outposts, such as Bob Brookmeyer's New Art Orchestra and Jim McNeely's Tentet, and as a bandleader of the remarkable Claudia Quintet and as the house composer for the Austrian-based Jazz Bigband Graz.
"Things that I do are jazz based," Hollenbeck says. "I love jazz like someone would love a hobby. It's there in my drumming, but I don't really relate to it at all in my compositions. It's just the closest place people can find me." Whatever bin they happen to get filed under, the new Claudia Quintet CD, Semi-Formal (Cuneiform), and the recent John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble album, A Blessing (Omnitone), are often breathtaking sessions.
One of highlights of the big-band CD is the title track, an expansive, minimalism-inspired setting for a traditional Irish prayer sung by Theo Bleckmann, whose vocals are central to Hollenbeck's writing for large groups. In January the Jazz Bigband Graz, featuring Bleckmann, will release a CD on Intuition of Hollenbeck's new compositions. "I don't want to do big-band music without Theo," Hollenbeck says. "He takes it away from the regular big-band world, which I'm not so attracted to. We've developed some interesting music with the Graz band, and I'd really like the jazz community to hear this band. I want them to get out of Austria." (The group will make its U.S. debut at the IAJE conference in New York City in January.)
Though he may still seem like an underground figure to some, Hollenbeck has seen his career rise in recent years, and he's busier than ever. He's developed an expansive world of percussion textures with Meredith Monk, with whom he'll be touring in January and February. There's been his work with Fred Hersch, particularly on the Leaves of Grass recording and tour. Hersch says Hollenbeck "has provided a wealth of ideas; he's come up with all kinds of wild things." He's performed widely with the powerful tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, and has composed pieces on commission for wind ensembles, choirs, chamber groups and leading new music ensembles, such as the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Arguably his most beautiful work has been with Claudia Quintet, a stellar band that has released three mesmerizing albums on Cuneiform featuring reedist Chris Speed, vibist Matt Moran, bassist Drew Gress and accordionist Ted Reichman. Hollenbeck says the idea behind the group's Semi-Formal CD "was to create a two-part-side A, side B-continuous excursion. The Claudia sound is like a warm, thick pudding to me. I thought it would be great to alternate this sound/taste with some palate cleansers-pieces where we are playing instruments not associated with the Claudia sound. Luckily the guys were completely into this idea and talented enough to have some interesting colors under their respective belts." The music runs from the Indian-inspired "Two Teachers," whose "last section is based on a traditional Tintal, 16-beat melody commonly used for tabla solos" to the 12/8 "Limp Mint," which features "varying and different subdivisions, which create the allusion of sudden shifts in tempi. The bass melody rides these groove waves while the others hold on for the ride," Hollenbeck says.
Keying on Hollenbeck's kinetic but understated trap work, the Claudia Quintet has a crafted transparent but full-bodied approach to his compositions unlike anything else in jazz. "I use cymbals that don't have too much ring to them," Hollenbeck says. "I try to use sounds that are dry, not very low or high, because I want to hear the harmonies and overtones. I can play a lot if I do that, because I'm not in anyone's way. It's definitely affected how I play other people's music too."