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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
John Hollenbeck (photo: © Mercedes Jelinek)

Genre fluidity notwithstanding, Hollenbeck has established a strong compositional identity. In fact, that strength has sometimes been an obstacle when doing arrangement work—as in a 2004 commission to treat Thelonious Monk’s “Four in One” for the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. “When I brought it to the band, they said, ‘Well, it’s interesting, but where’s the tune? Where’s “Four in One?” We don’t hear it at all.’ I went over the boundary of arranging, so I actually had to insert the melody intact so that at one point you can hear it.” (The Large Ensemble recorded a version of Hollenbeck’s arrangement, titled “Foreign One,” on the 2009 album Eternal Interlude.)

The idea of Songs I Like a Lot, the Songs trilogy’s first installment (2013), was to better embrace that side of writing music. Commissioned by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, Hollenbeck also included Versace, Bleckmann, and vocalist Kate McGarry in his settings of Imogen Heap’s “Canvas,” Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” and “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress,” and Queen’s “Bicycle Race,” among others of his favorite tunes (and one original).

2015’s Songs We Like a Lot added pianist Uri Caine to the band, and had Hollenbeck choosing from Bleckmann and McGarry’s song suggestions. “At first I definitely thought that I’ve gotta like the pieces I arrange, because I’m gonna have to live with them things for a long time,” Hollenbeck says. “And that seemed like it could be fun. But then there were a few pieces on that first record that I didn’t even know, but that Kate liked. So, I thought, ‘Let’s do some pieces that I don’t like, or I don’t even know, that Kate and Theo like.’ And then by the end I had realized that the composition process and the arranging process is not different at all. I can arrange anything—I don’t have to know it, and I definitely don’t have to like it.”

Hence Songs You Like a Lot: Hollenbeck took the matter entirely out of his own repertoire, asking listeners to nominate songs for him to arrange. Submissions included classic songs by Joni Mitchell, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, James Taylor, and Brian Wilson and Tony Asher. With this last, the beloved ballad “God Only Knows,” he found yet another new frontier.

“I arranged the words,” he explains. “For the first time I saw I could keep the words, but I could scramble them and create new meanings with them. I actually arranged the words first, and that set me up to treat the piece like some eggs that I could scramble. Again, I went over the boundaries of arranging, but this time I did it on purpose.”

Aptly retitled “Knows Only God,” the chart was a challenge. “I was like, ‘What? What are you writing here? It’s insane!’” says Bleckmann. “But that’s why it’s so important that John writes for the musicians he works with. He knows me so well that he would never give me anything I couldn’t do. So when it came to ‘God Only Knows,’ I was like, ‘Wow! How am I gonna … wait, no, this is doable.’”

“When a jazz department goes into a music school, they have to conform to this European system. … We never talk about African music.”

Such a remarkable composing and arranging portfolio can overshadow Hollenbeck’s superlative abilities as a drummer. Both Bleckmann and Versace describe him as a “musician’s musician.” Hollenbeck himself feels that composing has put his instrumental skills on the backburner; his touring plans scuttled by the pandemic, he decided “to just practice. To enjoy just practicing but also working on foundational things that I’ve let go because I’ve been busy working on pieces.”

Akinmusire, however, doesn’t accept these modest notions.

“John is a player,” the trumpeter says. “He’s an amazing drummer. One of the baddest in the world. Two years ago, we did a duo concert where we just improvised, and it was amazing.”

More to the point, his cohorts say, his drumming can’t be divorced from his writing. “He plays like a composer,” Versace says. “It’s thoughtful, it builds on ideas, it finds ways to orchestrate behind people. You can’t ever assume that John is going to, say, use the ride cymbal to keep time, use the hi-hat and bass drum [like so]. He finds one idea and orchestrates it 15 different ways, and you won’t even realize it until you listen and go, ‘Oh! He’s been playing that same rhythm the entire time; he’s just been moving it around the drum set!’”

Indeed, his co-composer credits with Meredith Monk came about because he created the percussion score for pieces that were otherwise her own. “Sometimes I’ll present a piece that’s almost finished, and then he works on what would be a beautiful percussion addition to it,” Monk says. “I trust him so deeply I don’t have to write out every last thing for him. Once we get the sound and the structure, he can just be free to fill it out, and I know that the end result will be beautiful and magical.”

One of the live dates that the pandemic derailed was a duo that Hollenbeck and Monk were to perform at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival in May. “I’ve never been interested in using traditional percussion instruments in my music; if I’m going to have percussion I like to find a really unique sound for each piece,” says Monk. “And then his next proposal was that he wanted to play traps! He said, ‘Nobody would ever think that Meredith Monk would have traps in her work.’ It’s so John!”

“It was gonna be so much fun, we’re playing her music but it’s just voice and drums,” Hollenbeck says. “We’re going to do an online performance at the end of September.” At press time, details of the virtual concert had yet to be finalized, but chances are good that Hollenbeck’s playing will soon have the showcase it richly deserves.

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.