Wednesday, May 6, 2009

John Hollenbeck and his Big Band writing featuring the Voice

 John Hollenbeck is a prolific young composer and percussionist that has written for a variety of ensembles.  He has been commissioned to write music for multiple idioms such as choir, sax quartet, big band, percussion ensemble, wind symphony and many other diverse chamber ensembles.  Hollenbeck attended the Eastman school of music getting a Bachelor’s degree in percussion and a Master’s degree in jazz composition.  Through a National Endowment for the Arts grant, he was able to study composition with the composer and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.  Since graduated John Hollenbeck moved to New York City and as been successful working with artists such as Bob Brookmeyer, pianist Fred Hersch, saxophonist Tony Malaby, vocalist Meredith Monk, and many other musicians. 

As far as Hollenbeck’s own groups are concerned, he started a trio collective called “The Refuseniks” with accordionist Ted Reichman and bassist Reuben Radding.  The trio played a weekly gig at a coffee shop, called the alt. coffee shop, but after a year the bass player decided to move to Montana, disbanding the group.  Hollenbeck shortly after founded a group for his own compositions known as the “Claudia Quintet.”  The quintet kept Ted Reichman in, and added vibist Matt Moran, bassist Drew Gress, and saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed to the new ensemble.  This group has since recorded four records of John Hollenbeck’s music.  Another similar group formed for one record, known as the “Quartet Lucy.”  This group featured more Americana style songs and tunes, and featured vocalist Theo Bleckmann, Skuli Sversson on electric bass, and woodwind multi instrumentalist Dan Willis.

In 2003, Hollenbeck took to writing new music, and arranging older original compositions for big band, recorded the record “A Blessing.”  The album would feature many musicians from his previous small group interactions, as well as the vocalist Theo Bleckmann.  In 2005, John Hollenbeck recorded his second album of big band music featuring Theo Bleckmann’s vocals, with The Jazz Big Band Graz, an Austrian band of jazz musicians.

I would like to analyze music taken from these two big band records, as well as talk about the conversion of some of the music from either the “Quartet Lucy” or the “Claudia Quintet” into the larger ensemble arrangements.  I would also like to discuss Hollenbeck’s writing for voice, especially the way he sets text to music, incorporating his cohort Theo Bleckmann, who has recorded on multiple records with John Hollenbeck, such as their most recent album, “The Refuge Trio” with Gary Versace on keyboards.

Theo Bleckmann is a German vocalist who moved from his native country to New York City in the late 1980s.  The decision to pursue music was made after studying in Germany with jazz singer Shelia Jordon, who he later was able to record with.  He has formed a bond with many musicians over the years, such as recording multiple albums with Ben Monder, John Hollenbeck, as well as Mark Dresser, Dave Douglas, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Anthony Braxton, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, and many others.

The first piece I would like to analyze is the composition “Music of Life” by John Hollenbeck, featuring lyrics by Hazrat Inayat Khan.  The lyrics reflect music’s ability to help tune the soul of the musician, or the listener.  Inayat Khan himself was an Indian musician that played the veena in his youth, and gave it up for the spiritual life of a Sufi teacher.  John Hollenbeck wrote the piece originally for the “Quartet Lucy” group, which was inspired by world music and the ECM sound.  It was not until three years later that Hollenbeck would arrange this quartet composition for big band. 

The form of the tune is ABC.  The A section is the first nine bars, where Theo Bleckmann sings half of the lyrics, with the band playing chord swells behind him, in large voiced chord that progressively becomes closed.  As a bridge between A and B, Bleckmann has an open throat singing solo with very light accompaniment, and cues into B (1:00, A Blessing).  At B, between measures 10 and 14, Theo sings the second half of the lyrics, with the chord swells happening in similar fashion, only more dissonant, and the chord closing in from an interval of an octave plus a fifth, to the final chord consisting of a major third.  Bars 15-41 (2:30, A Blessing) consist of the C section, which has the vocals singing the last line of the poem multiple times and throat singing, while the band is playing Dmaj/Gmaj, eventually fading out to only vibes, piano and bass.

The original quartet version from 2002 featured Theo Bleckmann singing/throat singing, with Skuli Sversson doing volume chord swells on six string electric bass, and a single oboe playing the top note of the chord with the bass.  Theo Bleckmann uses a vocal effects processor, and sets up a drone on the note A to sing the piece over.  Theo sings the melody almost exclusively on the pitch A, until the last line of the poem where he improvises a higher in pitch melody that descends into throat singing.  The score shows no vocal melody written besides the A drone note.  John Hollenbeck comes in with sparse piano, right at the point when the piece modulates from crunchy dissonant chords, to Dmaj/Gmaj sounds (3:05, Quartet Lucy).

In 2005 John Hollenbeck re-arranged this quartet composition into an 18- piece big band chart.  He continued having Theo Bleckmann sing and throat sing, but instead of using the drone vocal loop in his effects processor, he had the bass drone an A harmonic, as well as the vibraphone bowing.  The long tone simple melody that the oboe originally plays, was moved around the woodwind section, played by soprano sax, English horn, tenor sax, clarinet, and flute, but with only one instrument at a time playing the note, no doubling at first.  After the first throat singing open section in the piece in bar 10, the melody is doubled by flute and clarinet throughout the rest of the middle section (1:50, A Blessing).  Another change from the small group to big band is the text setting.

In the quartet arrangement the overall text/music relationship is set by a chord played then a sung phrase, then another chord, then another sung phrase, etc…  In the big band version certain players are told to enter their notes with words sung in the middle of the phrase.  In example, the phrase “It is jarring, and it sometimes has a freezing effect,” the fourth trumpet comes in with an A drone on the word sometimes (0:30, A Blessing).  Almost all of these entrances in the middle of the phrase are reiterations of the drone, except for the very first phrase, where the lyrics are, “Besides the beauty of music,” (0:06, A Blessing). The soprano sax and vibes comes in on the word “music”, playing a G#, the major 7th of the tonic drone.  This is also the first note of the melody that begins its major second whole tone scale descent.  While the melody is playing a whole tone scale descending, from G# to Bb, the bass line of the chord progression is playing a whole tone scale ascending from Bb to G#.  This is fitting, because the last chord with G# in the bass and Bb in the melody dissipates into a sparse A octave/unison drone which is the first open section for Theo Bleckmann to throat sing over, with the chord before that enclosing the A in on both sides.

After the first open throat singing section of the piece, Hollenbeck continues his whole tone idea with the melody and the bass note, this time with the melody starting on G and descending to B, and the bass note starting on B and ascending to G.  In the very beginning section the chord is spanning a range of almost four octaves, and at the end, with the melody constantly descending in pitch and the bass line ascending, the last chord of the middle section is a major third, between G and B below middle C (2:30, A Blessing).  After this, lyrically Theo Bleckmann repeats the last line of the poem “The joy of life depends upon the perfect tuning of mind and body” multiple times, while musically the band is playing Dmaj/Gmaj.  So after all of the whole tone, crunchy dissonances that the poem is read over, we get to the final hopeful lyric, and musically hear open sparse consonances. 

On the original quartet recording, the group fades out after a minute of this diatonic sound world, whereas the big band arrangement adds another additional minute or through composed sound in this world.  The start of this third consonant section has almost the entire band playing held out chord sounds, reducing the number of people playing until the last ten bars, where you have sparse piano and vibes material fleshing out the Dmaj/Gmaj sound, and the continual bowed A harmonic in the bass.

            John Hollenbeck himself describes “Music of Life” as “a simple chant like piece that sums up why we are doing what we are doing.  It is because we feel that music can change lives, and can heal.”

The second piece I would like to analyze is John Hollenbeck’s composition “Abstinence.”  A few years ago I heard Hollenbeck in a composition master class say that this was one of the first pieces written for the Claudia Quintet, and that they had played it so much, no longer included it in their repertoire.  The studio small group version is recorded on their first self-titled album.  This tune is also the only composition that is performed on both “A Blessing” and “Joys and Desires,” Hollenbeck’s only two to date big band albums.  The small group version was recorded in 2001, the “Blessing” version in 2003, and the “Joys and Desires” version in 2004.

Before talking about the form of the big band arrangement of “Abstinence,” I would like to go over the form of the piece in it’s “Claudia Quintet” small group version, and then discuss the differences when Hollenbeck arranged it for the larger ensemble.  It starts off with a free bass solo up top, and after that goes into the bass playing an intro melody rubato.  The drums come in at the A section with the bass playing the A section bass line, in tempo.  They play this three times, and the melody comes in for the second and third time.  After the A section the group goes to the B section, which is a unison melody between the bass and horns, is played twice, and immediately segues into the C section for a solo.  The C section is a free solo that is only notated by two fermatas in the bass clef, an F# and then an F natural.  On the recording, the drums, accordion and clarinet play freely while the bass is pedaling the written two notes.  To cue out of the solo, the bass plays the bass line from the A section out of time once, then in time twice, and the second time the bass line is played in time, the melody of the A section enters.  This cues the B section, which is a suddenly new faster tempo, and the B bass line is vamped for a vibes solo.  The tune ends by the melody of the A section being played twice over the B section bass line and solo, and the group plays the last melody note, an Ab in octaves and unisons.

After listening back to back to the two large ensemble versions, I can not hear any different to the arrangement, other than some instrument colors being different, for instance in the Big Band Graz one of the trumpet players uses electronic effects, vs. the trumpets in “The Blessing” band using none at all.  Also in the Big Band Graz there is a keyboardist using effects during the outro, where on “The Blessing” it’s Gary Versace playing Cecil Taylor-esque on the piano.  Compositionally the ideas, and interludes are the same throughout the piece.  Hollenbeck told our master class that when he recorded the Big Band Graz record, that that group is not as strong of players as the New York guys he plays, and that he had to dumb down some of the ideas and orchestra so that they could play it.  Due to this, and not being able to hear any real differences between the two large ensemble versions, I will be analyzing “The Blessing” version, for the dynamic contour graph, as well as referencing that version in the rest of the discussion on the piece “Abstinence.”

The large ensemble version of the tune differs from the small ensemble version, especially in the fact that the large ensemble is five minutes longer than the “Claudia Quintet” recording.  The intro is the same, other than adding a few more horns and voice to the melody at A and B.  The solo on the big band version however starts on the B section, which is repeated four times instead of two times on the small group arrangement.  Instead of going to an absolutely free section at the C section, Hollenbeck wrote a vamp using the same F natural and F# bass notes, but using a similar groove to the B section, with voiced out chords (2:30, A Blessing).  The chords during this vamp start off sparsely, and become denser as the solo progresses.  To end this solo, Hollenbeck starts speeding up, and dropping out, and coming back in on the drums, while the band is playing more of a freer aleatoric idea, no longer with a groove intact (4:00, A Blessing).  An interlude melody comes out in this, and as I remember when I saw the group play this live, one of the horn players led the other few in playing the line in unison, since the time is no longer happening.  Herein is where the arrangement takes off in a drastic direction from the “Claudia Quintet” version.  The bass and what sounds like bass trombone and bass clarinet come in with an extension of the A section bass line (5:30, A Blessing).  The original version has the bass player playing it out of time, where this version plays the first few bars held out longer, then the next few bars held out longer, and then when it reaches the fourth bar of the A section bass line, they start vamping the measure over and over again.  This is a completely new section that is only in the big band arrangement, and over this one measure vamp there is an entire ensemble section written out.  This continues for several minutes, until the one bar bass vamp, and the melody of the interlude starts hinting at the melody in the B section, continuing to build until the group hits a very loud fermata.  On the drums, John Hollenbeck plays a fill into the faster, new tempo, which signals the bass player to go to the B section line, and Gary Versace to play a piano solo over it (9:10, A Blessing).  Now the big band chart is back to a similar arrangement that the small group chart had.  They are some backgrounds that come in over this section that hint at the interlude melody that was played right before the B section solo started.  The backgrounds build into and overlap into the A section melody played two times.  Instead of the “Claudia Quintet” version where the piece ends after the melody is played twice, this time the band as a whole continues to swell and pulse for over thirty seconds on the pitch Ab, (11:00, A Blessing) in similar fashion to Lutoslawski’s writing (Hollenbeck mentions Ligeti, Steve Reich, and John Adams as influences on his writing on “The Blessing”).  At the end of the drone, Hollenbeck plays a drum fill to signal an even quicker tempo than before, and the band plays the A section melody two times to end it.  However once the band ends the piece, everything drops out, except for lone electronics that buzz, contort and skip for the remaining twenty seconds of the piece.  Both big band versions of the tune end the piece with the solo electronic feedback noise.

John Hollenbeck uses very sparse ideas, in both the big band and small ensemble version of “Abstinence.”  He repeats the same cellular ideas throughout the piece, but displaces where they are, or what context in which they are presented.  For instance, the tune ends with the A section melody, played over the B section line (10:40, A Blessing).  In the large ensemble arrangement, he uses melodic fragments from the ensemble interlude as backgrounds to the solo section at B (10:00, A Blessing).  To segue the solo at the C section to the solo at the B section, in the big band version, Hollenbeck uses the interlude one measure bass vamp mixed in with an idea from the first bar of the bass/melody vamp at B, until finally going into the entire melodic line of the B section (8:40, A Blessing). 

There is also more composition to the arrangement for big band, than the small group version that relies more heavily on improvisation.  Even though there are still some very free ideas rhythmically and melodically happening in the large ensemble, it does not lose the exciting unpredictable musical vibe of the “Claudia Quintet.”  During fermatas, or points where Hollenbeck is not holding down a steady groove, there are conducted and/or cued ideas happening in time over top of the freer playing that others in the ensemble are doing.  Gary Versace’s piano solo at B is totally free, but the backgrounds and bass line accompanying it are very tonal and in the rhythmic pocket.  There is a great use of having free sounding ideas come across in a very orderly, and through composed way.  In a different master class I saw with John Hollenbeck and Tony Malaby, they both were talking about writing music that sounds like it’s improvised, and playing solos that sound composed, so that the listener cannot hear the different between the two worlds, and this recording/arrangement does just that.

The last piece I would like to write about is John Hollenbeck’s setting of the William Blake poem “Garden of Love” to voice and big band.  This is featured on the album “Joys and Desires” with the Big Band Graz.  The piece on the record ends a three part suite titled the “Joys and Desires” suite, that features his composition “Jazz Envy” and “After a dance or two, we down for a pint with Gil and Tim.”  The latter is a tribute to composer Gil Evans, and saxophonist Tim Berne.  The “Garden of Love” is the last movement of the suite.  The end of “After a dance…” is a melancholy rendition of the once happy melody, which breaks down and elongates, until all that’s left is a simple marching snare drum pattern, and the cello bowing long tone double stops.  This segue sets up the introduction to “Garden of Love,” which begins with cello and soprano sax playing behind Theo Bleckmann’s recitation of the poem.

Shortly after the spoken word begins, a piano enters on the word “gates” and flugelhorn on “garden of love, that so many sweet flowers had bore.”  The piano entrance on the word “gates” is sparse and evokes the sound of the metal clinking against metal (0:34, Joys and Desires).  When the flugelhorn enters it weaves around the soprano saxophone, and sounds like flowers or vines intertwining together (0:45, Joys and Desires).  When Bleckmann gets to reciting the last line of the poem “Binding with briars my joys and desires” the intensity has built up and added in most of the winds in the ensemble.  During this break between reciting and singing the lyrics (1:27, Joys and Desires), the soprano sax jumps out of the background and into the forefront of the texture, soloing.  The soloing continues over Bleckmann singing the lyrics a second time.  Theo Bleckmann sings the lines on the pitches (2:00, Joys and Desires) E, B, higher E, and descends to A.  The last pitch that he sings the final line on helps as a note to modulate the piece from minor into D Lydian (3:00, Joys and Desires).  Formally I consider the first section of the tune the A section, and the modulation into D Lydian the B section.  The start of the B section begins with the horns loud, but decrescendoing so that the cello emerges again like the intro, but with a new energetic bowed vamp.  The soprano sax comes in and plays the melody alongside the vocal melody, but eventually merges into a new solo over top of it all.  The improvising begins when the drums enter (4:06, Joys and Desires), and keep playing until rejoining the melody for the last time through.

Text-wise, I believe that the soprano saxophone represents the mood of the poet, one that is mournful of what is going on in the Garden of Love that is eventually transformed into bliss.  I think the reason for the modulation from minor to Lydian over the repetitive text of “binding with briars my joys and desires,” has to do with Hollenbeck’s personal connection to meditation.  In Buddhism it is a practice to meditate in order to not get carried away by your emotions, primarily your joys and desires, and maintain a middle road.  By working on your awareness, and your ability to stay moderate, the practitioner is able to lead a fuller life of clarity and mindfulness, all from “binding” those desires.  In true meditation style, the piece ends with the voice solo, repeating the line once more, like a zen koan or a mantra.


Lyrics Appendix


Music of life

Besides the beauty of music, there is that tenderness which brings life to the heart. For a person of fine feelings, for a person of kindly thought, life in the world is very trying. It is jarring and sometimes it has a freezing effect. It makes the heart, so to speak, frozen. In that condition one experiences depression and the whole life becomes distasteful. The very life which is meant to be heaven becomes a place of suffering.

If one can focus one's heart on music, it is just like heating something which was frozen. The heart comes to its natural condition, and the rhythm regulates the beating of the heart, which helps to restore health of body, mind and soul, and brings them to their proper tone. The joy of life depends upon the perfect tuning of mind and soul.

–Hazrat Inayat Khan



Garden of love


I went to the Garden of Love,

And saw what I never had seen;

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.


And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And 'Thou shalt not' writ over the door;

So I turned to the Garden of Love

That so many sweet flowers bore.


And I saw it was filled with graves,

And tombstones where flowers should be;

And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars my joys and desires.

-William Blake

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