John Hollenbeck’s Natural Impulses

The drummer-composer on the importance of being himself

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John Hollenbeck and his Large Ensemble
By Ken Franckling
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John Hollenbeck
By Melissa Mergner
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John Hollenbeck
By Ken Franckling

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On this early September afternoon, John Hollenbeck is only a day away from visiting one of his favorite getaways, the Blue Mountain Center. Located in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, the lodge offers established musicians, writers and visual artists the perfect bucolic setting for a working retreat. This will be Hollenbeck’s fourth visit since 2001. In addition to preparing for an October concert with Kenny Wheeler at Jazz Standard in Manhattan, Hollenbeck hopes to concentrate on compositions for string quartet and drums. “It’s hard to carve out the time and really keep it carved,” he says by phone, from his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y.

For a mostly self-managing drummer, composer and bandleader like the 43-year-old Hollenbeck, who takes care of bookings as well as travel and lodging arrangements and payment for up to 18 musicians, “carving out time” to write is a rare luxury. Somehow, though, he makes it all work with synchronized splendor. And while his recording output has been steadily thrilling over the past decade, 2011 could be easily viewed as a banner year for the perennially award-winning artist. His Grammy-nominated Large Ensemble nailed its first international tour and received critical acclaim for performances at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival in early August and at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge in late April. That latter bill was shared with the 10-piece French ensemble Orchestre National de Jazz, which performed material from its riveting disc Shut Up and Dance (Bee Jazz), composed of commissioned music written by Hollenbeck. Now Hollenbeck will have to negotiate time and focus to support What Is the Beautiful? (Cuneiform), the gripping new project from his Claudia Quintet.

As with the Claudia Quintet’s five previous discs, What Is the Beautiful? retains Hollenbeck’s compositional trademarks while homing in on a unique concept or aesthetic. In the case of the new disc, that theme is the poetry of Kenneth Patchen. The University of Rochester is celebrating the late writer and visual artist’s centennial this year, with an exhibition that will showcase his poems and drawings as well as the artwork he did for jazz LPs.

Richard Peek, the director of rare books and special collections at the university’s libraries, was in charge of the Patchen exhibition and is a longtime fan of Hollenbeck’s music. Peek’s initial idea was to have Hollenbeck record music for a small batch of CDs to accompany the exhibition. Last year, right before the Christmas holiday, Peek contacted the drummer, who decided to tackle the project as the new Claudia Quintet disc. (The album also includes three instrumental cuts, two of which were commissioned by the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival.)

Prior to the Rochester commission, Hollenbeck admits his knowledge of Patchen was basic. He was aware of Patchen’s legacy as a forerunner of the Beat Generation and as an innovator of jazz poetry—he performed but never recorded with Mingus—but knew little about his specific works and biography. “He was never hip in his time,” Hollenbeck says. “I talked with a guy from the Poetry Foundation, and he said that no one is really talking about him, but there are people who are really into his work.” To prepare for the undertaking, Hollenbeck went to local bookstores to find Patchen’s work but came up empty handed. “You go into a huge Barnes & Noble, and they got all of these books,” he says. “Then you go into the poetry section, and it’s lame.”

Hollenbeck eventually found what he needed at the library, and sought pieces that spoke to him. The drummer was soon amazed at the stylistic and thematic breadth of the poet’s repertoire, which ranged from sentimental, amorous verse to sardonic social critique to whimsical parodies. For the disc, Hollenbeck aimed to capture Patchen’s complete oeuvre, starting off with 20 works grouped as love poems, satirical pieces and political critiques. To help realize his ambition, Hollenbeck extended the Claudia lineup, as he did on the ensemble’s previous disc, 2010’s Royal Toast, which added Gary Versace on piano. This time around, Philly-based Matt Mitchell filled the piano chair, and to help bring Patchen’s words to life, Hollenbeck recruited singer and longtime collaborator Theo Bleckmann and top-ranking jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.

Before Hollenbeck even began composing the music he knew he wanted Elling to be involved. The two first worked together on Fred Hersch’s 2005 disc, Leaves of Grass, a somewhat similar project on which Hersch investigated the poetry of Walt Whitman. Hollenbeck thought that Elling’s vast knowledge of Beat poetry and his pedigree in theology made him the ideal raconteur. Due to scheduling conflicts, however, Elling couldn’t record with the band, so Hollenbeck had him recite the work before any of the music had been completed. On compositions like the opening “Showtime/23rd Street Runs Into Heaven,” on which the Claudia band dances alongside Elling’s oration in precise unison, the singer had to rely on his own inventive devices to convey the poetry with an ensemble in mind. Those devices also include a variety of personas, like an old-school television voiceover artist (the lead-off track), a dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan (“Job”) or a creaky, possibly drunk elder (“Opening the Window”).

Elling was of course already familiar with Patchen’s work, and in order to prepare for the recording, he revisited some of the poet’s spoken-word recordings, though more for reference than for strict instruction. “I definitely did my homework going into it,” Elling explains. “I can’t say that I wanted to copy exactly what he did, because in that case you can just play his stuff. But I wanted my work to be informed by that, and I wanted to make sure that I copped the vibe and the attitude as much as I could without making it some kind of caricature or imitation.” The singer said it was really a matter of making his performance “clear and emotionally available.”

Hollenbeck remains amazed at what Elling did with the verse. “He far, far exceeded what I thought he would do. He came in and knew the poems much better than I did at that moment,” he enthuses. “He knew the vibes of the poems.”

When asked about his admiration of Patchen’s work, Elling echoes many of Hollenbeck’s sentiments, making note of the poet’s sharp social critique but also his expertise with language. “What’s so interesting about Patchen is the way he presents his acerbic nature and his awakened intelligence to the crazy attitudes of the so-called civilized world,” Elling argues. “And at the same time, he’s so tender and romantic. What really touches me is that he was raking contemporary society right over the coals in these very subtly attuned but very precise, nice-like ways.”

Elling’s last assessment certainly applies to the brooding and brutal “The Bloodhounds.” Originally titled “Nice Day for a Lynching,” the cinematic composition begins with a somber duet between bassist Drew Gress and Chris Speed on clarinet. Soon Hollenbeck joins Gress in slowly building momentum as vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman add another level of eerie suspense. This all gives way to Elling’s haunting reading about a black man being lynched as others laugh at his death. “I know that one of my hands is black, one white,” Elling intones. “I know that one part of me is being strangled, while another part horribly laughs.” By the end of the composition, you’re left with impressions of both hope and despair. “It’s a really dark poem but actually I found it really beautiful, too, because he’s trying to say that we’re all the same,” Hollenbeck argues. “One person may look different from the other, they might have a different gene, but basically we’re all the same. If you’re killing someone, you’re basically killing yourself.”

Elsewhere, Bleckmann’s ethereal vocals add new dimensions to Patchen’s text. The singer is particularly mesmerizing on “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground,” weaving melodic elegance over Mitchell’s evocative piano accompaniment. Bleckmann creates a similar sensation on “Do Me That Love,” he and Mitchell traversing the jaunty lines with unerring precision and emotional immediacy. On “Limpidity of Silences,” Bleckmann demonstrates great dynamic control, delivering the words in a transfixing whisper.

But it’s Mitchell who makes up the official “+1” in the quintet’s recent billing. Hollenbeck discovered the pianist two years ago during a residency at Philadelphia’s Painted Bride Art Center, where he spent two weeks and selected 12 Philly-based musicians to collaborate with. Mitchell was one of the dozen selected, and soon after, Hollenbeck learned that he and Mitchell shared an alma mater in the Eastman School of Music.

While the Claudia Quintet was performing in support of Royal Toast, Hollenbeck often had to look for a sub for the very busy Versace, and thought of Mitchell. “He’s just incredible,” says Hollenbeck. “He can read just about anything; he’s a fluid improviser. I gave him the hardest stuff that I have.”

Being the new, not quite full-fledged member of any ensemble is daunting, especially with a unit as established as the Claudia Quintet. Adding to the challenge, he had to find his way in music that originally didn’t have parts specified for piano. Nevertheless, Mitchell excelled, noting that some of the pressure was lifted simply by the good nature of the quintet members. And even though Hollenbeck tends to write very exacting parts, Mitchell says the bandleader let him be a “free agent.” “I would double some of the bass parts or some of Ted’s parts, or for some sections he would just leave it up to my discretion of what to play,” Mitchell says. “He’ll be very specific in terms of what he wants, but at the same time he does expect people to just throw things in at the appropriate moments.”

When it comes to composing, Hollenbeck channels Duke Ellington in that he doesn’t just pen anonymous charts; rather, each part has a specific musician in mind. Hollenbeck argues that he knows each band member’s likes and dislikes when it comes to chord changes and rhythms. “It helps to be on the road with them to really get to know what music they like,” Hollenbeck explains. “People can be surprising, and they also change. These days Chris Speed is really into Ben Webster. You might not guess that from some of the music he plays and how he plays.”

But Hollenbeck not only keeps his band members in mind when composing; even more artfully, he writes from the perspective of a listener. That probably explains why his music, despite all its intricate rhythm patterns, elaborate structures and sometimes far-reaching reference points, seldom comes off as forbidding or condescending to intelligent yet non-musician listeners.

For Hollenbeck, the key to that balance lies in the beat. “The most universal way some people can get into music is through rhythm and groove,” he says. “If your music has some sort of groove, almost anybody can get into it. Once they get into the music, if there are other things that have depth, they can stay there and listen to it a lot of times and dig it in different ways.”

And this duality exists for Hollenbeck’s musicians as much as for the audience. Many of his band members speak about having to think like a composer to play Hollenbeck’s music. “What I loved about John’s music from the get-go is that it’s seemingly very simple [yet] very odd—some things you wouldn’t dare put onto a page, because they would seem too simple,” says Bleckmann. “Then you play it and it’s incredibly beautiful and complex. John’s music has a lot of mystery in it.”

Moran elaborates, explaining that he experiences a little trepidation every time he receives a vibraphone part. “You can never tell from just looking at the part how it’s going to be played because it’s so contextual,” he says. “Sometimes the part would look very simple; then you go to play it, and the things that you have to play over would utterly confuse your sense of rhythm and time. Sometimes he’ll send a part and I’ll go, ‘Oh my God! How in the hell am I ever going to play this?’ And for some reason it becomes much easier than I’d expect.”

Reichman notes that no matter how long one might have performed in Hollenbeck’s ensembles, his music offers no patented rhythmic patterns or other clichés to fall back on. “You have to really stay on your toes to understand what each piece is doing,” the accordionist says. “There is no guarantee that each section will follow the previous one easily. That relates to John’s rhythmic virtuosity. As a drummer, he has a real expansive idea about how rhythms work, so you really have to focus to be on the same page.”

So much has been said about Hollenbeck’s brilliance as a composer that his identity as a drummer can be easily be overlooked. As with his composing, Hollenbeck stresses groove and accessibility in his own playing. “His drumming is unjustly ignored,” argues Gress. “There is no excess or showiness to his drumming—it’s just music, all the time. His cymbal work is great; he can just play quarter notes and sound great to me. I dig the way that he tunes his drums; I dig the way that it interfaces with my bass. John plays from the ears of the audience. He’s trying to participate with the music like an audience member.”

Born to Gerald and Elizabeth Hollenbeck, the drummer grew up the youngest of four in Binghamton, N.Y., and showed great admiration for his oldest brother, Pat, who also played drums. Hollenbeck credits his brother with putting him on the musical track, both as an instrumentalist and composer. “My brother gave me this idea that all musicians are composers, that it is part of the whole deal,” Hollenbeck says. “Later on I realized it was a good thing, but not true: A lot of musicians don’t compose. So he gave me the idea from the start—plus, I saw him doing that too!”

Hollenbeck’s small upstate New York town provided surprisingly fertile ground for a young aspiring musician. In addition to attending Al Hamme’s summer jazz workshops as a junior-high student at SUNY Binghamton University, his neighborhood on the west side of town nurtured an impressive amount of future jazz talent. The list of Hollenbeck’s childhood contemporaries includes trombonist Steve Davis, trumpeter Tony Kadleck, guitarist Tom Dempsey and singer-pianist Dena DeRose.

Davis remembers Hollenbeck being quite the diligent student and versatile, even as a teenager. “John was always serious about music, perhaps as much about classical music as about being a pure jazz player,” Davis recalls. “I think we both had our first gig in my parents’ backyard, for my grandparents’ 40th anniversary party. We were very fortunate to have great teachers, supportive parents and to come up with a special group of young, talented musicians. Growing up, we all had a great deal of respect for John as a musician.”

DeRose, who first met Hollenbeck when they auditioned for the percussion section in their junior-high orchestra, agrees. She remembers him being a small, quiet and shy kid. “He almost looked like Harry Potter,” DeRose says. “I remember going into the audition and saying, ‘Who is this kid?,’ because he looked like a second grader.” But Hollenbeck’s audition was so strong that DeRose thought she had lost her chance to join the ensemble. Luckily they both got in, and they continued to play together throughout high school in numerous bands. “Already at that age John was inspiring and encouraging,” DeRose says.

While attending one of Hamme’s workshops, Hollenbeck first met legendary trombonist and composer Bob Brookmeyer, who brought his sextet. The meeting would be prophetic. Brookmeyer was a guest artist at Eastman during Hollenbeck’s studies there, and when the trombonist decided to start a music school in Rotterdam, Hollenbeck auditioned. But Hollenbeck didn’t land his big break with Brookmeyer until after he graduated from Eastman and spent some time in Europe and São Paulo. In 1994, Hollenbeck received an NEA grant to study composition with him. “That’s when he asked me to join his new band, from hearing my tapes,” Hollenbeck remembers.

“John’s composer side translated really well with his drummer’s side,” Brookmeyer recalls when asked what made Hollenbeck an ideal drummer for his New Art Orchestra. “When I started the band, he was musical and polite and it just kept saying, ‘More, more!’ He started giving more and became less afraid of hurting things and more concerned with creating things.” Brookmeyer also insists that Hollenbeck is an extension of Elvin Jones and Mel Lewis in being able to steer both large and small ensembles. “Mel was one of the greatest drummers in jazz history, but not regarded as so when he lived; Elvin was in more groups where he could show what he could do. Mel was more settled and had more responsibilities; I think John may have a place like that. I don’t know anyone in this era who can do what he does.”

Brookmeyer continues to be one of Hollenbeck’s primary lodestars in composition. “He’s a very important person in my life,” Hollenbeck says. “He’s always experimenting, sometimes in very subtle ways, but he’s always trying to do new things. He was always thinking about bringing the idea of composition into jazz.” Another continuing guiding light for Hollenbeck is pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams. The two have yet to work together, but Hollenbeck did meet Abrams in 1989 at a summer jazz course at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. Hollenbeck later dedicated “RAM,” from his Large Ensemble’s 2005 disc, A Blessing, to Abrams. Hollenbeck says that Abrams and Brookmeyer share similar philosophies when it comes to composing: “The idea that you only need one cell, one little idea to write a whole piece. And that it is OK to create ‘theater’ in your music.”

The same year Hollenbeck received the NEA grant also marked the start of his New York history. Without hardly knowing anyone, he landed his first gigs with drummer Satoshi Takeishi and saxophonists Adam Kolker and Pat Zimmerli, playing at various dance classes and small clubs on the mid-’90s Downtown scene. As his circle of musical friends grew, Hollenbeck played with the Village Vanguard Orchestra; with personal heroes like trumpeter Frank London, pianist Anthony Coleman and clarinetist David Krakauer; and eventually formed enduring relationships with contemporaries such as guitarist Ben Monder and many of the musicians who work in his current groups.

Hollenbeck remembers his first years in New York being difficult because of the fierce competition among musicians and the city’s high cost of living. “At the same time, I was semi-consciously just looking for my musical identity and a place that felt organic and natural,” he says. “That didn’t happen until the Refuseniks gig at Alt Coffee around 1996.” (It was through that trio, with Reichman and bassist Reuben Radding, that the Claudia Quintet got its name. One night, an overzealous female concert-goer named Claudia vowed to start following the band yet never returned to a performance, subsequently becoming an in-joke.)

Now 17 years later, after high-profile commissions from the likes of Guggenheim, Meet the Composer and Chamber Music America and recording 13 sterling albums with various ensembles, Hollenbeck adds even more hustle to his game by dividing his time between New Paltz, N.Y., and Germany, where he teaches drumset and improvisation at Jazz Institute Berlin.

But with the current global economy in ruins, Hollenbeck rests on no laurels and acknowledges that every “yes” he receives in terms of bookings usually arrives after nine “no’s.” As for the evolution of his compositional voice, he says that not much has really changed since he first played the drums as a kid. Although he admits his music has gotten richer and deeper with life experience, he holds on to the natural impulses that were there when he was 8. “I think it’s easy to get knocked off of [those natural impulses] and go into some directions that are not right for me,” he says. “For instance, some people just get sick of the whole thing and decide to make a really commercial record. It’s easy for stuff like that to happen. I’m trying to stay myself.”

Originally published in November 2011

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