A large ensemble is great for that commanding big band/swing-era vibe that crashes into focus like a blast of hot, beautiful air. A large ensemble is also great for moving lots of furniture, I’m told, but one thing they usually don’t pull off very well by virtue of sheer size is the more delicate angle of the art of jazz.
Enter John Hollenbeck and his large ensemble. Having studied at the Eastman School of Music, Hollenbeck has been in New York City since the early 1990s. He has worked with the likes of Fred Hersch, Tony Malaby, Bob Brookmeyer, and Meredith Monk while honing his craft as a composer and drummer.
Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet has been a critical darling for about a dozen years, with recent commissions for Gotham Wind Symphony, Ethos Percussion Group and Youngstown State University earning him praise as well. To top it all off, Hollenbeck’s large ensemble won a Grammy nomination for their debut recording.
As the follow-up to A Blessing, Eternal Interlude plays with the subtleties of Hollenbeck’s creative compositions.
Hollenbeck’s twenty-piece ensemble includes some of New York’s best musicians, including Claudia Quintet bandmate Matt Moran, The Refuge Trio’s Theo Bleckmann and Gary Versace, and saxophonist Tony Malaby. The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, it should be noted, is an actual band; this is not a mob of freelancers that shift from record to record or gig to gig.
Perhaps it is that instinctive cohesion that allows the arrangements to work so fluidly. This is an outfit that performs with intimate knowledge of one another’s transitions, solos and musical practices. The performance of Hollenbeck’s ensemble goes well beyond simply reading notes off a page, as there is a deep, cherished understanding of the work and the group at play here.
Hollenbeck, along with having mastered the subtleties of deeper arrangements, has mastered percussion. This is particularly on display with the groovy gait of “Perseverance,” an album highlight that brims with funk and bright instrumentation.
The quiet arrangements of pieces like “The Cloud” and “Guarana” give Hollenbeck’s crew a chance to show off some of the smaller moments. Bleckmann’s recitation of Sanskrit and Christian mantras on “The Cloud” offer even more closeness and intensity to a genuinely moving piece of music.
Eternal Interlude proves that the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble is prepared to go several steps beyond the norm of large groups. Theirs is a sound with depth, strength, merit, character, and individuality. Whether showing off strong rhythmic purpose or drawing attention to the unclothed moments of quiet, Hollenbeck’s group is profoundly committed to the process and tone of their art.