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John Hollenbeck: Time to Rearrange

The drummer, composer, and bandleader is finding new ways to approach both his own music and the songs of others—as well as his playing style and the future of jazz education

John Hollenbeck 1
John Hollenbeck (photo: © Mercedes Jelinek)

A pair of stained-glass windows hangs on the wall behind John Hollenbeck. They’re tall, in the shape of 18th-century tombstones, with the panes in abstract patterns of varying blues, greens, and yellows. A row of candles sits under one window. To Hollenbeck’s right is a large, dark-stained wooden panel that looks like a hymn board, with a large ceramic bowl beneath it.

We’re on a Zoom call, but … where are we?

Hollenbeck chuckles knowingly when asked about the setting. “Oh, this is my apartment,” he says. “It’s an old converted church.”

One could guess then and there (if one didn’t already know) that Hollenbeck lives in Montreal—the city of which Mark Twain remarked, “You couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” A master drummer, and one of the 21st century’s most lauded jazz composers (and arrangers: his new album Songs You Like A Lot is the last of a trilogy featuring his treatments of pop and traditional songs), Hollenbeck is also an esteemed educator who has taught since 2015 at Canada’s prestigious McGill University.

For now, of course, this former church and Zoom account also constitute his classroom, office, and studio. When we speak in mid-August, he’s planning curricula and figuring out how to work remotely with a 30-piece ensemble class. “A lot of the work the students can still do on their own,” he explains. “Practicing together, we won’t be able to do that in person, in real time. But I do plan on recording each of them, and then I’ll edit it so they can at least hear what they sound like together, even though they aren’t playing together.”


Hollenbeck has applied this resourcefulness to his own music as well. He recently made a remote recording of a new piece, “Epigraphs,” with two vocalists, a guitarist, and himself on drums, which he hopes to release in the fall. He plans to do the same with the Claudia Quintet, the small group that’s his main performing vehicle, on a new album later this year. He also has a commission from Germany’s NDR big band in the pipeline. “I have to get going on that!” he says. “When I start thinking about the things I need to do, I get anxious.”

Not that he would have it any other way. “I don’t know anyone who is so fastidious, so continuously creating and working. John is the least lazy person I’ve ever met,” says vocalist Theo Bleckmann, a member of Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble who also appears on Songs You Like a Lot (and its companions, Songs I Like a Lot and Songs We Like a Lot). “He’s always, always arranging or writing or thinking or practicing. He makes me a lazy bum!”

Just as the Songs trilogy finds him adapting others’ tunes to his musical world, the pandemic finds Hollenbeck adapting his working life to a changing external world. Among other things, Songs You Like a Lot officially inaugurates Flexatonic Arts, Hollenbeck’s new 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which will serve as the aegis for all his professional activities.


2020 has also presented new challenges of its own, and has forced him, like so many of us, to re-evaluate some things once taken for granted.


“If I tell someone I’m a musician or a composer, and they say, ‘What kind of music?’ I’ll say, ‘Well, what kind of music do you like?’”


Hollenbeck is probably best known for his writing. More specifically, he’s known as what used to be called a “serious composer,” with a corpus that’s nearing 200 pieces. Some have been recorded by orchestras or chamber groups, big bands, or purpose-built Hollenbeck ensembles; a few have been co-composed with avant-gardist Meredith Monk, with whom he has collaborated for 20 years. “He’s such a magnificent composer,” Monk enthuses. “He’s able to come into my world, and he’s got such a profound understanding of my music and my sensibility that what he adds to it really retains the integrity of my music world.”

Most of his compositions, however, have been written either for the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, his 18-piece big band, or for the Claudia Quintet, which includes saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordionist Red Wierenga, and bassist Drew Gress.


Knowing the personnel is key to understanding Hollenbeck’s approach. “He writes for the personality of the people who will play the compositions,” says pianist/organist/accordionist Gary Versace, a longtime member of the Large Ensemble who also recorded an album (Royal Toast) with the Claudia Quintet in 2010. “I remember trying to learn one of his pieces—it was really hard—and I think I said to him, ‘John, why don’t you call somebody that can read better?’ And he said, ‘I want your sound and feel.’ It’s not just a part, something that some other player will sit down and do just as well. He’s not thinking that way: He’s hearing you play the part, and it’s really important to him to have what he’s hearing in his head when the piece comes to life.”

When the French bassist Daniel Yvinec was leading Paris’s l’Orchestre National de Jazz in 2010, he commissioned a suite from Hollenbeck (Shut Up and Dance) for precisely that reason. “I wanted to do a record that would feature each member of the [10-piece] band in a context that was tailored to him or her—almost like a small concerto for each of the musicians,” he says. “I invited John to come to France and play with each member of the orchestra so that he could get to know them. He would improvise with them and then make notes about what they played, the instruments they played, what he could play with and have fun with.”

Like Duke Ellington, Hollenbeck both channels the styles of his players and has a distinct style of his own. However, that style is difficult to describe. He’s highly percussive—he’s a drummer, after all—without sacrificing melodic, harmonic, or structural richness. He appreciates repetition and variation, but also builds linear, even narrative arcs. (“His compositions develop, but slowly, and patiently,” says trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, an admirer, “and they carefully guide you to a place where you’re like, ‘How did I get here?’”) His sprawling, inclusive musical language has echoes of contemporary classical; progressive and experimental rock; and African, Asian, and European traditional forms, as well as postbop jazz.


“That intersection of many points, that’s where I live,” Hollenbeck says. “I know it’s very frustrating for critics and listeners, because people tend to want to grasp something and put it in a box.

“If I tell someone I’m a musician or a composer, and they say, ‘What kind of music?’ I’ll say, ‘Well, what kind of music do you like?’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, I like …’ whatever. And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, it’s kinda like that.’ Because whatever music I’m playing, it has some elements of what everyone likes. I try to show them how whatever I’m doing, I’m sure there’s a way that I can frame it for them in their world.”

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.