Online since August 2002

An Irish blessing turned jazz

Reviewed September 2005

A Blessing
A Blessing
By John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

Omnitone Records: 2005

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

John Hollenbeck's "A Blessing" offers a vision that is intensely personal, yet sweeping in its embrace of a vast aural landscape.

Each composition is a unique statement and stands on its own. Yet, collectively, the selections progress from beginning to end with a continuity that gives the album the shape of an extended suite. Both the first track, "A Blessing," and the last, "The Music of Life," feature the ethereal voice of Theo Bleckmann. They are essentially poems set to music.

"A Blessing," was based on the Irish Blessing printed on the Mass card handed out at the funeral for Hollenbeck's grandmother, according to the CD jacket notes. Hollenbeck has used the poem to create a folk song. The combination of Bleckmann's voice and the rhythmless wash of shimmering sounds set the mood of a Medieval English monk's morning song.

The opening of the title track is obviously far from typical in beginning a set of performances by an orchestra composed of brass, reeds and percussion. It would certainly unsettle any listener who comes to the CD with the expectation of hearing jazz in the big band tradition. Those familiar with Hollenbeck's methods, however, would be much less surprised. Hollenbeck, a drummer who guides the group from behind his traps set, conscientiously avoids being labeled as a big band leader and he calls the group that performs on "A Blessing" his Large Ensemble. The implication is that he approaches his writing as if he were arranging for a chamber ensemble rather than an assemblage of 18 musicians with instrumentation that is equivalent to a big band setup. As demonstrated throughout "A Blessing," he prefers writing for small groupings of instruments. He also has an affinity for using vibes in addition to piano. He frequently sets several instrumental passages against each other in counterpoint and in layered tempos. Parts in double time and quadruple time will spin inside the base meter forming a musical mobile.

He dispenses with the trend in progressive jazz orchestras of writing arrangements as frameworks meant to stimulate and showcase soloists, such as Satoko Fujii and the ICP Orchestra do, among Hollenbeck's contemporaries. Nor is Hollenbeck interested in manipulating traditional song forms, such as the 32-bar standard and the blues, the staples of big band jazz.

He has more in common with the classical approach in which the composer pulls the strings and the orchestra exists as the palette of the writer's imagination. Notably, the CD jacket does not identify soloists. That being said, Hollenbeck makes dramatically effective use of improvisation – both solo and group blowing – but not in ways that transform the conception. Hollenbeck supplies plenty of transformation on his own and that in fact is a hallmark of his writing. Each piece is sure to go somewhere quite different than its starting point.

His compositions on "A Blessing" are so diverse and dynamic, they more than compensate for the abridgement of the soloists' freedom.

"Weiji," for instance, is a wild ride driven by a frenzied rhythm composed of deep pounding drums and vocal exhortations by Bleckmann, overlaid by frantic collective blowing by the horns. Coming in the middle of the album, "Weiji" is the ultimate contrast with the fragility and introversion of the opening and concluding pieces.

"Abstinence" follows "Weiji," again featuring extensive free-blowing, though not nearly as uncontrolled as in "Weiji" and it dissolves into a minor blues ostinato bass line over which the horns and Bleckmann's voice weave in counterpoint. It has a haunting, nervous quality, akin to music scored for film noir, as many of these compositions do, strong themes that change in unexpected ways as if they were following a drama. "Abstinence" doubles in time to a spiraling piano solo, reminiscent of the effect achieved on "Spiral Staircase" on Ran Blake's "Film Noir" album and that's not just serendipity. Hollenbeck's older brother, Pat Hollenbeck, was a percussionist on several pieces on that album. Threads of Blake as well as Carla Bley and Anthony Braxton in his orchestral work can be heard in Hollenbeck.

As well, there's no mistaking a kinship with the minimalists in that he likes to take a simple theme or a series of a few notes and repeat them, introducing variations and encrustations, yet he is invariably compelled to offer some breathtaking twist, through tempo shifts, modulations and unexpected melodic turns that beam the listener to another realm. That is apparent in "A Blessing," which morphs into a forceful, contrapuntal exercise in reeds and brass, interspersed with an interlude of spright soprano saxophone soloing, and concluding with a recapitulation of the vocal section.

The first section of "Folkmoot" features bold brass riffs that build in tension then release to an introspective piano solo. It is followed by a repeated pentatonic figure played by oboe and piano that sounds East Asian in derivation, around which riffs by other small brass and reed choirs are woven with increasing complexity.

"RAM," dedicated to legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, begins with a contoured blend of free blowing that evolves into high-energy swing propelled by Hollenbeck's drumming, in what is the most traditionally jazz-oriented segment to be found on the album.

In keeping with the CD's continuity, "April in Reggae" – featuring a gusty tenor sax solo, probably by Chris Speed – works as an extension of "Abstinence." As referenced by the title, it's a subtly funky and off-kilter reworking of "April in Paris," with a direct quote from the song toward the end.

At the other end of the CD from "A Blessing," "The Music of Life" has Bleckmann intoning a poem by Hazrat Inayat Khan in a monotone voice in A, like the tuning fork of life, around which horns and other instruments hover, including one that mimics the twangy thrum of the throat singers of Tuva. The words celebrate the healing power of music, bringing the listener full circle from "A Blessing," a transcendental conclusion to a kaleidoscopic journey that peaks with the frothy howl of "Weiji." The progression is a historical musical continuum, starting with the European emphasis on purity of sound and the Christian repression of overt rhythmic elements associated with paganism, shedding the inhibitions to to exhilarate in primal drum-driven, ritual dance with its emphasis on collective trance and frenzy, and concluding with a meditative chant celebrating music itself as worship and spiritual salve.

In other words, CD as saga.

Review by Michael J. Williams. Michael is a San Diego-based writer and editor.

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