John Hollenbeck Only Looks Like a Jazz Musician

It’s hard to pin down the drummer-composer John Hollenbeck stylistically. You can frequently find him playing gigs as a sideman

It’s hard to pin down the drummer-composer John Hollenbeck stylistically. You can frequently find him playing gigs as a sideman at clubs like the Village Vanguard and the Jazz Standard. This would suggest rather strongly that Mr. Hollenbeck is a jazz musician.

But is he?

“Uh, I can play jazz,” Mr. Hollenbeck said cagily. “I know a lot about jazz.”

He then proceeded to give a definition of jazz that was so expansive that it bordered on meaninglessness. Yes, he was a jazz musician, if what one meant by jazz was music that had improvisation and no vocals, the kind that would fit beneath an umbrella big enough for both traditionalist trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn, even though they might not relish the thought of bumping into each there.

What Mr. Hollenbeck, a slight, bespectacled 41-year-old with a goatee and long sideburns, was trying to say is that he is and isn’t a jazz music.

Back in the ’70s, it was fashionable for musicians to spurn the word “jazz” because they thought it too confining and racist. (Never mind that some of them couldn’t have navigated their way through a chorus of “I’ve Got Rhythm.”)

Mr. Hollenbeck’s unwillingness to call himself a jazz musician is somewhat more admirable. You are just as likely find him behind the drums at the Bang A Can Festival as you are to see him playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the shamanistic singer–choreographer–filmmaker–opera composer Meredith Monk’s ensemble, with whom he has been collaborating for more than a decade. Mr. Hollenbeck speaks of Ms. Monk’s work, which he describes as “folk music from another universe or a country that doesn’t exist,” as an inspiration.

All these strands come together in Mr. Hollenbeck’s own music. The result is jazz, but it isn’t jazz. It is worthy of its own name: post-jazz.

Mr. Hollenbeck will be serving up this aesthetic brew at a Nov. 30 extravaganza at (Le) Poisson Rogue. He will be performing chamber music for violin, vibes and drums, which he recently released on Rainbow Jimmies, one of his two new albums.

He will lead his splendid large ensemble in a performance of compositions from Eternal Interlude, his other new record, which is even better. The John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble looks like a big band. Sometimes it even sounds like one. But to call this a jazz group would be the same as mistaking the pioneering Chicago post-rock group Tortoise for a two-guitar, bass and drums Beatles cover band.

There is more of Steve Reich’s minimalism in Mr. Hollenbeck’s music than Duke Ellington; Ms. Monk’s otherworldly spirit is more present than Thelonius Monk, although the drummer’s “Foreign One” on Eternal Interlude is an artful deconstruction of the mad bebop genius’ “Four in One.”

Sandwiched in between, there will be a set by Future Quest, the Meredith Monk cover band that Mr. Hollenbeck leads with singer Theo Bleckmann. “We play her tunes, but kind of give them … uh, I hate to say it, but a jazz treatment,” Mr. Hollenbeck said, once more wincing at little at the J-word.

Mr. Hollenbeck confessed the inclusion of Future Quest into the line up at (Le) Poisson Rouge was a bit of an afterthought.  He said he had been trying for some time to get a gig there. But the proprietors wanted something really big—not just his large ensemble, but something that would turn the evening into an event.

“I suggested two things,” Mr. Hollenbeck recalled. “They said, ‘How about three? What else is there?’ There is at least one person there who is a Meredith Monk freak. He really wanted this band.

“It’s really new project, and it’s kind of weird,” Mr. Hollenbeck continued. “At first, I did it with singer Theo Bleckmann at Symphony Space for a Meredith Monk tribute thing. Then last year we did it at the Whitney for another Meredith Monk marathon concert. Out of the blue, we got a call to play at a new music festival in Dresden. So it’s something that has a life of its own.”

The son of an IBM employee, Mr. Hollenbeck grew up in Binghamton, N.Y.  You can feel the landscape of upstate New York in his music. Some of Mr. Hollenbeck’s meditative chamber pieces on Rainbow Jimmies were inspired by early morning canoe trips and deer sighting in the Adirondacks.

There are moments in some of his large ensemble works where the composer is groping his way through a dark wilderness. Then shafts of light reach down from the heavens. Suddenly, it is the sonic equivalent of one of Thomas Cole’s mystical Catskills paintings.

Mr. Hollenbeck studied classic percussion and jazz composition at Eastman School of Music in Rochester. He moved to New York City to play jazz, and was drawn to the downtown music scene, where jazz rebels like John Zorn rubbed shoulders with new music iconoclasts like Ms. Monk.

Pretty soon, Mr. Hollenbeck found himself playing with the singer’s ensemble. He’s been with her for 11 years.

In an interview with The Observer, Ms. Monk praised her percussionist as “one of the great musicians of our time.” But she admitted she had issues with some of his arrangements of her pieces. It’s not that she doesn’t like jazz; it’s more that she is a kindred postmodernist.

“What I like about John’s music is he comes from both a classical and a jazz background,” Ms. Monk said. “What I love in his arrangements of my music is when you don’t know if it is jazz or classical. You know, that ambiguity? But when it turns into more of a standard jazz structure with the solos and everything, that’s when I wasn’t really happy about it.”

Ms. Monk, who plans to attend the show at (Le) Poisson Rouge, said she discussed her misgivings with Mr. Hollenbeck after hearing Future Quest at the Whitney. Since then, the drummer has fixed the problem. “I think my music also has that quality where you are not sure if it’s in a particular genre,” Ms. Monk said. “He understood exactly what I was talking about.”


John Hollenbeck Only Looks Like a Jazz Musician