In Conversation with John Hollenbeck
Volume 25 Issue 20 2017-05-19
The Global Reach of an American Skins Phenomenon
“It’s traditional, when paying compliment to drummers, to draw comparisons with the octopus, implying agility beyond the means of a paltry pair of human hands. But when considering John Hollenbeck, the multi-limbed creature that seems most appropriate to invoke is the mythical hydra; for while Hollenbeck is certainly no stranger to rhythmic intricacy, it’s ideas that seem to spring forth like so many heads, two more arising as one falls away.”
John Hollenbeck is a world-renowned drummer and composer with his spoon in a number of pots, including the Claudia Quintet, an avant-garde group. Their music is described as "eclectic post-jazz" (be sure to read the Voice review of their album What is the Beautiful?). For the last seven years he’s been teaching Jazz Drums and Improvisation at the Jazz Institute Berlin. Recently Hollenbeck told Wanda Waterman a little about his past, his planned future, and his attraction to mystery in music.
John remembers his early years as being both happy and stimulating. He says he had wonderful parents and brothers, one of whom, Pat, was a drummer himself (also an amazing musician who sometimes performs with John today). It was Pat’s avocation that initially drew John into the musical journey. He also passed on a love of jazz and avant-garde music, both of which came quite naturally to the inquisitive John:
“I’m naturally attracted to at least some mystery in music, so this took me toward jazz and other creative forms. As a child, I was bored and frustrated with pop music because a large majority of it had the same or similar groove. I don’t have that problem anymore, but it really affected what kind of music I was into growing up—I was always looking for something ‘different.’”
One of the highlights of his young life was hearing Bob Brookmeyer’s sextet at SUNY Binghamton when he was 14 years old. “The sound, the interaction, the harmonies . . .” he exclaims. “It was all magical. I still have the bootleg!”
In addition to being an accomplished and inventive drummer, Hollenbeck is also a prolific composer who’s won commissions and kudos the world over for his highly original jazz-influenced work. How does he manage to stay disciplined, focussed, and creative?
“There’s nothing that guarantees good composing; mostly I just need time and a space to work uninterrupted, with the Internet not readily accessible. Most of my best work has been at the Blue Mountain Center, an artist’s retreat.”
The secret to improvising is, in John’s words, “Just to remain open—to not think.”
But what’s it like to improvise with other top musicians like the players in the Claudia Quintet? “We’ve known each other for about 15 years, so it’s just fun—like stepping into an old pair of shoes. Sometimes ‘magic’ happens, but most of the time it’s just good music. In the Claudia Quintet there’s not that much improvisation; it’s used as a compositional element, as opposed to a goal, which is the case in most jazz-based music.
“On What is the Beautiful, for example, the forms are set, but within that there are details that are improvised—some more than others. A few pieces, like ‘Job,’ are totally composed.”
On Kenneth Patchen
What is the Beautiful? was commissioned by the University of Rochester to celebrate the 100th anniversary of famed American poet Kenneth Patchen. “Prior to,” says Hollenbeck, “I did not know his poetry. I had only heard of him through his early experiments with jazz musicians, but his voice on those recordings is a little off-putting. So I didn’t listen to those but just tried to get into the poems by reading them over and over again. After a while some of them were speaking to me, showing me where the music was.”
“For the Claudia Quintet, my plan is to find a place to hang together for a few days and teach them some music by rote so we can play without music or music stands. That’s been a goal of mine for a long time, but because of the type of music that I gravitate toward (not song-based and not short), it will be a challenge for me.”
“Drummers don’t write—or at least, that’s what everybody believes.”
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