John Hollenbeck was the Artist in Residence for the Institut Jazz und Volksmusik, Hochschule Luzern Musik for the 2010 -2011 year. He visited numerous times during this period, and his stay included a performance of large ensemble works on the ”Jazz Across the Border “ series, along with numerous master classes in composition and drums. He has been based in Berlin since 2005 as a member of the faculty of JIB, the Jazz Institute Berlin, which is a merger of the University of the Arts and the Academy of Music “Hans Eisler”.
Listen to a pod cast of the interview here
Die Gespräche werden geführt von Gerry Hemingway, Dozent für Schlagzeug, Ensemble und Kompostion
In Zusammenarbeit mit einem der letzten Jazz-Plattenläden der Schweiz:
Born in Binghamton, NY as he puts it, “a million miles from NYC”, but as luck would have it for John, at a fortuitous moment in time, as this remote locale provided the possibility to grow up with a number of like-minded musicians, including trombonist Steve Davis (played with Blakey, Elvin Jones, Jackie Maclean), vocalist/pianist Dena Derose now teaching in Graz, Austria, and Tony Cadillac (lead trumpeter for bands of Sinatra, Maria Schneider, Barbara Streisand). Music was also in his family life with his brother Pat, who is a percussionist (mostly classical) working with among others, the Boston Pops, and who also headed the jazz department at the New England Conservatory for a period of time, and who also acted as a kind of musical father to his brother John (being 13 years his elder). Among other influences his brother fostered the expansion of his musical knowledge by importing crates of recordings into Binghamton and implored his younger brother to listen to all of them - which he did.
This fraternal input came with an interesting condition however. His brother would only allow him to copy one piece per lp onto his own cassette to keep for future listening, which resulted in a rather interesting mix tape, where Aaron Copland would be alongside Stevie Wonder and then to Mel Lewis to Chaka Khan which just “made perfect sense” to John's developing aesthetic. And with this small town came other interesting limitations, very little live music, one club he would later work in regularly, and then again with fortunate timing, a neighboring university for a limited time offered jazz workshops to the public where as an 11 year old he got to spend a week with the Woody Herman Big Band, and a year later another week with Bob Brookmeyer, the latter of which became a major influence in his musical evolution. And perhaps most curious was the presence of a jazz icon, though John did not know how important this musician was until later, bassist Slam Stewart, who lived in his neighborhood, and often appeared at local schools.
Bob Brookmeyer figures quite strongly in John's musical training, particularly as John sought him out later as a composition teacher. He was both supportive and rigorous, having John sharpen his compositional skills with writing chorales and compositions with very strict limitations, such as writing a piece using only a C major scale restricted to one octave. He also expanded John's listening palette with looking at scores of Witold Lutoslawski and Henri Dutilleux which built upon his brother's record collection as a listening resource.
In addition to his understanding of the importance of learning composition, his early teachers (and his brother) strongly emphasized his mastering percussion, which he was advised was a priority for study over the drum set (which he continued to play as a kind of dessert to his practice regime). He would participate in percussion ensembles, which further brought him in touch with twentieth-century composers.
In the early 90's he moved on from this Binghamton and High School period and ended up in Rochester, NY at the Eastman School of Music, where he was able to split his degree between classical and jazz departments, studying both performing and composition, the latter of which had a natural consequence in pushing him into leading bands and booking performances so he could hear his compositions performed. Another formative thread, emanating first from his brother's records, and later from his encounter with a student from Brazil, with whom he became friends, led him to venture to Sao Paulo, Brazil to explore the many musics of that region more deeply.
Following this chapter, an opportunity arose to join a European tour of the show “West Side Story”, which afforded him an extended introduction to the main ports of culture including Munich, Paris, Hamburg, Rome. On nights off in Hamburg he frequented the Fabrik where he got his first exposure to what was happening in NY at the time, hearing performances of the bands of John Zorn, Steve Coleman, and many others who passed through town. This ended up forming a kind of gateway for John to try his own hand at the NY scene. After moving to NY in the early 90's via a few connections he picked up along the way, he found enough work accompanying dance classes to pay the rent and slowly his social network began to grow. One of his earliest significant connections was a trio with Ted Reichman and Reuben Radding which somehow garnered a year long engagement at Alt.Coffee an internet café off of Tompkins Square Park (which no longer exists) in the Lower East village on Monday nights.
I asked about how he ended up becoming so deeply committed to composing and developing working projects of his music and he related a very interesting story of a workshop he took at Banff (in Alberta, Canada) where Muhal Richard Abrams was teaching composition. Muhal's teaching methods focused on how to develop many ideas and approaches from one nucleus. John relayed a whole workshop he did about “this dot” that Muhal drew on the wall, and began by asking everyone “so what's this dot?” The point eventually revealed was “that dot” could be anything, it could be a pitch, a rhythm, a phone number, a picture and from this concept one could develop the raw materials of a composition from which everything could unfold organically utilizing this one unifying element. This concept spoke loudly to John and inspired a direction in his writing that remains to this day.
Then came the reality of trying to bring his enthusiasm for composition into an economy that would hopefully support his more long range artistic aspirations and is often the case this meant investing what funds he had in producing his first recordings. His first recording ended up being a large ensemble recording that he convinced the label Omnitone to release.
As we delved into the 'meat and potatoes' of his work, he offered a listening to a Conlon Nancarrow work, originally written as part of his Studies for Player Piano (this was #5), that was included in a series of these works orchestrated for Ensemble Modern. In Study #5 repeated motifs, each separated with silence, whose length of silence would gradually get shorter and shorter as the piece progresses, are introduced and layered against each other, each with its own distinctive character. The tempi of each motif are also slightly different. Eventually these repetitions climax in becoming continuous streams of notes in a kind of unified energy. John commented on how Nancarrow builds the tension in the piece by the way he shortens the space between each of the motifs. And he tied this together with another gem of wisdom he picked up from his Banff workshop from Roscoe Mitchell who offered“...you don't have to react to this guy your playing with, you don't have to have a conversation, you can listen to him but you just play something really strong, just make a really strong statement and he will make a really strong statement and that will make the whole music really strong, and the audience can listen to him or you or both of you because they have two ears.” In the most basic terms this, from an improvisers creative stance, is real-time counterpoint.
He also noted that he utilizes this kind of thinking both as a player and in counseling others to play his music by desiring that each element retain an individual character and with it a transparency that allows all of the parts to shine distinctly. In this respect the listener then has the option to hear the same piece as a whole or to hear different parts of the whole, depending on how they choose to focus their listening.
We also spoke about the presence of spiritual themes in his music, quoting bassist Kermit Driscoll (a noted collaborator with John) observation that “the most striking thing about John's music is how he fearlessly incorporates "spirituality" - for lack of a better term, into his music. A piece like the "the Drum Major " w/ a Martin Luther King speech - poems of Rumi - verses from Eckhart Tolle - ... what gets me is how DIRECTLY he conveys these messages with his music.”
John replied that it occurred to him that there was a way to work on one's evolution as a human being as part of one's musical growth and this particularly came up in his compositional process. He reflected that if he could sit in a room and be honest with himself, not copy others and be open to being vulnerable that in addition the musical growth he noticed that this helps him in other areas of life. He also explored this process partially by delving into spiritually based content (as text for Theo Bleckman to sing) and the sheer intensity of working with the material had an overall positive affect on him musically and as well as a person.
He then chose for us to listen to “The Music of Life”, a setting for a text by Hasrat Injat Khan which directly addresses the healing power of music. John created a musical structure for this text that had Theo sing the text on one note, while the instrumentalists split in two groups slowly moved from either a high note to the middle register note Theo was singing on, or from a low note to the same middle position, at which point Theo would improvise briefly and then carrying on with the text (again on the same “meeting” note the two groups would continue their journey upward or downward, ending in a similar re-orchestrated color that began the piece.
John commented, “Everyone needs a bit of healing” and why not through sound?John Hollenbeck's web site
Wiki (in German) on John Hollenbeck
Gerry Hemingway (August 2011)