Posted by: russdavis | April 3, 2013

Floating Down (Third) Stream with John Hollenbeck: Russ Davis takes in Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble at NYC’s Jazz Standard!

Floating Down (Third) Stream with John Hollenbeck: Russ Davis takes in Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble at NYC’s Jazz Standard!

ImageSince Gunther Schuller coined the phrase “Third Stream” to describe the marriage of jazz and classical music over a half century ago there have been many practitioners of the art form, but none more creative and effective than the great, young drummer, composer, arranger, bandleader, educator and musical visionary John Hollenbeck. I was eager to hear John and his Large Ensemble with vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Kate McGarry performing the music from the new release Songs I Like A Lot with Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble at New York’s Jazz Standard. One might think…”Oh, classical and jazz…how stuffy!” Well, think of the unpretentious and light hearted title of this latest work and of the collection of songs exhibited here from Queen, to Jimmy Webb, to the Appalachian standard “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” to English Electro-Pop artist Imogen Heap. Stuffy and pretentious? I think not. 

ImageI’m always looking for something other than the usual fare, though I certainly enjoy hearing things that swing, funk, fuse and groove, and though one might place John Hollenbeck’s long form offerings like this delightful work under the “Third Stream” umbrella it is absolutely his own personal and unique musical statement. There seems to be another recent outcry against anything other than “blues-based” jazz these days but I just don’t see the problem with blending apparently disparate elements to create something tasty. Someone had the original idea of mixing chocolate and peanut butter once and that turned out just fine in my humble opinion. Also, tell me that when Duke Ellington, Chick Corea, Miles Davis & Gil Evans, George Russell, Charles Mingus, even Frank Zappa mixed jazz and classical that it was wrong to do so. As Gunther Schuller himself said, “It is not designed to do away with jazz or classical music; it is just another option amongst many for today’s creative musicians.” So enough of all of this hubbub and on with the show! 

ImageThe show began with the instrumental “Guarana” which John mentioned was a natural, herbal substance that was most effective for men. I’ll have to search for some of that, but no one had to search for a rousing beginning to a marvelous set that showcased the talents of 19 international musicians. The rest of the set included music from Songs I Like A Lot, which is primarily a vocal recording, and features Hollenbeck’s long time associate of almost two decades, Theo Bleckmann, and special guest Kate McGarry. The two singers offered not only their full voiced singing of lyrics but accompanying wordless vocal and a variety of utterances that added just the right musical spice to the mix. In a delightful and revealing conversation with both Kate and Theo after the performance I discovered that there is a wonderful simpatico between the two of them on stage and off. Ms. McGarry called Mr. Bleckmann her “brother she never had from another mother.” They talked about the trials and joys of singing with such a large group and neither had any trouble whatsoever navigating the intricate charts created by John Hollenbeck. Theo Bleckmann made an especially revealing statement in response to my question about whether or not he sees his voice as just another instrument. He said he sees his voice simply as a voice and that other players of instruments are charged with finding their voice through the instrument they play. Well said my friend!

The hour long set included the two Jimmy Webb songs “Wichita Lineman” and “The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” as well as “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” inspired by John’s love of the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Afterwards I spent some time with Mr. Hollenbeck to get the background on this great work. He mentioned that he and Theo Bleckmann had worked on the preparation for this together and had sifted through about 40 tunes to come up with just the right ones to record. They truly were some of his personal favorite songs. He included one of his own compositions on this recording and he obviously spent a ton of time in writing the arrangements for this varied collection of songs. John Hollenbeck is a tremendously prolific composer and besides his large ensemble work for himself, he writes for his small group The Claudia Quintet, his own big band as well as other big bands, mostly in Europe, where he holds a professor’s chair at the Jazz Institute of Berlin. He’s in demand for commissioned work by groups all over the world. I asked if he writes constantly and he mentioned that with his busy schedule he usually sets aside the month of September to “write.” Now that sounds like a guy who can compartmentalize and prioritize. He’s used to putting together and dealing with large groups and after this show in New York he and the crew of 20 plus were on the bus and off to a mini tour of Oberlien and Columbus, Ohio then his hometown of Binghampton, NY before packing up and heading back to Berlin. 

ImageI asked him if he felt a strong connection to “The Third Stream” movement and he simply stated that he had grown up with classical music so it was a natural to mix it with jazz and improvised music and he pretty much left it at that. I liked that simple answer to a simple question. For those who want to pigeonhole John Hollenbeck, good luck on that one. Here’s a guy who creates a long form piece with serious jazz overtones out of Freddie Mercury’s composition “Bicycle Race.” As Gunther Schuller also supposedly said, Third Stream was not classical music played by jazz musicians or jazz played by classical musicians. As Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann basically stated it, they didn’t feel like they were singing Third Stream style, just John Hollenbeck music. I’ll buy that. Lastly I’ll say that I like the unpredictable, and if Mr. Hollenbeck is anything he is unpredictable. He’s also apparently driven, energetic, prolific, talented, intelligent and a guy who can pack a lot of stuff into a small space of time or, in this case, a tour bus. Where does all this come from I wonder? Maybe I better go search for some of that Guarana he mentioned! 

Russ Davis 

<I>Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting <A HREF=http://www.mojaradio.com>MOJA Radio’s website</a>.</I>

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