Jack DeJohnette & John Hollenbeck: A Tale of Two Drummers

Russ Davis of MOJA Radio blogs about the two innovative drummers and bandleaders

There are many good reasons to be happy about calling New York City your base of operations if one is a jazz fan, advocate, musician, professional, etc. One of the main reasons has got to be the close proximity to so many inviting venues to take in performances by the greats of jazz and those striving to achieve jazz greatness most any night. As I’ve said many times…New York can’t really stage a “Jazz Festival” because every single day is a jazz festival in this city. If you include the tri-state area you have an even bigger festival but that’s another story.

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Claudia Quintet, John Hollenbeck center
By Signe Maehler
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John Hollenbeck and Russ Davis of MOJA Radio
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Jack DeJohnette with Russ Davis of MOJA Radio

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The story I want to tell now is that of two of the finest practitioners of jazz currently at work who are primarily known as “drummers,” the legendary Jack DeJohnette, and the rising legend that is the career of John Hollenbeck. I just happened to see these two leading their bands recently a few days apart at two famous venues that happen to be walking distance from one another in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. I witnessed The Jack DeJohnette Group at The Blue Note and followed that with John Hollenbeck leading his Claudia Quintet at The Cornelia Street Café. The gentlemen were kind enough to grant me some time for conversation in conjunction with the performances, Jack backstage at the Blue Note and John at my home/studio/office on 16th Street in Manhattan.

Firstly, I must say that to put these two in one story may appear to be cheating both, as volumes could be written about them separately, but to take a quick sketch of the two including a snapshot of their similarities as well as their differences at this point in their careers seemed intriguing to me and I hope to you as well. They come from different generations. Jack DeJohnette will famously turn 70 on August 9th while John Hollenbeck will be 44 on June 19th. Those dates place them at interesting points in jazz history. DeJohnette missed the BeBop revolution first hand, though he certainly has a connection to some of the greats of the era, and Hollenbeck was born the year before Miles recorded In A Silent Way so he knows nothing about Fusion other than what he’s heard or read about the era in conversations with the principles in the era or on recordings.

In the first decade of their respective careers it’s certain that DeJohnette had the good fortune to learn his early lessons in the company of some of the greats of the day such as Charles Lloyd, Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Bill Evans, Stan Getz and of course Miles Davis. He then began to collaborate with his esteemed contemporaries like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Zawinul and others. He also found a unique collaborator in Alice Coltrane. Hollenbeck, who was born in upstate New York but is known primarily as a New York City artist, may not have had the same level of learning potential from association with influential bandleaders, he certainly enjoyed a varied experience that spawned his understanding of the large ensemble/big band concept as well as an avant-garde and international point of view musically. His most important collaboration may have been with the late trombonist, composer and arranger Bob Brookmeyer, with whom John enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship before Brookmeyer’s recent passing. Some of his earliest work came with large ensembles like Austria’s Jazz Big Band Graz. His international experience was expanded with his association with the trumpeter of Vietnamese origin Coung Vu, and one of his longest associates, New York-based but German-born vocalist Theo Bleckmann.

As for what these two gentlemen have in common, there is much to point out. Each one spent about a decade working with others before releasing their first solo statements. DeJohnette released his debut solo album, The DeJohnette Complex, in 1969 and the first album with Hollenback as a leader, titled No Images, came out in 2001. Another similarity is the fact that though the credit most usually associated with each of them is the term “drummer” there is so much more to that than meets the eye. Each one is more of a pure “percussionist” than you might ever imagine. These are two consummate craftsmen with a complete and varied percussion palate from which to choose. Each one is a keyboardist, though certainly Jack DeJohnette is known more for his piano work than Hollenbeck will ever be, having played piano before the drums and has been classically trained. Jack has recorded complete piano albums in the past and plays most of the piano parts on his latest release Sound Travels.

Search for their recording credits and you’ll find designations like Melodica, Bells, Gong, Marimba, Vibes, Tympani, Timbales, Chimes, Triangle, Congas, and more exotic “international” percussion instruments like Kalimba, Log Drums, Turkish Drum, Berimbau and much more. Hollenbeck is so astute at and in command of percussion in every sense of the word that he is now an instructor of percussion at a university in Berlin where he spends as much time working as he does in the USA. As a matter of fact, he was packed and on his way to the airport immediately after our conversation. Other aspects of their careers that are shared include the designations of composer, producer, arranger, mixer, band member and certainly band leader. Each was the leader of the bands I had the pleasure to witness performances by in the spring in New York. Another aspect of personality that these two leaders share is the fact that they are both thoughtful, deep and quiet in nature and choose to lead as members of the band, “from the rear” if you will literally and figuratively, behind the drum kit at the rear of the stage.

Instead of hearing a live presentation of his latest Sound Travels, for which he would probably have had to bring in guest players from all over including Bruce Hornsby, Esperanza Spalding, Jason Moran, Lionel Loueke and others who had joined him on the album, the audience was treated to a performance by the band Jack has worked with for awhile, The Jack DeJohnette Band including alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthapa, guitarist David “Fuze” Fiuczynski, pianist George Colligan, and bassist Jerome Harris. On this evening they also welcomed special guests including percussionist Luisito Quintero and saxophonist Tim Ries. Instead of the tunes from Sound Travels we heard music of a more traditional nature, the songs from the album that is available on Jack’s website only, The Jack DeJohnette Group: Live @ Yoshi’s 2010. As Jack said, he loves strong grooves and great melodies and there was plenty to be enjoyed on this night from this all-star band, most of which are leaders in their own right.

As for Jack’s performance, he kept the solid beat in a more traditional way of what a drummer on a drum kit provides in most band situations, laying down the rhythm and groove with the bassist to create the foundation for improvisers to work on top of. There was little in his playing to suggest the work of this great innovator whose collaborations with artists as diverse as Africa’s Foday Musa Suso, one-of-a-kind guitarist Bill Frisell, rock pianist Bruce Hornsby or any number of others with whom he has broken unique musical ground in the past. Still, what I witnessed was nothing short of historic in the mold of Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Max Roach etc. As Jack tours the world this year to celebrate his 70th birthday playing in unique situations and aggregations like the fabulous trios featuring Jack, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke, or with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, or in a duo setting with McCoy Tyner, or with the aforementioned Jack DeJohnette Group with special guest Lionel Loueke, you must see the show. A special, historic night is guaranteed for all.

Seeing John Hollenbeck and his Claudia Quintet, and on this evening the quintet + 1 with the addition of a pianist, was a revelation. I’d enjoyed the recordings by the band that’s been around since 1997 and always thought they were on a unique path to help define what jazz and improvised music could be for the 21st century. They certainly did not disappoint and instead thrilled and inspired me to talk further with Mr. Hollenbeck and to get the complete story behind the bold trajectory of his career. It’s not easy to put into complete terms exactly how Claudia Quintet music is constructed but I sensed that there is a kind of bolero effect at play as one pattern, or “texture” as John phrased it, is established by one instrument with the ever building process of added instrumentation and intensity as each piece progressed. With this unique assemblage of instruments there seemed no way that something unique would not come of this performance. How could one expect less from a band featuring accordion, played by Red Wierenga, vibes, sometimes electronically enhanced and played with a bow by Matt Moran, clarinet and tenor sax, played by Chris Speed, the unique acoustic bass style of Drew Gress and the + 1 of the quintet, pianist Matt Mitchell?

And then there is John Hollenbeck and his drum kit. Whereas Jack DeJohnette led his group by playing in a more traditional way, there is very little one would call traditional about the presentation of The Claudia Quintet, including the way John plays drums. He is truly a percussionist and seems to consider each and every portion of the kit, from the rims and casings of each individual drum to every inch of each cymbal, as something that can conjure a note. Though each instrument is occupying its own space nothing competes, everything complements everything else. I guess that comes from Hollenbeck’s many hours of learning from Bob Brookmeyer and applying his experience and knowledge to his own projects with various large ensembles such as his recent Grammy-nominated work, the sensational Shut Up And Dance recorded with France’s Orchestre National de Jazz. I consider myself one who is always looking for the totally unique in jazz today and I found it on this night at the inviting little, down-under setting of The Cornelia Street Café with the one-of-a-kind Claudia Quintet.

After a time spent with these two masters of drums, percussion, composition, arranging, you name it, Jack DeJohnette and John Hollenbeck, I find myself inspired by the past work of two greats of jazz from different generations who continue to express themselves completely and carve new ground for themselves and jazz in the 21st century for all of us to enjoy and marvel at. Putting their names in the same sentence seems perfectly natural to me in so many ways as does putting their names at the top of the list of those who practice their craft.

[Editor’s Note: John Hollenbeck compiled an Artist’s Choice playlist on Jack DeJohnette for the November 2011 issue of JazzTimes.]

Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” - for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting MOJA Radio's website.

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