Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Happening Now

I write so much about Ancient Musik that I wanted to post something about somebody/something Happening Now in jazz that excites me. Composer/drummer John Hollenbeck's first CD as leader was issued less than ten years ago, in 2001, and his music is some of the most amazing and touching to be found in jazz today.

I was totally unfamiliar with Hollenbeck until early 2005, when RoboCromp, my duo ensemble with Rob Rushin, opened for Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet at Eyedrum in Atlanta. As Rob and I arrived to set up, tune up, and warm up, it became obvious that Hollenbeck had not known that there was going to be an opening act and was pretty annoyed by that development. This, in turn, annoyed me, and I think that my playing that evening was informed by a certain amount of anger. But my negative feelings disappeared as soon as the Claudias started playing.

The Claudia Quintet has an unusual instrumentation: Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor sax, vibist Matt Moran, Ted Reichman on accordion, and bassist Drew Gress, in addition to Hollenbeck. Hollenbeck's music for the Claudia Quintet is highly structured; there's plenty of improvisation, but the "solos" are part of the composed web - they add to the impact of the compositions rather than stand out as virtuoso statements for their own sake. The pieces build over time and are often built from unusual musical materials and from even more unusual external inspirations. "...can you get through this life with a good heart?," from I, Claudia, was inspired (as Hollenbeck explained at the Eyedrum show) by composer Morton Feldman and songwriter Joni Mitchell. The slow-moving pointillism of the opening few minutes gives way to warm, but unusual harmonies and heart-breaking melodic fragments over a pop-ish groove. "Drewslate," from Semi-Formal, was written so that four members of the ensemble would have some difficult music to rehearse when the bassist was late to rehearsal; the bass part is simpler than the tricky parts for the other instruments.

I love an improvised piece by Hollenbeck that I thought I would hate. "No Images," the title track from his debut album, is played on his late grandmother's autoharp with a portable electric fan. Sounds like a really bad idea, but the small fan blades against the strings produce a complex soundscape, full of unexpected subharmonics.

I'm not in a position to write definitively about Hollenbeck's work because, until 24 hours ago, I somehow had not been aware that he has issued several CDs of material by his Large Ensemble big band. I'm not sure how I came to be so far behind the curve on that group, but you can be sure that I'll be checking them out. In the meantime, I think I'll put on the Claudia Quintet again.

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