Chris Speed / John Hollenbeck / Theo Bleckmann / Matt Moran / Tom Christensen / Dave Ballou / Kermit Driscoll

November 14, 2005

A Blessing

OmniTone OTI 15209

Already praised as a first-class drummer, composer and combo leader, John Hollenbeck now shows that he can handle the writing, arranging and guiding of an 18-piece ensemble as fluently as his other talents.

Since for all reports his drumming is a clear-headed and multi-directional as it is on A BLESSING, is it any wonder that his employers have ranged from mainstreamers Bob Brookmeyer and Lee Konitz, more advanced players like Brad Shepik and Jorrit Dijkstra plus New Music doyen Meredith Monk?

True to his influences, which include rock music and more conventional so-called classical music sounds, Hollenbeck’s treatment of a large ensemble’s energy and force is far different than standard big band writing and instrumentation.

Although his brass section has as many trumpets and trombones as Stan Kenton’s or Duke Elington’s bands, his five-piece reed section includes one member doubling on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, another – Chris Speed from the drummer’s Claudia Quintet (CQ) – playing only clarinet, one tripling on flute, soprano and alto saxophones and two others tripling on tenor and soprano saxophones plus English horn. The rhythm section has his CQ pal Matt Moran playing mallets (sic) and Kermit Driscoll on what sounds like electric as well as acoustic bass. Added to many of the tracks is the vocalizing, wordless or otherwise, of another longtime Hollenbeck associate, Theo Bleckmann, whose distinctive voice has been featured with Meredith Monk’s Vocal Ensemble since 1994, as well as in projects for Mark Dresser, Dave Douglas and other jazzers.

A fantasia with words, the first and title track, features Bleckmann’s countertenor in parlando, reading the words to a blessing printed on the Mass card at Hollenbeck’s grandmother’s funeral. With resemblance to a nocturne going even further to encompass the sensitive, low-frequency piano work of Gary Versace and the reedy harmonies of the English horns. At the same time as these instruments produce hushed dynamics, the bassist and drummer provide understated bop-like bounces. Following a variation where reeds tones resemble a mixed choir of human voices, the finale involves a stop-time section with staccato horn lines floating on top of polyrhythmic emphasis. Coda involves Bleckmann’s impassioned singing mixed with quivering instrumental textures.

In contrast, “Abstinence” is driven by an electric bass continuo which contrasts with a main theme made up of half-speed piano arpeggios and muted trombone glissandi. After one ‘bone rams out plunger tones on top of trilling and vibrating reed lines, a polyrhythmic variation is introduced with a balanced drum beat and walking bass. As this variation gradually supersedes the original theme of carefully harmonized voices, tougher vamps from Hollenbeck and Driscoll build up to a climax of rock band-like vamps and downward cascading textures from the piano. The ending features Sun Ra Arkestra-like space ship launching and landing sound approximations.

Although Hazrat Inayat Khan’s words sung by Bleckmann on the final “The Music of Life” are a little too utopian, low key and stamped with vocal-recital purity, the quivering woodwind backing and single note piano timbres give it some life, as does the singer’s postlude of gargling throat textures.

Throughout the CD, the compositions at various times include wavering rubato massed horn lines, sideslippoing English horn obbligatos, staccato and forte brass explosions, Africanized percussion ruffs, bounces and drags, and a cross section of harmonies and counter-themes.

Not your father’s big band, A BLESSING is also notable for its absence of drum pyrotechniques. So good in his other roles here, Hollenbeck likely figured he didn’t have to show off his already acknowledged skills.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. A Blessing 2. Folkmoot 3. RAM 4. Weiji 5. Abstinence 6. April n Reggae 7. The Music of Life

Personnel: Tony Kadleck, Dave Ballou, Jon Owens, Laurie Frink (trumpets); Rob Hudson, Kurtis Pivert, Jacob Garchik, Alan Ferber (trombones); Chris Speed (clarinet); Ben Kono (flute, soprano and alto saxophones); Dan Willis and Tom Christensen (tenor and soprano saxophones and English horns); Alan Won (baritone saxophone and bass clarinet); Gary Versace (piano); Matt Moran (mallets); Kermit Driscoll (bass and electric bass); John Hollenbeck (drums); Theo Bleckmann (voice); J.C. Sanford (conductor)