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

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble
Eternal Interlude
Sunnyside
2009-08-18

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.”

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.

RATING 9 / 10
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