JOHN HOLLENBECK’S LARGE MUSICAL ADVENTURE
By Paul Freeman
The Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble may be a nightmare in terms of touring. But for highly esteemed composer/percussionist/bandleader Hollenbeck, the 18-piece jazz group is a dream come true, creatively.
“Logistically, it’s a nightmare,” Hollenbeck told Pop Culture Classics, by phone from Berlin, where he teaches. “Financially, it’s a nightmare. And it can be awful, like if you have a terrible room or a bad sound person or something. But the energy that you feel from the Ensemble is unlike anything else. The power of it, not even in volume, but just getting that many people focusing in on one thing, is amazing.”
Working with different types of groups enables Hollenbeck to bring out different sides of himself musically.
“I’ve always been interested in lots of different kinds of music and they feed each other and influence each other.
“For instance, if you play improvised music, and you’re using just sounds, and, if you bring that into a context like of chamber music or jazz, incorporate a little bit of the sound thing, it can be really fresh.”
Hollenbeck recalled playing with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer’s big band. “I had a little triangle, which is not a normal part of a drum set, but something that I was using in some other stuff and I just had with me. I remember a moment of hitting it and everyone looking over, getting all excited, because it was a new sound that they weren’t used to in that context.”
Hollenbeck also earns acclaim as part of The Claudia Quintet. “It’s nice to have a group of people who’ve been working together for 14 years. So we’ve developed this music and we’ve developed as people over time. A lot of the music is fairly composed, but everyone knows that they can feel free even within the music that’s pretty composed.”
With the Large Ensemble, the New York City native is creating new connotations of what big band jazz could be. The group’s two albums, “Eternal Interlude” and “A Blessing,” both earned Grammy nominations.
“I’d played in a lot of big bands in school and after school, and I was pretty conscious of what was not being written and what might be possible with that amount of people. I wanted to do something a little different and treat the traditional big band instrumentation like a wind ensemble or a large chamber ensemble and not really the traditions of a big band.”
The classically trained percussionist has always had an avant-garde sensibility. “I’ve been around creative musicians who got to a certain area and sat there and decided, ‘This is the stuff that I really love.’ I was, in high school, college, the kind of oddball person who was into experimenting. I just have a natural inclination to try new things.”
It’s not easy being a true original. “Maybe the response will be more positive after I die,” Hollenbeck said, laughing. “Now, it’s pretty hard. I think the music is actually pretty accessible, but the fact that it’s new, that kind of throws people off a lot of times. If they hear something that’s not familiar to them, then they they don’t have anywhere to stand and they’re just a bit like, ‘Well, I don’t know what this is, so I’m not sure if I like it.’ Something I’ve noticed, really figured out recently, is how certain musicians seem to be more successful if they do something that’s a little bit original, but also has some of the familiar in there, so people can grasp it.
“The fact that I usually am trying to write music that wouldn’t exactly fit into a category, that is an incredibly bad business decision, I’ve found out. But again, it’s just natural. So it’s better that I do that, rather than try to write some music just to be successful or popular.”
That doesn’t mean that Hollenbeck feels completely free when he’s composing. “Most of the pieces that I’ve written in the last couple of years have been commissioned work, so it’s a bit more like an architect who has some freedom and maybe the person paying them wants them to be adventurous in a certain respect, but they still need the toilet to be where they want it and they need the plumbing to work and they need the roof to not leak. But it doesn’t really bother me, because I find a lot of freedom within the frame also.
“It makes it a little easier, because, when you’re composing, you’re making choice after choice, decision after decision. So if some of the decisions have already been made for you, if you know it’s for this instrumentation and it’s going to be played here and the theme of the program is this and it should be 10 minutes long, then you don’t have to think about those aspects.”
Nevertheless, Hollenbeck approaches composing from more of an emotional than an analytical place. “It feels like I take some material and work with it like it’s clay. From the very beginning to the end, to me those seem like very intuitive, primitive decisions.”
Hollenbeck, 42, writes to please himself, but is always aware of the audience’s needs, as well as those of his fellow musicians.
“I think about the musicians all the time... and the listener. But I am the listener. I think a lot about ways that people access music. Some people access music through a very rhythmic sense. So if there’s some sort of groove, they can really get into the music and maybe it doesn’t matter so much what else is going on. Other people access music through melody. Some access music through words or the voice. And musicians might tend to access music more from harmony or just the sound. I do think about that a lot and I try to write music that has as many access points as possible.
“I try to help the audience at the concerts. I’’ll explain the title or how I wrote the piece or why I wrote the piece, just to do everything I can to help them get into it. But I try not to go over the line into just writing music that I think people will like. As a listener, I enjoy not knowing what’s going to happen, the kind of mystery of the future, what’s coming next in a piece. When I don’t really know, when I’m surprised, that’s when I’m the most engaged. So hopefully there’s more people out there like me.”