For a lot of people, jazz is all about improvised solos: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins. Even an innovator like Ornette Coleman is known as much for his conception of the improviser as for his many compositions. Give those soloists a simple 12- or 16- or 32-bar song form and let them blow — this, despite decades of experiments with free-collective improvisation and the formal inventions of composers like Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, and George Russell.
But drummer and percussionist John Hollenbeck, 46, is among a handful of jazz composers who like to turn that equation on its head. Hollenbeck, whose Claudia Quintet gives a master class at New England Conservatory on Wednesday (open to the public) and then plays the Lily Pad that night, identifies as a jazz musician. But some of his pieces include no improvised solos at all.
Take the title track from the 2009 Sunnyside release by his Large Ensemble, “Eternal Interlude.” The piece expands and contracts for close to 20 minutes, from a quiet rubato opening to a clamorous second half, held together by a little four-note arpeggio as its central motif.
There are no improvised solos in “Eternal Interlude,” yet it’s difficult to imagine anyone but jazz musicians playing it. That arpeggio, for instance, is written out for the musicians, but during a couple of sections of the piece, as Hollenbeck says, “how fast they play it and when they play it is up to them.” Those kind of “compositional” decisions do not make classical musicians happy.
Nor is it that Hollenbeck is averse to improvised solos per se. There are dandy solos throughout the “Eternal Interlude” album. But you don’t always know where in a piece they will come, and sometimes it’s hard to tell a written solo from an improvised one. Hollenbeck likes it that way.
“For me, jazz was always about mystery, and not knowing what’s going to happen,” he says during an interview at a coffeehouse near NEC. “When it’s head-solos-head, I already kind of know that’s what’s going to happen, so I’m not as engaged.”
“John is very faithful to his idea, to the point where he won’t have a tenor solo for the sake of having a tenor solo,” says NEC jazz studies department chairman Ken Schaphorst. “There has to be a compelling reason. . . . Jazz composition has always been a dialectic between composition and improvisation. But this idea that the improvisation is maybe less critical is something jazz composers struggle with.”
Hollenbeck was influenced in that regard by the late Bob Brookmeyer, a longtime teacher at NEC, with whom Hollenbeck took a few lessons before becoming a regular part of his band. (Brookmeyer also taught the composers Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue.)
“He used it [the improvised solo] as a formal concept,” says Hollenbeck, “not as a go-to thing.”
Hollenbeck grew up in Binghamton, N.Y., which had a vibrant music scene, thanks in part to the presence of SUNY Binghamton. The esteemed percussionist and arranger Pat Hollenbeck, most notably of the Boston Pops, is the oldest of his three brothers, 13 years John’s senior.
“At age 6, [John] heard a very eclectic mix from my music collection,” Pat Hollenbeck says by e-mail, “including [the Balinese] Ramayana Monkey Chant, Beethoven, Tower of Power, and Miles Davis.” He adds: “That's enough to ruin any 6-year-old for life.”
John credits Pat with directing his early musical education, requiring him to study piano for a year before beginning drum lessons. Pat also emphasized that composition should be a part of every serious musician’s life.
As an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, John took a workshop at Canada’s Banff Centre with the jazz composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who suggested that “anything can happen in a piece. . . . There can be speaking in the music, or you can write pitches, but you don’t have to write pitches; you can write textures. I could do anything. Hearing that really helped me.”
The Claudia Quintet, created in 1997, represents Hollenbeck’s conception in miniature. He often favors angular themes and driving cyclical rhythms that find their source in folkloric “world” music, especially that of Africa and Brazil. But his work is also highly informed by funk. Those sharp-angled themes and rhythms are often offset by the malleable, porous sound of the quintet’s unique instrumentation. This allows for passages of quiet lyricism and eerie timbres, thanks in part to the special skills of clarinetist Chris Speed (who also doubles on tenor sax), accordionist Red Wierenga, vibraphonist Matt Moran, and bassist Drew Gress. Hollenbeck describes the band as “a hybrid instrument.”
“They’re in each other’s timbre areas so much that you can’t recognize who’s playing what. And I love that, where you don’t know: What is that? Who’s doing that? I know one of you guys is doing that!” More mysteries.