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John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble: A Blessing

For the recording debut of his 18-piece ensemble, drummer-arranger John Hollenbeck has cooked an exciting bouillabaisse of genres, from big-band jazz to contemporary symphonic minimalism. It begins with “A Blessing” and ends with a prayer, “The Music of Life,” both featuring singer Theo Bleckmann, the most outstanding presence on the session. His rangy voice (reminiscent of a countertenor) is used elsewhere, in unison with various sections.

Hollenbeck proves to be a master colorist, even coming up with a sound probably never heard before. On the aforementioned bookends, mallet-meister Matt Moran runs a bass bow over his vibes to produce a sound halfway between a human voice and a musical saw. But aside from gimmicks, there is solid musicianship everywhere. Take the personal contrapuntal conversation between pianist Gary Versace and English hornist Dan Willis on “Folkmoot,” the “argument” by Versace and vibist Moran with the rest of the orchestra on “RAM” or the natives-are-getting-restless drumming by Hollenbeck that ignites a free-for-all not anchored to any key center on “Weiji.” Then there’s “April in Reggae,” which begins seriously, skips into reggae, goes through menacing sectional passages and ends in reggae with an interpolation of “April in Paris.” Brilliant writing-hard to figure, but well worth the effort.

Originally Published