John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble: A Blessing (2005)
That's one of the reasons why the definition of jazz is such a slippery slope. Reductionist thinking aside, the very assimilation of a multitude of cultural and stylistic concerns is what keeps jazz alive and well, living and breathing and, most importantly, constantly evolving. Drummer/composer John Hollenbeck has proven over the course of his relatively short career that it's possible to blend a multitude of approaches while working within an idiom that's still somehow indefinably jazz. His latest release, A Blessing, expands on the stylistic melange of his smaller Claudia Quintet with an eighteen-piece ensemble that offers greater textural possibilities and a grander vision.
The recording explores the almost unlimited possibilities of one voice, five woodwind players, four trombonists, four trumpets, and a rhythm section thatin addition to the more traditional piano-bass-drums triumviratealso includes a variety of mallet instruments. There's nothing excessive or bombastic about Hollenbeck's approach, which isn't afraid to let smaller subsets do the talking. Nor is Hollenbeck averse to finding organic ways to emulate ideas that other artists have developed through looping and other electronic means.
All kinds of trace elements can be found scattered throughout A Blessing. The sixteen-minute title track unfolds gradually, beginning with Gary Versace's simple piano arpeggios, Matt Moran's bowed vibraphone, and Kermit Driscoll's bass creating a subtle ambient backdrop of gentle beauty for vocalist Theo Bleckmann's crystal pure evocation of "An Irish Blessing. The piece builds slowly, with Hollenbeck's drums developing an ever-strengthening forward motion underneath horn lines that start as long tones, but ultimately evolve into repetitive patterns that take on a rhythmic life of their own, resolving into a kind of post-minimalist Steve Reich-meets-Maria Schneider vibe.
Elsewhere there are elements of primal jungle rhythms ("Weiji ), Brian Eno ambience that builds into a free cacophony before heading for straight-ahead swing ("RAM ), and a kind of free jazz reggae ("April in Reggae ). While it's difficult to single out any one player, Bleckmann's voicewhile most often integrated into the overall texture of the ensemble, rather than standing outranges from pristine beauty to percussive panting, and even some miraculous throat singing over the stasis of "The Music of Life.
Captivating and compelling from a larger narrative perspective, A Blessing is continued evidence of Hollenbeck's unfailing instincts and endless imagination. A masterpiece.
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Track Listing: A Blessing; Folkmoot; RAM; Weiji; Abstinence; April in Reggae; The Music of Life
Personnel: Ben Kono (flute, soprano and alto saxophones); Chris Speed (clarinet); Tom Christensen (tenor and soprano saxophones, English horn); Dan Willis (tenor and soprano saxophones, English horn); Alan Won (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet); Rob Hudson (trombone); Kurtis Pivert (trombone); Jacob Garchik (trombone); Alan Ferber (trombone); John Owens (trumpet); Tony Kadleck (trumpet); Dave Ballou (trumpet); Laurie Frink (trumpet); Kermit Driscoll (bass); John Hollenbeck (drums); Gary Versace (piano); Matt Moran (mallets); Theo Bleckmann (voice)
Record Label: OmniTone
Style: Modern Jazz