John Hollenbeck has the power to induce synesthesia. A precociously gifted but still underappreciated composer, arranger, percussionist, and leader of several musical groups of varying sizes and orientations, Hollenbeck makes music that sounds the way the world looks and feels in 2013. You can hear, in his work, the collapse of cultural borders, the shuffling of traditions and influences, the old and the new and the earthy and the urban and the proper and the wiseass, swirling in unstable but unstoppable motion. Hollenbeck is a musician for our time, our hour of seemingly (but not really) limitless access and crumbling (but obstinately enduring) classifications. If you haven’t heard his music yet, you have certainly seen and felt what it sounds like, every day.
Now forty-four, Hollenbeck has been performing widely and prominently since the mid-1990s, and he has been established as a leader since late 2001 and early 2002, when he released, in a flurry, four CDs of original music in four different settings: The Claudia Quintet, an album of oddly but exactly constructed pieces geared for the quasi-retro, cozy-sounding instrumentation of accordion (Ted Reichman), vibraphone (Matt Moran), clarinet (Chris Speed), acoustic bass (Drew Gress), and drums (Hollenbeck); Quartet Lucy, music by a voice-oriented experimental group distinguished by the use of wordless abstract vocals (Theo Bleckmann), English horn (Dan Willis), electric bass (Skúli Sverrison), and drums (Hollenbeck, of course); Static Still, a project centered on the voice-percussion duo of Bleckmann and Hollenbeck; and no images, a collection of Hollenbeck’s compositions for all sorts of instruments, in the vein of avant-garde chamber music, including a piece incorporating segments of a sermon recorded by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.1
Over the twelve years since then, Hollenbeck has continued working with many of the same musicians, touring and recording around the world, and his writing has grown deeper without losing its boyish, almost prankish urge to mix things up. He now has a body of genre-defiant work equally impressive for its range, its size, and the quality of its invention: some fourteen CDs as a leader, another dozen or so as a composer (with his music performed by a variety of artists, including an all-percussion group and Meredith Monk), and innumerable performances as a drummer on projects by like-minded musicians such as the saxophonist Tony Malaby and the guitarist Ben Monder.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conceive of Hollenbeck as one of countless hybridists practicing musical postmodernism in the artier clubs and the campus-concert circuit, but it wouldn’t be fair to him. His indifference to genre is hardly unusual today; indeed, category crunching has been commonplace in most of the arts for so long now that it is more old-fashioned than avant-garde. What makes Hollenbeck’s music unique is not its formal innovation, though it is formally inventive and full of unusual ideas. It’s exceptional because it’s exceptionally good—neatly formed but loose in feeling, lucid, consistently interesting, and, above all, emotionally potent.
Hollenbeck enacts his form of musical hybridism without the aid of much technology.
Hollenbeck enacts his form of musical hybridism without the aid of much technology. Unlike digital collagists, mash-up artists, dub producers, and others whose main instrument is Pro Tools, Hollenbeck generally composes for acoustic instruments (or nominally electronic ones such as the electric bass). That fact, on its own, doesn’t make his music any better than digitally generated collage work; but the acoustic textures of his work give it a warmth, a naturalness, and a quality of human scale that complement, by way of contrast, the rhythmic idiosyncrasies and harmonic irregularities of the underlying compositions. Hollenbeck’s music, rangy and intimate, occupies a space in the terrain pioneered by the pianist Ethan Iverson and his trio the Bad Plus: a space within the intersection of the free-culture movement and the small-batch craze.
Not that Hollenbeck is tech-averse. Bleckmann, in his many collaborations with Hollenbeck (and also in his solo work as a vocalist), uses a portable I. T. department of voice-processing devices, essentially treating his vocal equipment as just one piece of gear in a music-making network that he controls with expressive mastery. Hollenbeck, being a good collaborator, doesn’t stop Bleckmann from being himself—that is to say, from being the fantastical piece of singing automata that Bleckmann makes of himself. As a leader, though, Hollenbeck employs technology with great discretion and, sometimes, great flair. There are subtle uses of electronic effects here and there on his albums, as well as suggestions of electronica achieved through acoustic means—for example, in the opening track on the first of Hollenbeck’s six CDs with the Claudia Quintet, which begins with the instruments producing what sounds like a soundboard mix of electronic tones. The effect is a witty inversion of the principle of digital synthesis.
More strikingly, in a concert that I saw of Hollenbeck with the big band that he calls his Large Ensemble (so as to avoid being mistaken for a group of swing revivalists)2, he suggested the cyclicality of nature by incorporating hand-held devices into a performance. The group was performing Hollenbeck’s “Eternal Interlude,” the nineteen-minute title composition on the Large Ensemble’s second album. After a lovely, wafting pastoral section, a few instruments played some freely mingling phrases that sounded something like animal calls, while the rest of the members of the band took out devices and tapped onto them. The animal calls soon came together, settling into a single musical figure that the group repeated for a little while, giving the piece its climax. As the music began to quiet down, the band members with devices tapped onto them again and put them up to their microphones, and the recorded sound of the instrumental animal calls echoed beautifully behind the fading ensemble’s playing. If the idea seems gimmicky, it is; but in performance—as music, not as idea—it was gorgeous.
Hollenbeck has no fear of beauty, no grudge with tonality. His music is intelligent and borderless, rhythmically advanced, and often lyrical. For its lyricism alone, the work is almost radical.
John Hollenbeck’s rise as a maker of category-resistant music for adults has coincided, not the least bit coincidentally, with the emergence of places for category-resistant adults to go out and hear music. A little more than a dozen years ago, when this century was starting and Hollenbeck was making his debut albums, the institutional structure of live music presentation in America was much more segregated taxonomically, more rigidly stratified, than we know it to be now.
Hollenbeck, who grew up in upstate New York, moved to Manhattan after studying percussion and jazz composition at the Eastman School, in Rochester, much as ambitious apprentices in every discipline have always gone where the work is. New York City in 2001 had a great variety of outlets for a talented drummer who could play almost anything: for jazz, which Hollenbeck had studied, there were clubs such as the Village Vanguard, the Iridium, and the Fez; for mainstream rock, there were Irving Plaza and the Bottom Line; for the avant-garde, there was the Knitting Factory; and for the tourists, there was B. B. King’s. But none of these outlets, individually, offered a great variety of kinds of music. Varied in the aggregate, the major musical venues in New York, one by one, enforced the practice of parochialism in the name of connoisseurship. Norah Jones, who was just beginning to break through in late 2001 and early 2002, was singing and playing fairly straight jazz-oriented pop at the Fez and recording the same kind of music for Blue Note Records, which was, way back then, strictly a jazz label.3
While Hollenbeck developed as a composer and bandleader, the presentation climate in major cities around the country, including New York, began to reflect the attitude of aesthetic egalitarianism that, before too long, became the standard definition of culture in the twenty-first century. In Manhattan today, any act would seem to be welcome in a place with a policy of eclecticism such as Le Poisson Rouge or the Highline Ballroom—any act except, perhaps, a traditional jazz band. Hollenbeck—like his cohorts Bleckmann, Matt Moran, Ted Reichman, Tony Malaby, Ben Monder, and others—has found himself at home and welcomed in this environment, where the historical conventions of jazz are held in due esteem but from a safe distance. As Hollenbeck once explained the name of his Large Ensemble: “I don’t call it a big band because I don’t want anyone to get that idea. Most people in the group have a foundation in jazz, but what we do goes forward, hitting things that might sound more like new music.”
In unironic capitulation to the impulse to categorize, some admirers of Hollenbeck’s wonderful new music have been calling it “post-jazz,” and I have no problem with the term. Despite the depth of my love for jazz and my own respect for tradition, I relish the prospect of experiencing something new in music, especially work with the capacity to stir as I have been moved by Hollenbeck’s “Eternal Interlude,” his orchestral piece “Bob Walk” (composed in honor of the late jazz composer and arranger Bob Brookmeyer), and his giddy rendition of Freddy Mercury’s “Bicycle Race” on his quirky and thrilling new album, Songs I Like a Lot (with Bleckmann and the fine young jazz singer Kate McGarry). Besides, one of the invaluable messages of our age of instant access to the history of culture is that the new does not destroy the old; it doesn’t even replace it. John Hollenbeck matters not because he is old or new, but because he is good.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.