Spinach and Broccoli Music

An Interview with Composer and Drummer John Hollenbeck

by Will Layman

23 November 2009


Monk-ian Playfulness and More

Monk-ian Playfulness and More
Among the most enjoyable tracks on Eternal Interlude is “Foreign One”, a grooving and expansive mutation of the Thelonious Monk theme “Four In One”. Upon first listening, you probably won’t realize exactly what’s going on, even though snippets of the Monk melody are present in the beginning. By the tune’s middle however, Hollenbeck shows his hand, quoting the song directly and, surely, giving every jazz fan a thrill.

“For me, Monk is the most important jazz composer,” Hollenbeck states without hesitation. “‘Foreign One’ was a commission for a concert of Monk tunes. It’s hard to play a Monk tune without it sounding like a parody. The best is to hear Monk play a Monk tune. When people try to play his tunes the way they thought he would play them, it’s just… ugh. I approached it the way Bob Brookmeyer approached ‘King Porter Stomp.’ I took it apart, keeping the form mainly, and came up with something original.  In the end, I put more of the original in it because it was being performed for a concert of Monk composition. The original tune is in there in the middle. A good deal of the tune is played backwards—the notes in reverse order astounded me—and then it took on its own life.”

Hollenbeck attributes his love of Monk in part to being a drummer. “When I want to teach a drummer how to play a melody, I always start with a Monk tune. That have so much more space, and they’re much more about rhythm. He was just a really weird guy and came up with idiosyncratic things that were in his playing and came out in his composing. He was so different from the other greats of his time. I admire the simplicity, the space, the rhythm.”

At the same time, Hollenbeck’s composing suggests other influences. The title track “Eternal Interlude” pulses strongly with the so-called minimalism of Steve Reich. Its repetitions and slow harmonic movement are, beyond everything else, beautiful.

“Along with a lot of other music, I do love that music. I love rhythm and the power of repetition. I like the emotional effects of something that is repeating but slowly changing or something that suddenly changes dramatically. Steve Reich is very interested, like me, in African music and Balinese music. I never looked at those scores or tried to figure out that music, but I appreciate it. I try to use elements you would find in minimalist music combined with elements you would not find there. I’m not trying to copy it or do my take on it, but I think it’s inevitable that I have somehow been influenced by that music.”

New York, Teaching, and Making It
Eternal Interlude was released on Sunnyside Records, one of the elite “independent” labels in jazz, and John Hollenbeck is a kid from Binghamton who came to The Big Apple and made a name for himself in a great art form. But that doesn’t make his career anything like Easy Street. He struggles to find venues for his bands, even though he has to turn down sideman gigs. “It’s tough to learn to say ‘no’”, he says, “but you need time for your own work.”

“Struggle” and “tough” are words that come up often when you ask Hollenbeck about the business side of creative music. “It is a big struggle, but it’s always been like that. If you want to compose or perform music that’s not out there to entertain from the first listening—it’s tough. I know for a fact that the economic collapse hasn’t yet hit musicians, but it’s starting to. Things that are funded—like festivals and promoters—are only going to see the squeeze in the coming year. That looks pretty dark. Once you lose funding, it’s hard to get it back.”

And being based in New York can be both an advantage and a problem. “I moved to New York in the early ‘90s. I think I got out of it what I needed—you get your ass kicked every day and you just get better. Just being able to say that you are from New York gives you a certain clout as a musician. But the older you get, the worse it is for your health. 

I don’t hate it, but it’s not long-term for me.  You have to fight it out to get a gig here. It was sooo hard to find a venue for the record release party for the Large Ensemble. One venue said they could put me on the waiting list for a certain date, but we would eighth on the list. There is such a huge weight of musicians who are really good.”

Hollenbeck works as a player, of course, but also as a composer and teacher. “I’m competing for gigs with people who have a team helping them. I’m constantly trying to find people who can help me, but it’s hard to move up to that level. I have a better chance doing this as a composer, getting commissions for example.”

Teaching is not something that Hollenbeck does just for the income. He is currently a professor in Berlin, and he teaches individual students through the New School in New York. “I like teaching more than playing. I love schools—I even love the way they smell. It’s a utopian environment. I’ve always loved them. It’s a big part of what I am right now. I’ve needed to work a lot and play a lot to get the experience to become a good teacher. And it goes well with my preferred lifestyle choices. I like to be a get-up-in-the-morning guy rather than a be-up-all-night, traveling-all-the-time guy.”

* * *

Talking to John Hollenbeck, frankly, makes it easy to imagine this get-up-in-the-morning kind of guy, a kid from Binghamton who wanted to see Bob Brookmeyer for five nights straight at the age of 12, even if he wasn’t yet eating all his spinach and broccoli. He is mild-mannered and thoughtful, funny in a quiet kind of way. But his music still seems bigger than that: shambling with different mad influences, witty and backwards and sly, pulsing with Afro-Cuban groove and also shimmering like Einstein on the Beach.

It is music, in short, that sums up a whole national culture, from the stride beginnings of Monk to the post-modernism of a new generation. John Hollenbeck is working hard at it but also talks about it with a casual kind of ambition. “You can reach people all over the world through rhythm”, he points out. And you hope he’s doing just that.

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