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John Hollenbeck & Jazz Bigband Graz: Joys & Desires

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John Hollenbeck’s drums have been heard in the company of Bob Brookmeyer, Fred Hersch and Meredith Monk. For Joys & Desires, he attempts to take the traditional big-band instrumentation and divest it of its usual arrangements and sounds. With the German, 17-piece Jazz Bigband Graz and vocalist Theo Bleckmann following his lead, Hollenbeck certainly proves that, as he says in the liner notes, “This is not your parents’ big-band CD.”

There’s no reason to doubt this claim in the opening track, “The Bird With the Coppery, Keen Claws.” Over a minimal cello ostinato that continues for all six minutes, half the band plays a swirling melody while the other half chirps in the background. It might have worked were it not for Bleckmann’s recitation of Wallace Stevens’ titular poem, which renders the whole thing pretentious. The same results come with “The Garden of Love,” with poetry coming this time from William Blake.

Hollenbeck has written some creative melodies (“Abstinence,” “Just Like Him”) and a spot-on homage to Tim Berne. But “Jazz Envy” almost sounds like a spoof of “free jazz.” And several tracks on Joys & Desires sounds like Hollenbeck hasn’t quite figured out how to harness the large ensemble’s full sonic potential.