HomeArtist RosterBands/Music/VideosSpecial ProjectsConcert Dates & ToursArtist ReviewsNEWSMusic EducationContact Us

John Hollenbeck Reviews:
THE NEW REPUBLIC, July 4, 2013
by David Hajdu


Retro-Soul and Jazz, Fine, but Krautrock, Anyone?

August 12, 2009
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

The drummer and composer John Hollenbeck inhabits a world of gleaming modernity, and “Eternal Interlude” (Sunnyside), the second album featuring his Large Ensemble, reflects both the clarity and brightness of his vision. Timbre is his forte as much as rhythm: his strategies for the band often involve an autumnal rustle of woodwinds and a billowing swirl of brass. On the superb 19-minute title track he creates a gossamer shimmer of flutes, clarinets, piano and marimba; on “The Cloud” he finds use for a chorus of whistlers. There’s room for robust improvising in his music — the tenor saxophonists Tony Malaby and Ellery Eskelin both make hay on “Perseverance” — but it always feels transitional, like a means to an end. So too does Mr. Hollenbeck’s interaction with the jazz canon here, as when he beams Thelonious Monk’s “Four in One” through a complex prism, yielding something meaningfully titled “Foreign One.”




"John is one of the most brilliant musicians I've had the privilege of working with."   Meredith Monk

"John is taking drumming to a new place-[he] is moving right along and carving his own niche."
 Bob Brookmeyer

"John Hollenbeck is one of the most efficient, well-rounded percussionists to come along in recent years."   Dave Liebman

"Percussionist-composer John Hollenbeck is among the new skinsmen with enough raw skill to make his estimable melodic gifts serve his impeccable timing."   K. Leander Williams - Time Out/NY

"Versatile, articulate, and focused, they've got a book that keeps getting stronger, and a seriousness of purpose that goes well with their groove sense and arsenal of toys. Hollenbeck's writing draws on modern chamber music and ethnic field recordings, and the band improvises around it fluidly."   Douglas Wolk - Village Voice

"...superb, technically ingenious...,passionate and serious, but also playful and funny..."   Douglas Wolk - Village Voice

"...It's sensitive, thinking music, continually changing shape and texture; Mr. Hollenbeck is an estimable jazz drummer whose goals clearly lie beyond jazz."    Ben Ratliff - New York Times

"Drummer-percussionist John Hollenbeck is fast becoming the downtown bandleader to watch.  His compositions flow sinuously from one avant-sound world to another, and he has great taste in sidemen, too."  
K. Leander Williams - TimeOut/NY

"Percussionist Hollenbeck's pieces employ pulse and its illustrative variants to such a degree that eddies of sound are often created"  Jim Macnie - Village Voice

"...beautiful counterpoint..."  Christopher Porter - Washington Post

"...I went downstairs to hear the Claudia Quintet.  If the music they played wasn't jazz, it was better than jazz.  Drummer John Hollenbeck's compositions were more varied and imaginative than what was going on upstairs, the mix of composed, improvised, structured and free parts more ambitious..."    Bill Barner - rec.music.bluenote   



FEBRUARY 20, 2005


Like Mr. Holland, the drummer John Hollenbeck is a rhythm-section player who leads a quintet and recently grew his music to big-band size. It's pretty clear he's the leader: rhythm provides the guiding wisdom of each piece. "A Blessing" (Omnitone), the first recording of his Large Ensemble, suggests one logical extension of Mr. Holland's group, toward multiple personalities. Mr. Hollenbeck is clearly interested in a huge area of contemporary music, from minimalism to African music to art song to funk to free and straight-ahead jazz. (He never sounds like he's mocking any one style, or overreaching: he figures out a way to make everything his own.) It's a real ensemble record, without many solos in the traditional jazz sense; the musicians play in tight, arranged sections, but also go to the other extreme, teasing out weird timbres and textures. Some tracks are dead serious, like "The Music of Life," with a Sufi-philosophy text sung by Theo Bleckmann over clouds of slowly changing chords. Others have a dry and brainy sense of humor, and try ideas that might look dreadful on paper, like putting a shard of "April in Paris's" melody over a reggae rhythm and ambient horn arrangements. In some wily way, it turns out not to be dreadful at all.




MONDAY JUNE 27, 2005



Drummer and composer Hollenbeck, who counts Brookmeyer, Schneider, McNeely, Ligeti, Gil Evans and Brian Eno as influences, uses the conventional big band basics, plus the voice of Theo Bleckmann, in decidedly unconventional ways. Relatively straight-ahead funk, reggae, free improv and classical elements are blended in what is, notwithstanding some soloists, essentially a composer's work throughout. They yield beauties in the 16-minute Irish Blessing, the chant-like The Music of Life, Folkmoot and the quirky April in Reggae, with its adeptly kaleidoscopic mix of ensemble and brief solos. Equally impressive, but vastly different are Weiji, Abstinence and RAM, each a rigorously controlled combination of the free and the formal. And it's all done with striking clarity, authority and originality. www.omnitone.com

Ray Comiskey



ALL MUSIC GUIDE  by Dave Lynch

Drummer, composer, and bandleader John Hollenbeck reveals the wide and deep range of his talents on the first album by his Large Ensemble, an 18-piece aggregation of some of the most skilled musicians on the New York City creative music scene, including Hollenbeck's frequent partner in musical exploration, vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and two members of the Claudia Quintet. Hollenbeck succeeds brilliantly in keeping the listener off balance, revealing new facets of his artistic vision and the capabilities of his players as the album progresses, yet never losing sight of A Blessing's overarching conceptual form.

The CD begins with a blessing and ends with a prayer, deeply humanistic and touchingly hopeful messages bracketing the far-reaching journey at the album's heart. That trip starts at the title track, as the moody, subtle atmospherics of piano, bowed vibes, and bass beneath Bleckmann's vocal build through an expressive soprano saxophone interlude into thoroughly scored full-ensemble territory that fully reflects Hollenbeck's compositional acumen. Front-line instruments including woodwinds, mallets, and voice unwind chant-like melodic lines over a harmonic backdrop that shifts as the rhythm tightens and the melodies knot up in counterpoint, finally ascending to a plateau of shimmering, Steve Reich-ian minimalism beneath Bleckmann's final heartfelt wish -- a traditional Irish blessing that everyone has heard but has never been offered more poignantly -- that life offer up its best for its travelers.

Later, a jazz sensibility takes over in "RAM," with its brassy punctuations and swing, while masses of caterwauling horns let loose over a mechanistically pounding, skewed rhythm in "Weiji" and the thus-far definitive version of Hollenbeck's opus "a-b-s-t-i-n-e-n-c-e" builds to climax suggesting quite the opposite of the title itself. The catharsis is invigorating and fully realized as the album winds its way through myriad episodes of contrasting moods, even as solo instrumental spotlights for trombone, piano, and saxophone battle with complex underlying arrangements for the listeners' attention. There's so much to hear that multiple spins are absolutely mandatory.

In the liners, Hollenbeck is quoted describing Bleckmann as the band's "secret weapon," and that pretty much nails it. Bleckmann is a beautifully evocative singer in a "conventional" song, but his wordless voice is also a stunning instrument, somehow both warm and otherworldly. He's in the mix here and there throughout, taking on the role that, for example, a theremin, shakuhachi, or didgeridoo might fulfill in your not-so-typical big-band arrangement. Ultimately, A Blessing is like any of John Hollenbeck's other, smaller-group releases to date -- stylistically unclassifiable while fully engaged in expanding the diverse genres and styles it draws upon. To use a term that has probably gone out of fashion during times of fragmentation and discord, Hollenbeck's music is "holistic," and summed up best in "The Music of Life"'s selfless prayer for healing at this album's conclusion. The world and all its inhabitants could benefit greatly by taking this type of blessing to heart.



Brainy Drummer John Hollenbeck Breaks the Big Band's Big Habit

 John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble's A Blessing  by Francis Davis for The Village Voice July 12th, 2005 

 Due to DNA or sheer habit, big bands remained dance bands by implication long after people stopped dancing to them. Although retaining the classic instrumentation, the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble (note the billing) is about as far away from Goodman and Basie as can be. Not that Hollenbeck, who's worked with Meredith Monk as well as Bob Brookmeyer and others in jazz, ignores rhythm and dynamics—he is a drummer, after all. But A Blessing's rhythms are cyclical and subdivided, its dynamics generally organized around pitch. The only failures are the first and last tracks, settings for an Irish funeral prayer and a poem by Hazrat Inayat Khan, both sung by Theo Bleckmann, whose high tenor is more pleasing blending wordlessly with the horns. "Abstinence," the most swaggering and exciting of the seven Hollenbeck compositions, isn't going to move any bodies outside of an interpretative ballet company, but it'll have your pulse racing as it piles theme upon theme into multiple crescendos. As full of small detail as Hollenbeck's writing for his Claudia Quintet, this is beguiling music for large ensemble. Just don't expect a big band.



By Paul Olson for allaboutjazz.com

Jazz and contemporary composition, playfulness and prayer, intensity and sweetness: in the musical world of composer/percussionist John Hollenbeck and on the brand new CD by his Large Ensemble, A Blessing, all these elements mingle. Fans of Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet or any of his other groups (Quartet Lucy, Bleckmann/Hollenbeck Duo) will be prepared for just how well those ingredients mix, but newcomers to his work may be in for a pleasant surprise. This is ambitious, modern big band music, brilliantly arranged and deftly performed and recorded.

Many of Hollenbeck’s regular musical collaborators appear on A Blessing—Claudia Quintet cohorts Chris Speed and Matt Moran, Quartet Lucy saxophonist/English horn player Dan Willis, vocalist Theo Bleckmann—but the emphasis is the group sound (even Bleckmann’s voice blends into the ensembles like another woodwind). At the same time, no matter how dense the parts—even in the thick, coalescing, coming-together of the entire ensemble of “RAM” or the Charles Ives-style xenochrony of “Weiji”—it is possible, even easy, to pinpoint specific players. Notable, too, are the trademark Hollenbeck complex, shifting rhythms: the steady pulse of “Folkmoot” switches into a powerful math groove; “April in Reggae” alternates swing time and reggae riddims. Somehow, it all sounds natural, right; these are not academic exercises. They are songs.

Hollenbeck has created a sonic universe where a sort of focused spirituality and a deep sense of play are interwoven. The CD is bookended by two pieces (the epic title track and “The Music of Life”) that contain lyrics sung by Bleckmann. “A Blessing” is the familiar Irish toast (“May the road rise to meet you…”) and “The Music of Life” is an excerpt from Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan on the beneficial, even essential role of music on our bodies and our spirits. Both songs are stunning—the swirling, Celtic figures near the end of the sixteen minute-long “A Blessing” seem somehow magical and gravity-defying—but they also wrap the album in a benign envelope of intelligent, restorative positivity that neither cloys nor condescends. It couldn't—not when the music combines themes and motifs so playfully.

There are plenty of memorable individual moments. Bleckmann’s amazing throughout—his voice sounds like a theremin on “Abstinence,” and its wordless keening on “The Music of Life” defies description. Tom Christensen's soprano solo on “A Blessing” rises above its surroundings like a kite, and Gary Versace's skittering piano break on “RAM” is similarly remarkable. Hollenbeck’s crisp, deeply musical drumming is always a great pleasure to hear. The overall impression, though, is of ensemble playing.

And originality: one may hear a score of musical influences—Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, even Stan Kenton—but Hollenbeck’s music is his own. His composing and arranging skills naturally lend themselves to writing for a large ensemble, and the results are an unqualified success. A Blessing is an album that, I suspect, many of us will be absorbing—and enjoying—for months to come.



By David Adler  for allaboutjazz.com

John Hollenbeck has made several small-group recordings, but a large ensemble suits his advanced compositional voice especially well. With A Blessing, he documents the inspired large-group work he has showcased live over the last three or so years (most recently at the Jazz Standard CD release gig on January 25th). The drummer/bandleader’s music is a bit more abstract than that of Maria Schneider and her forebearers (Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, et al.), but it drinks from nearby streams and it has a personal quality that haunts the imagination well after the album ends. The opening title track and the closing “The Music of Life” feature vocalist Theo Bleckmann singing prepared texts — the former a prayer read at the funeral of Hollenbeck’s grandmother, the latter a meditation on music and spiritual healing from Hazrat Inayat Khan. At 16 minutes, the first piece is a rubato dreamscape that builds to a soaring tangle of melodies over a challenging harmonic rhythm. The last piece makes use of lyrical drones and monotones, with dissonant flute and low brass textures and occasional throat-singing from Bleckmann.

“Folkmoot,” commissioned for a 2003 IAJE premiere in Toronto, begins in a bright, driving tempo which later gets underlined by electric bassist Kermit Driscoll. “Ram,” inspired by Muhal Richard Abrams, finds pianist Gary Versace and vibraphonist Matt Moran sparring in between gruff announcements from the horns. “Weiji,” with its insistent tom-tom patterns, hints at Ellington’s Africanist tendencies but winds down with a much lighter, straight-eighth melodic theme. “Abstinence,” the second-longest piece, has a restrained, rock-like feel and something of a spy movie flavor, with curious electronic elements at the end. “April In Reggae” (which opened Hollenbeck’s first set at the Jazz Standard) contains a buried reference to “April In Paris.” Hollenbeck takes a stark six-note theme and elongates it, until it coils around itself.

One complaint: Horn soloists are not identified on the recording. The reeds are Tom Christensen, Ben Kono, Chris Speed, Dan Willis and Alan Won. The trombonists are Rob Hudson, Kurtis Pivert, Jacob Garchik and Alan Ferber. The trumpeters are Jon Owens, Tony Kadlek, Dave Ballou and Laurie Frink. Hollenbeck, tied up behind the drum kit, enlists JC Sanford as his conductor. Many of these players were at the Standard, where Hollenbeck rolled out several new, non-album arrangements, including a vivid “Four In One” by Thelonious Monk. Even when interpreting canonical jazz, Hollenbeck goes about his art with startling originality and vision.


John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

By John Kelman

 One clear benefit of the global community we live in, with its inherently broad reach, is that many artists have developed into stylistic integrators. On a smaller scale, even people who live within the boundaries of the United States can experience greater artistic diversity than ever before. Only a century ago, people living in small rural towns would have no way of knowing what kind of music was developing in larger urban centres; now, with the broad reach of the internet, it’s possible that someone who lives in the most remote town can not only hear what’s going on outside their relatively small physical universe, they can incorporate the experience into their own musical development.

That’s one of the reasons why the definition of jazz is such a slippery slope. Reductionist thinking aside, the very assimilation of a multitude of cultural and stylistic concerns is what keeps jazz alive and well, living and breathing and, most importantly, constantly evolving. Drummer/composer John Hollenbeck has proven over the course of his relatively short career that it’s possible to blend a multitude of approaches while working within an idiom that's still somehow indefinably jazz. His latest release, A Blessing, expands on the stylistic melange of his smaller Claudia Quintet with an eighteen-piece ensemble that offers greater textural possibilities and a grander vision.

The recording explores the almost unlimited possibilities of one voice, five woodwind players, four trombonists, four trumpets, and a rhythm section that—in addition to the more traditional piano-bass-drums triumvirate—also includes a variety of mallet instruments. There’s nothing excessive or bombastic about Hollenbeck’s approach, which isn’t afraid to let smaller subsets do the talking. Nor is Hollenbeck averse to finding organic ways to emulate ideas that other artists have developed through looping and other electronic means.

All kinds of trace elements can be found scattered throughout A Blessing. The sixteen-minute title track unfolds gradually, beginning with Gary Versace’s simple piano arpeggios, Matt Moran’s bowed vibraphone, and Kermit Driscoll’s bass creating a subtle ambient backdrop of gentle beauty for vocalist Theo Bleckmann’s crystal pure evocation of “An Irish Blessing.” The piece builds slowly, with Hollenbeck’s drums developing an ever-strengthening forward motion underneath horn lines that start as long tones, but ultimately evolve into repetitive patterns that take on a rhythmic life of their own, resolving into a kind of post-minimalist Steve Reich-meets-Maria Schneider vibe.

Elsewhere there are elements of primal jungle rhythms (“Weiji”), Brian Eno ambience that builds into a free cacophony before heading for straightahead swing (“RAM”), and a kind of free jazz reggae (“April in Reggae”). While it’s difficult to single out any one player, Bleckmann’s voice—while most often integrated into the overall texture of the ensemble, rather than standing out—ranges from pristine beauty to percussive panting, and even some miraculous throat singing over the stasis of “The Music of Life.”

Captivating and compelling from a larger narrative perspective, A Blessing is continued evidence of Hollenbeck’s unfailing instincts and endless imagination. A masterpiece.


AllaboutJazz.com   Mark Corroto

I heard the news today oh boy, four thousand holes in the jazz canon. And though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Carnegie Hall.

With apologies to Lennon/McCartney (and the Michael Jackson corporation that owns the music), John Hollenbeck and his Large Ensemble release a recording of ”what the hell is that” music. The drummer/composer and leader of the Claudia Quintet and Quartet Lucy assembled this eighteen-piece aggregation to play not big band music, but big music by a band of small gestures.

The sixteen-minute title track sets the table with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, a frequent collaborator of Hollenbeck, reciting “An Irish Blessing” over the the very gentle piano of Gary Versace, bass, and bowed vibraphone. Bleckmann’s extraordinary four-octave voice welcomes you as the other players step forward and the piece opens up. The music gains momentum, but Bleckmann’s voice always remains in the mix wordlessly singing the progression.

The Muhal Richard Abrams tribute “RAM” tames a pack of hungry brass instruments into a swinging affair. Hollenbeck displays a keen sense of arranging a traditional big band here with an AACM Chicago blue collar feel. He ends the track with a multi-spoken babble of voices just to remind you that you are in his altered universe.

The Kermit Driscoll electric bass opening of “Abstinence” gives way to the wordless Bleckmann vocals and some nice (uncredited) trombone work. The lazy track beginnings morph into unstructured horns and a clever shift into an 1950s big town pulse. Hollenbeck plays with the heavy beat and the power of his eighteen musicians, flexing muscle and dropping notes onto your chest. By the piece’s end, the wall of sound he conjures is quite impressive.

His mix of Jamaica and swing in “April In Reggae” helps to explain Hollenbeck’s musical motivations. If there are ingredients out there to make a tasty stew, he utilizes them, like Chris Speed’s clarinet with a dash of raggae pulse. And, of course the wordless vocals of Bleckmann.

Oh boy, I’m glad to count them all


 John L Walters
Friday July 1, 2005
The Guardian www.guardian.co.uk

The sound of A Blessing (Omni Tone, £13.99) by the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble is miles away from the shouting, accented brass blasts and dense writing of conventional big band scores. Hollenbeck leads from the drums with an airy lightness reminiscent of Jack DeJohnette, while his sinuous woodwind lines and low brass sonorities have the edginess of Jaga Jazzist or Mike Gibbs.

The title track builds to a busy contrapuntal climax, followed by the "blessing", sung by Theo Bleckmann while the arrangement subsides around him. Folkmoot is a colourful piece that pays tribute to Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, while RAM is dedicated to Muhal Richard Abrams, ranging from free blowing to a swinging, loose-limbed ensemble.

Weiji is structured around a hammering rhythm, while throaty brass and squalling reeds vie for your attention, and the 12-minute Abstinence has a hypnotic groove and slow-moving chord sequence for low brass. The middle section shifts into free-form; Hollenbeck's musicians sound less confident in this context. The Music of Life features Bleckmann's overtone singing, which makes an extraordinary blend with the sonorities of Hollenbeck's scoring.

What's more, A Blessing has a fine cover design, by the New York graphic designers Karlssonwilker. Which, come to think of it, was the main reason I noticed it in the first place. Hollenbeck is an ambitious and thoughtful composer worth checking out.



John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble - A BLESSING: The word that comes to mind (immediately, on the first 4 bars) is "EPIC". Not "big band", at least not in the traditional sense... it IS an 18-piece band, & it has some of the elements of what you might remember as big-band... but John has made this his personal band, & is able to shape it into something that you've never heard before... what he calls an "ensemble of musicians". That's a very important distinction, too, because (while I love lots of "big-band" music) there's a tendency, in my head at least, to lump it all together. Hollenbeck's fantastic drumming "leads" this group in many different directions, without ever stepping into "cliche-land" muck at all. My particular favorite on this album, from the perspectives of "non-cliche", as well as emphasis on the rhythms of life, is cut 4, "Weiji".... it is truly a masterpiece, for the jazz listener as well as those who are "bent" a bit more (like Zappa fans, in Frank's own large ensemble era). This is an album to GET & to TREASURE... I give it my MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED rating, to be sure!  Rotcod Zzaj   http://home.comcast.net/~rotcod1/Z73Reviews.htm



from all about jazz.com I, Claudia
John Hollenbeck/The Claudia Quintet | Cuneiform
~ Mark Corroto

Composer John Hollenbeck is also a drummer. So you expect propulsion, and on his latest Claudia Quintet release you get plenty of drive and rush. But his force is mostly about vibe and the simpatico relationship between the odd instrumentation assembled for the date.

John Hollenbeck has worked with the likes of Cuong Vu, David Krakauer, Pablo Ziegler, and the Village Vanguard Orchestra. His signature music has been crafted in collaborations with Theo Bleckmann, Meredith Monk, and Bob Brookmeyer. He is a drummer who considers himself to be a lyrical player. In fact he ”plays” toys, tins and tubes—besides his drum kit.

I, Claudia follows up the Claudia Quintet's self-titled debut release and repeats the magic of that 2001 session. This unique band includes accordion (Ted Reichman), vibraphone (Matt Moran), clarinet/saxophone (Chris Speed), and bass (Drew Gress).

Hollenbeck’s compositions are beyond jazz, inching up on chamber music but informed by ethnic, rock, and modern composition as well. “Opening,” with Gress tapping his bow on his strings, could easily have been a power piece by Radiohead. That is until Hollenbeck pauses and begins blowing into a tube. The propulsion is re-ignited with Chris Speed’s simple clarinet line. “Arabic” opens like a Steve Reich repetition piece, vibes and percussion looping steps under Speed’s clarinet figure. It evolves (or devolves) into a wild ride of improvisation and eventual reflection of simple accordion, vibe, triangle, and bass.

Hollenbeck’s music is all about reflection: the simple note, breath and gesture. Both “The Cloud Of Unknowing” and “Couch” show how simple separation of notes and musicians speak louder than the volume of combined playing. Hollenbeck lays such a casual groove he lets your mind fill the gaps with imagination. In fact, the toy static raised on “...Can You Get Through This Life With A Good Heart?” leaves you adrift in thought before the band brings you home in a funky rhythm.

As John Cleese would say during Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “...and now for something completely different!” ...a band with the hippest groove in music today.

from the Phoenix: Claudia Quintet I, Claudia (Cuneiform)

The appeal of the Claudia Quintet’s second CD comes in the sonorities conjured by drummer/composer John Hollenbeck: the deep woody tones of Chris Speed’s clarinet against the wheezing delicacy of Ted Reichman’s accordion and Matt Moran’s vibes. The opening "Just Like Him" sets up the template: Hollenbeck’s motoric drum ’n’ bass patter of snare, kick, and hi-hat, then Speed’s slow-moving, long-toned line, then a spare vibes line set against the clarinet, then yet another line, like spaced channel markers — big black things — in the transparent current, from bassist Drew Gress. It isn’t until a full minute into the six-and-a-half minute piece that Reichman offers that first aromatic wheez of harmony. It goes along like that, melodic counterlines weaving around each other in a kind of contrary motion. Then there’s a pause at the four-minute mark that leaves clarinet and accordion see-sawing on a dissonant interval before the whole thing starts up again, this time with Gress the first to leap in after Hollenbeck’s drums.

Those cyclical rhythms contribute to the music’s seductiveness, as they do in minimalists like Glass and Reich. (The stuttering out-of-sync rhythmic-melodic figure of "Opening" even suggests the Cure’s "Close to You.") But, again like Glass and Reich, those "process" rhythms can drive you nuts. There is some relief in some beautiful out-of-tempo passages, but every once in a while you might wish the band would just give in to their jazz side, play a straight walking four, and blow. And on "Misty Hymen," the most frantic, out-there, and jazzlike of the pieces, Speed does get off a ripping tenor solo.

from amazon.com:
"Too cool for words" January 29, 2004
Reviewer: Jan P. Dennis Monument, CO USA

What I love most about this disc is the crazy way the musicians have conceptualized their playing.

No instrument sounds normal.

Yet all sound glorious.

Drones. Extended techniques. Freaky repetitive figures. Weirdly natural vibes. Moans. Groans. And simply spectacular group improv, interaction, and conversation.

Speaking of vibes, Matt Moran on this awkward instrument has a concept and execution I've never heard before. Very what I call declamatory, heartfelt yet mysterious, he often sets the table for the amazing sonorities that regularly grace the proceedings.

Ted Reichman on accordian also has a unique concept: anti-virtuoso, integrated, rhythmically supple.

Drew Gress on bass has practically reconfigured his playing concept, making his instrument dance, plod, sing, and declare as appropriate.

Chris Speed, who's honed his chops in a variety of ethnic Mediterrean/jazz settings, most notable Pachora, here abundantly reaps the huge benefits of thoroughly absorbing an authenic ethnic music and then magically mapping it onto jazz. I'm particularly taken by his tenor sax playing, unlike anything in the history of jazz, yet weirdly inevitable in this adventurous setting.

But it's the leader on drums who's primarily responsible for this ravishing sonic brilliance. All compositions are his; thus he's the mastermind behind this astounding sonic palette, most gloriously revelated in ". . . can you get through this life with a good heart?"--one of the most original and mesmeriznig soundsacpes in the history of recorded music. His free-static drumming here alone is worth the price of admission.

This is the hottest band around, freely morphing between world- jazz, free-bop, a-referential percussive weirdness, and just plain out weirdness although thoroughly accessible.

Really, this is it. These boys have created the first jazz masterpiece of the 21st century. DO NOT MISS IT.

I, Claudia - The Claudia Quintet
Jesse Jarnow
Cuneiform Records 187

The Claudia Quintet's I, Claudia is one of the best of the albums of the slowly blossoming New Year. Post-rock is sort of a silly term (it thrice froze up the ordinarily very helpful All Music Guide when I tried to search for it), but we're kind of stuck with it to describe the neatly mechanical minimalism-informed instrumental jazz-rock (or is it the instrumental jazz-informed rock minimalism?) of bands like Tortoise and TransAm, whose musicians grind with perfectly repeated precision. The Claudia Quintet, led by percussionist John Hollenbeck, fall into that category, too.

Everything about their presentation is crisply ordered. There is virtually no reverb or distortion on I, Claudia (and, where there is, it is impeccably subtle). The rhythms behind their songs are imbued with a succinct clarity. There is no chaos in them, though there is complexity. Hollenbeck is a percussionist, and The Claudia Quintet is driven by the delicate pairing of his drums and Matt Moran's vibraphone. In combination, the two frequently sound like a spasmodic wind-up toy. Like Tortoise, the Claudias use the vibraphone to bridge the gap between melody and rhythm. But where Tortoise use melody to accent strong rhythms, The Claudia Quintet use rhythms to accent churning melodies.

The Claudia Quintet swings, Hollenbeck leaning into the grooves to give them momentum, and The Claudia Quintet breathes. Literally. It's amazing how much humanity two air-driven instruments - Chris Speed's clarinet and Ted Reichman's accordion - lend the band. It is this latter quality that makes The Claudia Quintet special on songs like "Opening" which pulse steadily via Hollenbeck, but inhale and exhale easily from Speed and Reichman. Many of the tunes - such as the aforementioned "Opening" - alternate between fast rhythmic excursions and droning minimalism.

"Opening" begins with several prelude-like swells, which are soon joined by bassist Drew Gress's, then Hollenbeck's, quick 'n' steady tock, which itself resolves into a darting beat to begin the song proper. Just as quickly, though, the piece breaks back down into blobs of color, Reichman's accordion rapidly opening and closing its bellows. It is during ambient breakdowns like these - and there is one in nearly every song - that the instruments are allowed to establish their identities, their characters. Letting loose with long, slow eruptions on one tone, the ear is allowed - almost unconsciously - to pick up the subtle variations in the instruments' voices. When they return to dexterous playing, as they inevitably do, they don't sound like machines at all, no matter how fast they go (and they get pretty fast; check out the dazzling polyrhythms of the Frank Zappa-like "Misty Hymen.") One is capable of picking out the masterful alterations in tone. What at first seemed virtuosic becomes emotional -- at least somewhat.

I, Claudia is delightfully challenging. It is neither quaint nor cute, but it isn't overbearing either. Likewise, despite its overt complexities, it is never a difficult listen. Like the gorgeously modernistic green-on-white abstractions of the liner notes, the music shapes itself on the canvas with an alluring simplicity. It is neither the past, present, nor future of anything. It is a statement that exists boldly for itself - hey, its confidence is there in its own name, I, Claudia - and stands proud.


The New York Times
Published: March 22, 2004

CD Review


'I, Claudia'
Claudia Quintet

John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet gives off a slinkier, mistier feeling than Mr. Charlap's trio. That's mostly a function of instrumentation, which tends here toward the mellower end of the spectrum. Vibraphone and xylophone (Matt Moran), accordion (Ted Reichman) and clarinet (Chris Speed) play principal roles, and the parts of the band shift around like tectonic plates. In a typical chunk of the group's new album, "I, Claudia" (Cunieform), an ostinato figure on the vibraphone gradually gives way to clarinet and accordion; there's a sliding-off into kind of sound-soup, and then a redeveloped version of the vamp begins again.

Nobody promised you this would be jazz; it just happens that most of the musicians in the band have their training in that area, so you get the vestigial feeling of jazz from the tone of Drew Gress's acoustic bass, Mr. Moran's occasional harmonic improvisations in a given rhythm and Mr. Hollenbeck's use of brushes.

Instead of swing, the pulse tends toward the even, hammering one of baroque, Eastern European folk dance, Philip Glass and drum-and-bass. But sometimes it's slow funk. And sometimes there's no pulse at all. A track called "Can You Get Through This Life With a Good Heart?" begins with discrete chord clouds, a little bit after the style of Morton Feldman, joined together by some sort of buttery radio-transmitter static.

Whatever it is, Mr. Hollenbeck has gotten at a special group sound, and he's such a sensitive, technically deft drummer — you notice the steadiness of his timekeeping right away — that his music can just be what he wants it to be; it's curious, and sometimes lightly funny without sour, satiric edges. It doesn't need alignments with jazz or rock or anything else to vindicate itself.

Reviewed by: Glenn Astarita for jazzreview.com

Musicians: John Hollenbeck (drums, composition), Drew Gress (acoustic bass), Matt Moran (vibraphone, percussion), Chris Speed (clarinet, tenor sax), Ted Reichman (accordion)

Review: Whether in a supporting role or as a leader, John Hollenbeck’s method of jazz drumming is unequal parts exactitude, and wit, enhanced by a polyrhythmic composure. However, he supplants these attributes with a spunky and rather spirited compositionally minded disposition. On this truly wonderful outing, the drummer’s cleverly performed grooves provide a clearly definable spark for the soloists’ various maneuvers. On the opener “Just Like Him,” Hollenbeck and bassist Drew Grass lay down a perky ostinato motif. Here, Chris Speed’s lilting clarinet lines and Matt Moran’s soft vibes offer flotation-like qualities as the band subtly shifts the pulse amid airy dreamscapes.
Ted Reichman’s oscillating accordion work on the piece titled “Opening,” tenders a semblance of an electronic element, whereas the band often conjures up an aura, befitting children at play. The musicians’ inject charm and wit into these cyclically generated works. It’s like clockwork! As a portion of these semi-structured themes ring up notions of ethereal vistas and cautiously enacted sojourns. Ultimately, Hollenbeck’s lighthearted compositional style suggests a trance-like state that moves through an aggregation of linearly devised ebbs and flows. However, the one constant during this production is how the music proceeds in such a delicate, and largely inauspicious manner. One of the year’s very best! (Feverishly recommended…)


Artist: The Claudia Quintet

Album: I, Claudia

Label: Cuneiform

By Jason Bivins for dusted magazine

A few years ago percussionist/composer John Hollenbeck seemed to spring from nowhere to release a spate of discs for CRI: No Images, Quartet Lucy and The Claudia Quintet, after which his working band is now named. This sophomore release builds on the strengths of its predecessor with the same richly varied instrumental lineup – vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordionist Ted Reichman, tenor/clarinet player Chris Speed, and bassist Drew Gress, in addition to the leader. The music itself still works the furrow between “downtown” improvising, post-rock propulsion, and New Music minimalism (in the Glass/Reich sense). The minimalist influence is no joke, and Hollenbeck has even performed with Meredith Monk. But it certainly doesn’t constrain the relaxed enthusiasm of these intricately woven pieces, in which Hollenbeck is as likely to join the vibraphone on his marimba as he is to kick out the jams.

Quirky polymeters and syncopations abound, and though Hollenbeck likes to bring the funk, there’s plenty to stimulate the ol’ noggin here as well. His composer’s knack for structure generally leads him to set up ear-catching ideas – “accessible,” in other words – but which reveal considerable nuance during performance. Hollenbeck and Gress create an ever-changing rhythmic polymorphousness, shifting accents, playing with phrasing, and gleefully reshaping the general bounce. Speed, Moran, and/or Reichman perform dense counterlines amid a forest of textural and atmospheric effects.

“Opening” epitomizes Hollenbeck’s accessible abnormalities. The album’s second song has a kind of clipped, almost digital effect that recalls electronica (specifically Fennesz during its washed out ambient passages). Sure, solos happen (and I happen to like Chris Speed’s playing here more than on anything else I’ve heard from him; his clarinet work is excellent), but they’re so deeply embedded in the fabric of the compositions that you could forgiven for thinking they’re written out (and hey, Anthony Braxton used to do that).

In general the feel is fairly consonant, although there are the occasional dark tendrils and jabbing harmonies. Only the glacial, Morton Feldman-like silences of the flatlined penultimate track “Misty Hymen” prove an exception to the general compositional method. There are all kinds of details throughout the disc – most generated by the leader, who may blow through a plastic tube or dabble in radio static – that reveal themselves on repeated listens. Taken as a whole, I, Claudia isn’t one of those rock-your-world records. But at the same time, it’s rare to find a band that can actually strike a balance between cerebral challenge and relaxed accessibility.

Jazz Times by Bill Milkowski

On the Claudia Quintet's 2nd latest, I claudia drummer and bandleader JH incorporates James Brown-influenced "Funky Drummer" backbeats and invigorating 2nd-line grooves into the fabric of his not-easily-categorizable compositions. Is it ambient? Is it avant-garde? Is it mimimalist? Is it Downtown? What the hell is it?

Hollenbeck's got such downtown ringers as bassist DG, CS, TR and MM on board, so it's a safe bet that this provocative material will not have precious value above 14th Street in NYC-or virtually anywhere else in America, though they'll no doubt eat it up in Europe. Granted, Hollenbeck is an adventurous new-music composer and conceptualist who follows the courage of his convictions. But jazz fans looking for
anything remotely swinging may want to bypass this heady-post Steve Reich stuff.

Pop Matters
by Robert R. Calder


A blurb says this group's inspiration is "electronica", which at least affords one lead in trying to say what this quintet sounds like: a drummer, a vibist / percussionist, a clarinetist / saxophonist, a bassist, and an accordionist. They open with the drummer (John Hollenbeck, also the composer) sustaining an almost rock-mechanical beat, with which the vibes make free, while the squeezebox is applied to generate some ethereal sounds. It recurs to these after having its own little time as lead. It's further allowed some unaccustomed dramatic atmospherics before the vibes enter, with a strong jazzman playing bass. The vibes come near to a jazz solo before the accordion completes the ensemble and they jam to a close.

"Opening" is the second track (Duke Ellington had an item called "The Opener" which usually turned up as the final one before the half-time interval). This thing is a play of textures very much on an electronic or Philip Glass model, and one does get the impression that this is really a composer's band, like the Michael Nyman Band in England.

My favourite may be "Arabic", opening with the clarinet, which continues over a sort of Chinese chimes entry. The squeezebox's entry to the accompaniment is a reminder that the bass has been working away all the time. It's a decent tour-de-force for clarinet, and, after some wilder vibes playing, the squeezebox synthesizes synthesizer sounds of an engine sort. The clarinet resumes and produces a nice diminuendo.

"The Cloud of Unknowing" is titled after a very well known German mystical text and has already appeared and been recorded as a composition commissioned for the Bamberg Symphony Chorus. Bamberg is a modest-sized German town unique in having been spared wartime bombing, and in having a major Symphony Orchestra disproportionate with the size of its hometown, to which it was relocated after 1945, having previously been the German orchestra in Prague. This was a sizeable commission! The composer has also won a jazz award.

Here, the accordion enters in very elderly, thready, not quavery little old church organ dress, with the piping sound of one old organ sound made by the clarinetist, and the vibes -- as near as can be managed on vibes -- join in with another ancient organ voices. The bass gets into the act, and there's a sort of inverted Wurlitzer effect, or rather pre-Wurlitzer, ancient organs having begun to try to emulate little orchestras. Something dreamy or hypnotic keeps coming to the fore in Claudia Quartet performances. With the establishment of a distinctive drum rhythm, the vibist moves into something of a jazz solo. The bass is fairly forceful, and presumably these musicians could do a good job as jazz sidemen. The music isn't, however, jazz, or necessarily all that jazz-influenced or jazz-like. It's more a case of extremely well developed jazz techniques being turned to ends of contemporary modern classical music. Perhaps Claudia is really a composer's instrument, an odd ad hoc sort of assembly, who might be previewing music that will subsequently have a different, more conventional orchestration. Regardless, it is a group of players each very much concerned with the expressive and tonal capacities of his specific instrument.

Claudia Quintet
I, Claudia

by Jay Collins
28 May 2004

Drummer/percussionist John Hollenbeck is an ambitious person. Not only does he play with a host of others like the Vanguard Orchestra (Thad Jones & Mel Lewis' band), Meredith Monk, Bob Brookmeyer, Cuong Vu and others, he also leads several of his own groups. This wide variety of opportunities affects his music considerably, making its mark on ensembles like the Claudia Quintet, Quartet Lucy, his duo with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, and other collectives to which he contributes.

As for the Claudia Quintet specifically, a great deal of time has been spent by listeners, writers, etc., trying to accurately define The Claudia Quintet. The task is, however, for the most part, futile. Sure, the group sound and compositions are a unique combination—a dash of jazz, a smidgen of rock, some improv, a touch of non-western sources, or a little chamber. Ultimately, though, all that matters in the end is that this combination simply works. For those unaware of its membership, the group consists of Hollenbeck and bassist Drew Gress, vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordionist Ted Reichman and reedist Chris Speed. The five craftsmen forge a sound that shifts constantly in an unpredictable fashion, perhaps evoking a groove at one moment, soaring into the heights at another, exploring forlorn introspection the next or tackling a swirling sound collage of both prickly and boisterous terrains—sometimes using all of these elements within the context of one composition.

As for their recordings, the group's debut album was a great success and demonstrated the depth of Hollenbeck's vision for the ensemble. I, Claudia builds on a similar approach, offering Hollenbeck's unique hypothesis over the course of eight tracks that consider the range of influences noted above.

The program itself begins with "Just Like Him", as Hollenbeck initiates the groove that drives the composition, a warm venture that features the counterpoint of Speed's mournful clarinet and Reichman's accordion as Gress follows Hollenbeck's lead. Moran's vibes are the drawing point here, as they glisten by providing waves of sound that underpin the ensemble's journey. Along similar lines is "Misty Hymen", which demonstrates that Hollenbeck is more than just a timekeeper, with his impressive drum technique ultimately inspiring Speed's tenor flights and one of Reichman's more riveting moments.

On a different plane, "Opening" offers detached notions of beauty that alternate between spacious scrapings and sound washes juxtaposed against a scattered rhythmic spree driven by Reichman and Gress. A similar detached mood revolves on ". . . can you get through this life with a good heart", with its striking, stark lines that ultimately heat up in the end thanks to a luscious clarinet/vibes melody.

As for the remainder of the tracks, Moran's vibes take the rhythmic lead on "Arabic" with Speed's clarinet soaring over an interactive group improv that cools down at its conclusion. A similar otherworldly feel draws one in on "Adowa (for gra)", with Speed's tenor setting the vamp for this African-influenced track where Moran's vibes, especially in the latter half, are glorious. The group parts with a typically bi-polar exploration on "couch". What begins as a heavy, dubbish vamp drifts into foreboding territory as a vibes/tenor duet signals a drift off into a moody reverie.

Hollenbeck has repeated the success of the Quintet's debut with I, Claudia. Hopefully, this band will continue to work together as an outlet for Hollenbeck's extremely active and creative mind.

The Claudia Quintet
I, Claudia
John Hollenbeck
Media Type: CD

A gifted drummer with a clear style, a pungent sound, and compositions that draw on influences from funk to the avant-classical of Frank Zappa, on I, Claudia JOHN HOLLENBECK leads The Claudia Quintet through a surreally charged world. Equally delicate and dynamic, the Quintet spends as much time fixated on atonal changes as slipping and sliding over Hollenbeck’s elastically sharp grooves. Hollenbeck is quick-witted throughout, rolling on the unexpected tom or developing a surprise beat that seems equal parts Steve Gadd and some mad dumbek player. If you can wade through the murky bits, you’ll be rewarded with highly original improv.

Ken Micallef
John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet
On the Boards
Seattle, Washington
October 27, 2003
By Thomas Conrad


Late October into early November is the high season of Seattle's annual jazz calendar, because that is when the Earshot Jazz Festival happens. The 2003 version of the festival, the fifteenth, featured more major names than ever before, including Dave Holland and Joshua Redman and Bill Frisell and Ravi Coltrane and Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio. But one of the brightest, freshest, most stimulating evenings at this year's event was provided by a little-known ensemble named for a fan who abandoned them.

Drummer/composer/leader-of-record John Hollenbeck told the story of Claudia, attractive and bubbly, who, between sets at the band's first-ever public appearance, gushed her love for their music, vowed to be there for every remaining night of the gig and disappeared forever. The fact that this band chose Claudia for its namesake and muse speaks to their droll postmodern aesthetic—a sensibility revealed in their opening number, "The Arabic Tune."

In their particular instrumental blend of percussion and string and bellows and wind instruments, the Claudia Quintet sounds like no other. The participants are Hollenbeck on drums (who writes all the band's material), Matt Moran on vibraphone, Drew Gress on bass, Ted Reichman on accordion and Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor saxophone. Some of these players are leaders, and all are strong individual voices. Hence their decision to play team roles demonstrates commitment to this project. The Claudia Quintet is not about theme-and-solos. Constantly evolving thematic shapes and solos are not separate. "The Arabic Tune" began as complex yet airy textures. Intricately notated designs created brief moments when single instruments found themselves alone, but mostly the ensemble rose (to a din) and fell (to the final delicate pointillism) together.

The tone of the evening was established by Hollenbeck's utterly deadpan, slightly twisted song introductions. The second piece, he explained, was written for a swimmer who won a gold medal in the women's 200-meter butterfly at the 2000 Olympic games. "Her name...inspired me," Hollenbeck said. "Misty Hyman" was a harder, louder song, like a pumping, splashing dash to the finish, with Reichman's braying accordion out front. Yet even in this more aggressive tune, the huge swings in dynamic range meant that the music sometimes got quiet. With this band, the subject is always the ensemble and its collective gestures. Tight unisons spun loose into free group interplay, then returned to the score, reconfigured.

The third tune, "Just Like Him," had an opening section that Hollenbeck confessed had been directly stolen from a former girlfriend who was also a composer. ("The relationship ended badly," he shared.) Melodies accrued and accumulated. The eclecticism of this band provokes, moment to moment, attempts at classification like "neobaroque" and "chamber jazz" and "pancultural folk music." But each of these descriptions, once applied, becomes obsolete, because the music moves on. Hollenbeck is an enormously accomplished and versatile percussionist, yet even when he cuts loose, his patterns are elegant and musical. For all the unorthodox harmonies and unexpected structures of his compositions, his music is approachable because of its lyricism and wit. There is lightness, but there is also concentration. In a program of six concise tunes, not a note felt wasted.

The best piece was the closer, and it was a departure in that its emotional sources were serious. "Adowa" was written in memory of Hollenbeck's late grandmother and comes from a West African ceremonial funeral song. Yet even here, the affirmative mood of the concert was sustained, because this motif from Ghana was as celebratory as a New Orleans funeral march. Hollenbeck unleashed complex, tumbling polyrhythms; Chris Speed on tenor rattled fierce riffs; Matt Moran's four mallets rang out in the spaces between.

On the Boards, in Seattle's Lower Queen Anne district, is a right-sized venue for jazz (capacity 550), with superb acoustics. The balanced, clear sound for this concert, the work of Dan Mortenson, was essential to the experience of music so dependent on detail and nuance.


August 4, 2003 The NY Times
A Joking Drummer Constructs Innovation

"I had a girlfriend who was a composer," John Hollenbeck deadpanned to a small audience at the Jazz Standard on Wednesday, standing in front of his drum kit, which sat at a right angle to the audience. "While we were going out, she wrote a piece called `Just Like Her.' She was jealous of some chick, or something. The relationship didn't end well." He paused, and nobody knew where this was going.

"Later," he continued, "I stole some pitches from her introduction to that piece. She had some B's, some E flats, some G's. I stole all of those, And I made them into my own tune called `Just Like Him,' which is better, and bigger."

Mr. Hollenbeck is one of the best comedians I've heard playing contemporary music. He's also a strong, disciplined drummer with training in jazz and all kinds of nonjazz, modern, folkloric and so forth. (He works both with the Village Vanguard's Monday-night big band and with Meredith Monk.)

His own steady group, the Claudia Quintet, with which he performed at the Jazz Standard on Wednesday, looks like your basic post-jazz setup: bass, drums, saxophone, vibraphone, accordion; at your service for the bridging of swing rhythm, funk, gamelan and West African music. So far so good.

If his music were a little bit dumber ‹ if it didn't contain so many twitchy, hit-and-run compositional ideas, if it used the able saxophonist Chris Speed less as a machine for astringent long tones, if part of its charm weren't Mr. Hollenbeck's heap of little percussion toys, if it let a strong melody have more tyranny over each piece, if it didn't revel so much in tone clashes ‹ it might be able to speak to the cheap seats and achieve semipopularity. (Actually, if the music were a little bit dumber, it would resemble the music of the rock band Tortoise. No disrespect to Tortoise.)

As it is, this is a small, good thing that a few people have grown to like a great deal. For which Mr. Hollenbeck is principally responsible.

Even playing a drum line of his own devising that kept winnowing off and starting up again (unless I'm mistaken, "Couch" was a tone poem about nodding off on one), he played with force and precision.

In "No D" the band started with a long, through-composed section, with Mr. Hollenbeck and everyone else lining out the melody. Finally a groove section for bass and drums opened up, and Ted Reichman, the accordionist, played feverishly around his instrument.

By the end it became a flat-out collective improvising session over a fast groove and stopped abruptly at its peak. Much new multicultural, multigenre music is content to maintain a blasé pose. This band works on building up excitement.


The Chicago Tribune April 5, 2002

Claudia Quintet experiments are easy on the ear

By Howard Reich

Innovative jazz does not have to be harsh, angry, loud, shrill or grating; it can be delicate, witty, ethereal and radiantly lyric, as the Claudia Quintet pointed out Wednesday evening in the Chicago Cultural Center.

Led by versatile percussionist John Hollenbeck, the quintet made its Chicago debut with an original and stylistically wide-ranging repertoire that surely shattered some listeners' assumptions about the nature of jazz experimentation. The band reveled in unusual harmony, unorthodox instrumentation and unconventional structure, but the music addressed the ear gently.

There was substance and ingenuity to these scores as well, for the quintet delved into neo-baroque fugal writing, African and Middle Eastern melody and classical chamber music techniques. Yet Hollenbeck and friends elegantly merged these, and other, sources of inspiration. From the opening notes of "The Arabic Tune," it was clear that this band was not going to waste a note. In the gripping introduction to the work, Hollenbeck and Matt Moran shared a single, telegraphic line on vibes, instantly establishing an air of rhythmic tension and melodic expectation.

If this ostinato recalled the minimalism of Philip Glass, Hollenbeck's music quickly transcended the limitations of that idiom, for the score soon blossomed, with exquisite blending of tone from Moran's vibes, Chris Speed's clarinet and Chris Dahlgren's acoustic bass.

The comparatively hard backbeats that Hollenbeck produced on the next work may have abruptly altered the sound of the ensemble, yet Speed's outrageously bent pitches and charismatic, muscular lines required no less. With the rest of the quintet firmly supporting the two, the ensemble once again was producing a unanimity of tone and gesture.

Ultimately, every piece showed a different facet of the group's art. The canonic opening of a medium-tempo work attested to the skill of Hollenbeck's writing, while the sustained lyricism all the players produced in the ballad "Love Song for Kate" represented the kind of unabashed melodicism one does not often encounter from musicians as adventurous as these. And in "Adawa," the band transformed a ceremonial African folkloric tune into a joyously uptempo ensemble piece, complete with rhapsodic accordion solo from Ted Reichman.

The tour de force came with "No D," a masterfully constructed composition that opened with a stunning, Gene Krupa-like solo from Hollenbeck. After this eruption, the rest of the band leaped into the fray, each pursuing a fiercely independent line.

That an ensemble this young could pull off such intricately scored writing said a great deal about the players' commitment to Hollenbeck's ideas. Equally important, the quintet was led by a percussionist who proved as accomplished with a pen as he is with a pair of sticks. And though Hollenbeck played impeccably well, rarely placing himself at the center of the action, the band and the tunes always came first.



John Hollenbeck
No Images
Composers Recordings CD2002

John Hollenbeck
Quartet Lucy
Composers Recordings CD2003

John Hollenbeck
The Claudia Quintet
Composers Recordings CD2004

Drummer John Hollenbeck has a widely varied musical background, and his first three recordings as a leader capture a large part of it, while maintaining some stylistic threads that reassure that he’s more than a musical magpie. Hollenbeck’s credentials include stints with fellow Eastman School of Music grad Maria Schneider’s orchestra, Klezmer Madness, Brazilian pianist Pablo Ziegler and Bob Brookmeyer’s New Art Orchestra. Brookmeyer is a major compositional influence, and Hollenbeck has won both commissions and awards, including the prestigious Gil Evans Fellowship from the International Association of Jazz Educators. Balancing that academic cred is the fact that he’s also participated in a number of small groups that dominate the hardscrabble scene in New York’s East Village. Is it any wonder that these three projects cover such a broad spectrum of contemporary sound?

No Images is something of a valedictory statement, recorded primarily in 1995, and partially conceived while Hollenbeck was finishing his degree at Eastman. As the title suggests, the recording deals with themes of sight and perception. The title piece, the sole performance from 2001, is based on a stark poem by Waring Cuney about the death of dreams and played by directing a small electric fan at an old autoharp. The sound shimmers and shifts like metallic guitar feedback, with the occasional plucked string breaking the sonic haze like notes on a hammered dulcimer.

The centerpiece of No Images is a 25-minute tour de force built around a sermon by Martin Luther King about the perils of what he terms “The Drum Major Instinct”. The trombone trio of Ray Anderson, David Taylor and Tim Sessions acts as both a chorus, echoing and emphasizing King’s distinctive speech patterns, and as vocal parishioners shouting encouragement and agreement to the preacher. Remarkably, Hollenbeck claims that he was unfamiliar with Max Roach’s Chattahoochie Red, which makes similar use of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. As if the challenge of improvising around King’s mesmerizing cadences wasn’t enough, Hollenbeck ups the ante by making the musicians work in the dark, so King’s voice becomes the sole focus of their attention. It’s a stirring performance that actually manages to surpass Roach’s for drama and passion.

The three-part chorus is also the basis for the opening “Bluegreenyellow”, which assigns colours to the tenor saxophones of Dave Liebman, Ellery Eskelin and Rick Dimuzio. It marks Liebman’s return to tenor after years of concentration on soprano, and he sounds like he never put the horn down.

Liebman and Eskelin return to duet with Hollenbeck on two rousing sets of six improvisations each, while the remaining piece marks the initial meeting of the formidable trio of Hollenbeck, guitarist Ben Monder and the remarkable vocalist Theo Bleckmann.

No Images is an exceptional debut recording — one that might have been a hard act to follow had Hollenbeck released it six years ago. Followed by the first recordings by his two current working bands — Quartet Lucy, with Bleckmann, saxophonist Dan Willis and bassist Skuli Sverrison, and The Claudia Quintet, with reed player Chris Speed, accordionist Ted Reichman, vibist Matt Moran and bassist Drew Gress — No Images sounds like a promise fulfilled.

The Quartet Lucy recording is as filled with the ethereal voice of Bleckmann almost as much as the singer’s two recordings as leader, with added textures like Willis’ English horn, berimbau and cello. Hollenbeck’s Brazilian influences are much in evidence, and he frequently eschews a drum kit for hand percussion.

The music of Old And New Dreams and Codona are two other touchstones, particularly on “Foreva” with its taut bassline, textured sax and wordless, percussive vocals. Like Don Cherry, Hollenbeck seems drawn to exotic rhythms and singsong phrases, and he weaves it all into a form that defies characterization as jazz, new music or anything else. As on his own recordings, Bleckmann is a fearless singer, willing to stitch together improbable techniques, like the combination of Gregorian chant and throat singing that is the backbone of the closing “The Meaning Of Life”.

Meditative and moving, Quartet Lucy is on the short side at a shade under 50 minutes, but there is much to savour here.

The Claudia Quintet is the most unified sounding of Hollenbeck’s three recordings, filled with music of long tones and small gestures that rewards close listening. Speed, Moran and Reichman are all capable of drawing a variety of sounds from their instruments, and compositions like “Thursday 11:14 p.m. (grey)” find them in deep conversation with hushed tones and muted expression. Gress is the centre of much of the music, often providing the sole melodic element while the other instruments create texture.

As a percussionist-composer, Hollenbeck is relatively unique. With the exception of some of the raucous pieces on No Images, his music glistens more than anything else. Rhythm is frequently subordinate to colour — from the manipulated autoharp on “No Images” to the combined accordion and vibes in Claudia.

Seldom has a young musician given listeners so much to chew on at one time. These three recordings represent an impressive introduction for anyone who hasn’t already encountered Hollenbeck.

James Hale


Downbeat Magazine October 2002

John Hollenbeck
The Claudia Quintet
Blueshift/CRI 2004

Drummer John Hollenbeck has traveled among jazz, contemporary classical and pan-ethnic folk music with the agility of a seasoned commuter on the New York City subway. Recently, he's worked in composer Meredith Monk's ensemble, clarinetist David Krakauer's klezmer bands, and the Village Vanguard Orchestra. Hollenbecks own discs throughout the past few years show how much he's gained from these multifaceted associations. The Claudia Quintet is the most remarkable of these recordings because it features a spirited working band that becomes an ideal instrument for his compositions.

The other musicians in the quintet reflect Hollenbeck's own versatile journeys. Accordionist Ted Reichman, reedist Chris Speed and vibraphonist Matt Moran also work together in the Balkan-meets-swing Slavic Soul Party. Speed and bassist Drew Gress have also collaborated with such resourceful global jazz explorers as Dave Douglas. While the group undoubtedly draws from these diverse experiences, no influence becomes too obvious. For instance, without playing a generic tango beat, Reichman channels the melodic gravity that the Argentinean idiom has lent his instrument.

Some of Hollenbeck's songs initially echo modern chamber music-"'a-b-s-t-i-n-e-n-c-e" and "Love Song For Kate"-before constantly surprising shifts turn everything around. An extended musical conversation between Speed and Reichman on "Thursday 7:30pm" is redirected through Hollenbeck and Gress' interjections. At other times, the drummer would appear to play a contrasting rhythm from the rest of the group, but its really the ostensible digression that ties them all together. Frequently, the bandleader just makes his presence heard with a few succinct cymbal runs.

Hollenbeck's unassuming leadership offers his band members several ideal opportunities to present their own ideas. Speed goes from the long serene clarinet lines on "Love Song For
Kate" to a honking and squawking tenor on "Burt And Ken." Moran must have also had fun
playing with the vibraphone's pitches on "Thursday 11:14am." At one point, he just lets
the notes linger up in a range that would make a pet dog go apeshit.  -Aaron Cohen