No Images
CRI Blueshift 2002

Quartet Lucy
CRI Blueshift 2003

The Claudia Quartet
CRI Blueshift 2004

Moving among improv, big band jazz, New music and song-based material, percussionist/composer John Hollenbeck has made a name for himself in New York over the past half-decade. During that time, Hollenbeck, who also has a master’s degree from Rochester’s Eastman School of Music has worked with folks as varied as dancer/composer Meredith Monk, arranger Bob Brookmeyer, “downtown” trumpeter Cuong Vu and Klezmer brassman Frank London.

Taken together, these three new CDs impressively illuminate the diversity of his compositional and playing skills. But enough insubstantial music appears on them to prevent coming up with the highest rating for the entire oeuvre.

Most problematic, especially from a jazz point of view, is the Quartet Lucy disc. Even acknowledging that the drummer has characterized his vision as taking in elements of both jazz and classical music — and what a murky Third Stream that is to swim in — most of the tunes of this project seem too precious and wimpy.

Chief irritant is the singing voice of Theo Bleckmann, an acquired taste at best. With a timbre that resembles that of a counter-tenor or a castrato, he adds even more of a lacy front parlor feel to the 10 tunes here. Defenders would point out that the song-oriented results are skewed more towards the concepts of Meredith Monk rather than Thelonious Monk or the Monkees. But the frothy sheen of slow-moving wordless vocalizing and continuous held notes lean more towards easy listening.

When words are added to the equation, as on “The Music of Life” and “Dreams for Tomorrow” the banalities of the sentiments don’t help. On the latter, which Bleckmann begins singing in a more conventional register, returns to the castrato region once Skuli Sverrison begins plucking his bajo sexto. Sverrison’s ethereal, Pat Metheny-style electric bass forays don’t help other numbers, nor do Dan Willis’ contributions on very legit-sounding English horn and flute.

The main argument against this session is that these saccharine touches detract from Hollenbeck’s pointed percussion excursions most of the time. It’s hard to know whether “Jazz Envy” with its go-man-go electric bass work, tough tenor sax solo and stiff drum beat is supposed to be a parody of the music, like John Zorn’s “Jazz Snob Eat Shit” t-shirt. If it is, parodying the music with a 19th century concept doesn’t prove much.

More of a showcase for the percussionist’s versatility is NO IMAGES, which features him in five different situations in six tracks. Very quickly passing over another track with Bleckmann and even sparser accompaniment, your ears should be directed to “The Drum Major Instinct”, Hollenbeck’s major achievement. Conceived of during his final year at Eastman, the nearly 25 minute long composition pairs the taped voice of Martin Luther King Jr. with three trombonists and the drummer. Functioning as both the church choir and a congregation energized by King’s sermon, the bones add rumble, slur, flutter and plunger sounds to his works, following the pitch and cadence of the minister’s voice.

Vehement in execution as King denounces the war in Vietnam and the White Citizens Council with equal fervor, the trombone choir and drums not only recall those sounds provided by a Sanctified combo, but the emotions stirred up the statements. Direct, percussive and to the point, Hollenbeck’s writing and playing makes concrete the link between the sermon’s title and his art.

Almost as impressive are the tracks which feature the drummer dueting with either tenor saxophonist Dave Liebman or tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, or those two plus tenor saxophonist Rick DiMuzio.

Top rank here should go to the mano-a-mano stop-and-start blow out with Eskelin. Using his deep breathing, abstract tones — and overtones — to spur the drummer to investigate all parts of his kit from miniscule cymbal and triangle tickles to protracted press rolls and bass drum accents. With a harder, heavier tone than Eskelin and an approach that’s closer to the Energy music of the 1960s, Liebman growls, squeals and frog marches through the tempos as the drummer tastefully smashes and bangs at full speed and strength to keep up.

Variegated tempos and techniques enliven the more than 10 minute “Bluegreenyellow” as Hollenbeck sticks to a pulsating rhythmic line with percussive accents to face off against all three saxes at once. Parrying and thrusting, each reedman takes turns stepping up front to solo, with the others acting as a sort of Greek chorus. All and all the satisfying outcome sounds vaguely martial, though it does end rather suddenly.

For pure consistency, the music of the Claudia Quintet, which performs well-received club gigs throughout Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is most convincing. But even here a certain sameness creeps into the almost 68 minutes of the disc.

While some of the city’s most accomplished downtowners are featured — reedman Chris Speed, accordionist Ted Reichman, vibist Matt Moran and bassist Drew Gress — the George-Shearing-meets-the-Bowery band could do with some tougher charts and execution.

“Thursday 11:14am (grey)”, for instance, the longest track, is suffused with the sort of echoing melancholy you can find around Ground Zero these days. Between the languorous clarinet tones, tiny drumbeats and the shimmer of vibes using almost no vibrato, the effect is almost lighter than air. In the end the tune moves so slowly that you can almost sense it vanishing into thin air.

Oddly, considering its usual place in an ensemble, it’s the bass solo in “No D”, which speeds up the tempo and pushes the vibes and drums into more regular foot-patting rhythm after Hollenbeck and Moran individually have turned out restrained percussion prologues. Speed’s spikier tenor sound and Reichman’s swirling keys and bellows add to the new mood. On “Visions of Claudia” the clarinetist toys with multiphonics after he’s stated the melody in mid-register. Hollenbeck’s military-style tattoo advances the tune, with accordion chords cushioning the exposition.

This triptych of releases certainly illustrates the three faces of John and what he can do is in his many personas. Portending well for the percussionist’s future as a multi-talent, they suggest that tying all the personalities together may one day allow him to aurally paint his masterpiece.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Claudia: 1. meinetwegen 2. a-b-s-t-i-n-e-n-c-e 3. Love Song for Kate 4. Thursday 7:30pm (holy) 5. Thursday 11:14am (grey) 6. Thursday 3:44pm (playground) 7. Burt and Ken 8. ...after a dance or two, we sit down for a pint with Gil and Tim... 9. No D 10. Visions of Claudia

Personnel: Claudia: Chris Speed (clarinet, tenor saxophone); Ted Reichman (accordion); Matt Moran (vibraphone, percussion); Drew Gress (bass); John Hollenbeck (drums, percussion)

Track Listing: Lucy: 1.Vanishing Lucy 2. ethel 3. Foreva 4. materna 5. dreams for tomorrow^ 6. Constant Conversation (8:29) 7.Chapel flies* 8. jazz envy 9. Vira-folha* 10. The Music of Life

Personnel: Lucy: Dan Willis (tenor and soprano saxophone, flute, English horn); Jonas Tauber (cello)*; Skuli Sverrison (electric bass, bajo sexto)^; John Hollenbeck (drums, percussion, piano, berimbau^); Theo Bleckmann (voice, piano^)

Track Listing: No: 1. Bluegreenyellow#^+& 2. Without morning 3. Liebman/Hollenbeck Vignettes+ 4. The Drum Major Instinct*~ 5. Eskelin/Hollenbeck Vignettes^ 6. No images$

Personnel: No: Tim Sessions*, David Taylor*, Ray Anderson* (trombones); Rick DiMuzio#, Ellery Eskelin^, David Liebman+ (tenor saxophones); Ben Monder (guitar%); John Hollenbeck (drums, percussion, laughter samples and autoharp with portable fan$); Theo Bleckmann (voice%); Martin Luther King Jr. (voice on tape~)