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John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble: All Can Work (New Amsterdam)

Review of album by big band leader who pays tribute to mentors, friends and colleagues who have passed

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Cover of John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble album All Can Work
Cover of John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble album All Can Work

Drummer-composer John Hollenbeck has for 20 years excelled at writing music that balances oddness and sublimity. But it’s never had quite the overtly personal dimension that it does on All Can Work, an homage to Hollenbeck’s departed friends, colleagues, mentors and influences, performed by his 20-piece Large Ensemble. It’s also never been more beautiful.

The sweeping title track encompasses all of those attributes, from beauty to strangeness to soul-baring. Hollenbeck’s tribute to the Ensemble’s late trumpeter Laurie Frink takes her emails to the composer as its lyrics; it turns out to be a mosaic of mundanities—“OK fine,” “Cool,” “Doesn’t matter”—set against sweet reeds and soaring horns. But that just enhances the emotional payload. The finale finds Theo Bleckmann singing, repeating and fragmenting, with increasingly operatic accompaniment, “I will miss you all, and especially the music.”

The glory of that moment on the second track suggests that the album peaks early, and in its poignancy, it does. But the craftsmanship and ingenuity maintain their high level throughout—as does the expression. There’s the mischief of “Elf,” Hollenbeck’s delicious inversion of Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” (featuring an enchantment of a soprano sax solo by Tony Malaby), and the bewilderment of the Mondrian tribute “from trees,” somehow shambolic, symphonic and funky all at once as it features Anna Webber’s teasing tenor and ultimately finds its way to joy. The closing twofer, “Long Swing Dream” and an almost laughably dense cover of Kraftwerk’s “The Model,” seem to wallow in their own zaniness—and have a good time doing it. There is an embarrassment of riches on All Can Work, but it’s the title tune that most strongly catches hold.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album All Can Work by John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble on iTunes.

Read John Murph’s profile of John Hollenbeck in JazzTimes.

Originally Published