John Hollenbeck is a drummer who often plays “jazz”, whatever that may be these days. He is comfortable and fluent in the language of improvisation that came down through the black American music legacy of Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Mingus, and so many others. More importantly, Hollenbeck is now a composer and arranger who fuses jazz with a range of other traditions, including modern classical music. The result, as embodied by his Large Ensemble (composed of other “jazz” musicians who share his disregard for such labels), is a genre that long ago leaped away from any easy label.
All Can Work is the most wide-ranging and impressive recording yet by the Large Ensemble. Hollenbeck dedicates it to several artists he loves, but notable among them are Billy Strayhorn, the great composer and Ellington collaborator, and Bob Brookmeyer, who served as mentor and teacher to Hollenbeck in the field of composition and arrangement. Throughout All Can Work, their voices always seem to hover, either in the allure of the melodies or in the magic way in which the arrangements seem luminous and fresh even on repeat listenings.
“Elf” is, in fact, a Strayhorn composition from 1963, though it was retitled “Isfahan” as part of Ellington’s Far East Suite. Hollenbeck fully reimagines the arrangement to feature Tony Malaby’s soprano saxophone as a twisting snake being constantly lifted into the air by prodding brass and polyrhythmic hand-drumming. In the original, of course, Johnny Hodges’ alto saxophone, creamy and sensual, rides of a velvet wave of low brass and thrumming harmony. Hollenbeck has Malaby and pianist Matt Mitchell improvise in crackling counterpoint with the band before bringing in Strayhorn’s’ melody so that we recognize the inspiration for all the magic.
The other “cover” here is “The Model”, a Kraftwerk composition that grooves in a mechanically funky way, driven by punching horns and chiming mallet instruments. Hollenbeck’s touch here is in taking his acoustic band—larger than most jazz “big bands” and using a few additional colors in mallet percussion, double reeds, keyboards, and the unique voice of singer Theo Bleckmann—and creating textures that conjure the otherworldly ambience of the original synth arrangements.
On All Can Work, the original compositions earn more affection. “this kiss”, derived from Romeo and Juliet, uses simple, alternating themes, high and low, that are easily heard as the two lovers. How, then, is this music different than standard “classical” or “new music” composition? Aside from Mitchell’s improvised piano in the later part of the performance, delivered in conversation with the ensemble, there are still elements of this New Jazz that tie it back to a black American tradition: the call and response at its heart, the vocal quality of the playing (including but not exclusively Bleckmann’s wordless integration into the ensemble), and the polyrhythmic vitality of everything—the sense that the Hollenbeck Large Ensemble is always an ensemble, first and foremost, of drummers, even when the instruments being played are horns or stringed instruments. “this kiss” floats and sings, but it also keeps your fingers rapping in rhythmic dialogue, enchanting by beat, not just beauty.
Hollenbeck is, personally, a very witty guy, and his mixture of humor and sentiment often feels like it lives in his music. “All Can Work” takes brief emails written to him by the late trumpeter Laurie Frink and compiles them into a funny/mournful composition centered on Bleckmann’s embodiment of the wisdom and cheek of the emails. The melody is not what you’d expect from an elegy but a hopping set of intervals and repetitions, a cardiogram almost, that ends as it winds down into something dark.
The most ambitious piece here is “Heyoke”, a dedication to another lost trumpeter, Kenny Wheeler, and his frequent collaborator, the late pianist John Taylor. The composition is dominated by a simple, three-note arpeggio motif that pushes a series of other lines and pulses into interaction. It is a logical collection of lines that seems perpetually in motion, spinning wheels within wheels, each one of a different instrumental color, each one with shifting accents and dynamics. Of course, the first solo goes to Matt Holman’s trumpet, then a smooth trombone spot over just the rhythm section. After an ensemble interlude, Mitchell plays a craggy piano solo, accompanied first by drums, which eventually disintegrates into a decelerating solo piano moment. Mitchell, who remains one of the most distinctive yet adaptable voices in creative music today, can make the whole Large Ensemble seem to float through his fingers, and he eventually hands off the gentle piano arrangement to Bleckmann’s voice.
There is, ultimately, something about Hollenbeck’s musical vocabulary that seems to come from nowhere at all. For all the Strayhorn moments or Brookmeyer textures or pulsing moments that allude to Reich/Glass, the music is mainly unique. Hollenbeck has developed an identity that is nearly sui generus and delectable. This singular musical fingerprint helps him to get away with almost anything. Might another composer actually dream of a piece, then use quotes from actor Cary Grant about his experience on LSD to hold the composition together? That’s “Long Swing Dream”, with Hollenbeck’s ride cymbal swing shifting occasionally from one tempo to another in perfect sync with the ensemble. It comes off as magic or, if you prefer, extrasensory perception.
Is the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble occasionally psychedelic? Or just psychic? The music, well beyond category, is filled with some kind of magic, that a slight of hand that both scientists and seekers should agree on.