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John Hollenbeck: Big Apple to Brotherly Love

John Hollenbeck in Philadelphia during his "Big Ears" residency, 2009

Gongs ring out, loud and long, followed by the boom of timpani and the sparse rattle of percussion. Then, from the rear of Philadelphia’s Painted Bride Art Center, out of view, several horns begin an achingly dissonant rubato theme. Soon the players emerge from the darkness, continuing the music as they march slowly through the black-box theater, finally joining the half-dozen musicians already onstage. John Hollenbeck, switching from melodica to drum set, kicks off a driving beat as the players fall into tempo, adding to a powerful unison line that crests and then draws to a conclusive finish. The piece, “Paterna Terra” (“fatherland”), is a journey in itself. But it’s just the first of Hollenbeck’s offerings with a band he has dubbed the “Philly 12.”

This concert, in early March, was the culminating event of Hollenbeck’s “Big Ears” residency at the Painted Bride. In coordination with Lenny Seidman, the Bride’s music curator, Hollenbeck chose 12 musicians from a pool of local applicants. He wound up with a vibrant cross-section of Philadelphia’s improvised-music community: alto saxophonist Bobby Zankel, tenor saxophonist Bryan Rogers, soprano sax/clarinetist Aino Söderhielm, trumpeter Bart Miltenberger, trombonist Brent White, violinist Katt Hernandez, guitarist Matt Davis, vocalist Venissa Santí, pianist Matthew Mitchell and bassist Brian Howell. Hollenbeck reserved the drummer slot for himself, but Patricia Franceschy and Gabe Globus-Hoenich, both classically trained on percussion and mallets, added much to the group’s sonic identity.

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