Spinach and Broccoli Music: An Interview with Composer and Drummer John Hollenbeck

John Hollenbeck recombines the familiar in compositions that are startlingly new. His new Eternal Interlude is among the best jazz of 2009. Here, he explains his quirky, fresh methods.

Jazz—or creative/improvised music if you prefer to take an artsy stance—doesn't get much more incandescent than Eternal Interludes, the latest recording by the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. Hollenbeck's music shimmers like Phillip Glass, it dances crazily like Thelonious Monk, and it pulses vibrantly like Fela Kuti. At the same time, it is fresh and new at every turn. It collects some familiar sounds but creates a whole that is, ultimately, different.

Hollenbeck is a drummer, which is part of why the music he writes sounds melodically fresh at every turn. It may also be why it sounds effortlessly layered and compelling, as if the voices, flutes, trombones, and so on were all just toms and snares and cymbals. Here is music that could come from only one man, but from many different impulses—or limbs.

Binghamton Beginnings

In talking about his music, Hollenbeck rarely comes off as a sensitive artist or a mystic. Rather, you get the strong sense that he is a dedicated craftsman who just happens to be chasing magic. From early on, growing up in Binghamton, New York, he was inspired to be versatile and creative.

"It really started happening when I was 16 or 17. I was pretty normal, but I had a brother who was into everything—and he was feeding me records and knowledge. He was the person who was getting me to hear music."

Early on, for example, his brother introduced him to one of his most important teachers. "I met Bob Brookmeyer when I was twelve. He came to Binghamton for a week. I still have the cassettes of five nights of his band playing." At around the same time, Hollenbeck starting taking lessons from his brother's drum teacher. "He was pretty old school. He believed in the rudiments and being versatile, playing all the different percussion instruments. He was coming from a different time when you had to learn timpani, other instruments."

Hollenbeck was inspired to compose as well as play from an early age. "From watching my brother, I assumed that all musicians should be composers. As a drummer you don't have to deal with pitches and harmony. You can get by without that. But to write music you have to know that. As a drummer you have to work hard to play catch-up with people who deal with pitches all the time. I learned all about theory at Eastman [School of Music] in arranging and composition classes. But there are advantages to being a drummer, too. You don't gravitate automatically to certain patterns—chord progressions maybe—that are really conventional."

Ultimately, Hollenbeck would seek out Brookmeyer as a teacher and mentor as well. "When I had just gotten to New York, I applied for an NEA grant to study composition with him. I had a few lessons with him and was about to go to a school he was starting in Holland, the World School of Jazz. Unfortunately it got canceled. He started a band in Cologne, Germany, the New Art Orchestra, which I also played in during the mid-'90s.

"He is very, very important to me and to many other writers. I got so much out of my few lessons with him, but probably more out of just playing his music, rehearsing his music with him. He is always thinking of the next thing, experimenting."

"Spinach and Broccoli Music"

The lesson that music should be different, that it should reach for the new, is something that Hollenbeck seems to have hard-wired into his ear. "I have always had this need to hear and therefore create music that somehow sounds new to me—not something I've heard before. For me, that's what motivates me to create something unique."

Eternal Interlude, the brand new recording by Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble, is a perfect example of how the drummer manages to create fresh sounds without necessarily reverting to what music fans may deem to be the avant-garde. Much of the disc is breezy and consonant, even grooving, while still sounding fresh and contemporary. "Guarana", for example, blends percolating polyrhythms and stabbing piano figures with a soothing wordless vocal and a sprightly dance melody. That it is hard music to describe is a good part of its pleasure.

"Dissonance or consonance is not important me, though those could be important elements, depending on what I'm going for. It depends on what kinds of sounds I'm trying to avoid. I like plenty of things I've heard before but I get much more excited about any kind of music that I hear that sounds even a little bit different. Sometimes the elements I work with might be familiar but perhaps they've never been put together this way before."

Hollenbeck's other main band, The Claudia Quintet, has a similar sound. It's creative, new music that doesn't have to make you claw at your ears with alienation. It's even—and this is too rare in jazz, maybe—entertaining.

"I have to write for myself, so I am the first audience. 'Entertain' might not be the right word for me. I sometimes leave concerts kind of resenting the feeling of being entertained. But I understand that some musicians take it all too seriously. In performance, when I'm taking, I know that I'm about to say something funny. I do make some conscious effort to want to find ways to give people access to the music. Unfortunately people sometimes come to concerts thinking it will be nerdy or incomprehensible or that they don't really like jazz—afraid that they're not going to get it. I don't want people to think I'm on my high horse."

But nearly all of Hollenbeck's music has a playful quality, even if he isn't resorting to covering hip hop tunes and the like. In fact, Hollenbeck even has a sense of humor about the fact that his music might take more than one listen to absorb and enjoy. "My original name for my publishing company was going to be 'Spinach and Broccoli Music' because those were two vegetable I initially hated—I couldn't even stand the smell of them—but now they are among my favorites."

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