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John Hollenbeck’s Natural Impulses

The drummer-composer on the importance of being himself

John Hollenbeck and his Large Ensemble
John Hollenbeck

On this early September afternoon, John Hollenbeck is only a day away from visiting one of his favorite getaways, the Blue Mountain Center. Located in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, the lodge offers established musicians, writers and visual artists the perfect bucolic setting for a working retreat. This will be Hollenbeck’s fourth visit since 2001. In addition to preparing for an October concert with Kenny Wheeler at Jazz Standard in Manhattan, Hollenbeck hopes to concentrate on compositions for string quartet and drums. “It’s hard to carve out the time and really keep it carved,” he says by phone, from his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y.

For a mostly self-managing drummer, composer and bandleader like the 43-year-old Hollenbeck, who takes care of bookings as well as travel and lodging arrangements and payment for up to 18 musicians, “carving out time” to write is a rare luxury. Somehow, though, he makes it all work with synchronized splendor. And while his recording output has been steadily thrilling over the past decade, 2011 could be easily viewed as a banner year for the perennially award-winning artist. His Grammy-nominated Large Ensemble nailed its first international tour and received critical acclaim for performances at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival in early August and at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge in late April. That latter bill was shared with the 10-piece French ensemble Orchestre National de Jazz, which performed material from its riveting disc Shut Up and Dance (Bee Jazz), composed of commissioned music written by Hollenbeck. Now Hollenbeck will have to negotiate time and focus to support What Is the Beautiful? (Cuneiform), the gripping new project from his Claudia Quintet.

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