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


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.

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