Big and Small

Is there a big band renaissance going on? Considering the money and logistical costs of maintaining an ensemble that large, and the absence of any Medici offering support and commissioning work, the issue of two new, excellent recordings of progressive big band jazz in the same year indicates that, despite the obstacles, there are enough musicians who care about the form and format to stake out territory at the edge of tradition and wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

I’ve previously written about Infernal Machines from Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, a compelling, impressive and important recording. The brother in arms is the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, whose Eternal Interlude has just been nominated for a Grammy award. These are companion pieces and a little bit of comparison is apt and worthwhile. Along with the obvious similarity in size each band is working in the same post-swing, post-Weather Report territory. The swing era gave birth to the big band as we know it, and for decades bands, even those of Gil Evans and Stan Kenton, were directly connected to that tradition. Weather Report was a small ensemble that made music like a big band, and also made music in a radically post-Swing, post-Hard Bop manner. It’s easy to see them as a fusion band, but they were also the first real world music and post-rock band, with Joe Zawinul putting together pieces that made use of multiplicity of voices and non-song form, large scale structures. Their music is a big part of the world we live in today, and both Infernal Machines and Eternal Interlude incorporate this catholic idea of sources and means.

Both ensembles are excellent, Argue’s features less well-known musicians, while Hollenbeck as accomplished front-liners like saxophonists Tony Malaby and Ellery Eskelin, bassist Kermit Driscoll and the superb and versatile singer Theo Bleckmann. Hollenbeck writes the material and leads the ensemble from the drum chair, Argue writes the material and conducts. This is where things start to diverge in an interesting way. I’ve written about how Argue writes music for a big band from the type of organic, large scale viewpoint that is more common to classical composers. Hollenbeck puts together pieces from a point more inside the common idea of jazz composition; if Infernal Machines is the sound of a chamber orchestra as jazz band, Eternal Interlude is the sound of jazz band as chamber orchestra.

Eternal Interlude is in odd company with the other big band nominees, which are relentlessly traditional. It’s a musically accomplished recording that is also straddling an exciting line between jazz and new music. The jazz is there in the rich and lovely big band sound which revels in the timbres of brass and reeds and in the muscular solos. It’s also there in the opening track, ‘Foreign One,’ where Hollenbeck takes apart Monk’s ‘Four In One,’ compressing parts of the tune, interrupting others. The exciting, roiling opening demonstrates that both Monk and Conlon Nancarrow had boogie-woogie in their souls, and just as the music threatens a punk intensity, it turns elegantly into a gentle, descending commentary on the original tune’s riffs. The music is evocative and a little didactic, moving episodically through different demonstrations of variations but always maintaining a driving pulse and establishing the minor key, melancholy sonorities Hollenbeck favors. The soloists bite and the drummer keeps a quiet but persistent swing on the cymbal.
The title track is the centerpiece of the record, a long (almost twenty minute) composition, thrilling and beautiful. This is Hollenbeck’s art at its finest. He generally takes smaller bits of material and works them each through variations – running them forward and backwards, turning them upside down, stretching out their duration – and then putting them together with other fragments to build a larger piece. It’s the craft of composition at its essence, and ‘Eternal Interlude’ is a wonderful piece of craft for chamber orchestra. I write that as such because this would sound equally at home and equally successful with an entirely different orchestration and a set of musicians who had never played jazz before. The key is a short, quick descending then rising figure which seems to be a quote from another, familiar piece of classical music. Over the course of roughly half the piece, Hollenbeck simultaneously builds a long introduction and develops the material by the simple application of craft; he turns the rising part into an extended two bar riff, sustains pitches from the figure to build chords, has different instrumental voices play the material at different speeds, adds a powerful bass pedal. Bleckmann’s clear toned voice adds a mysterious color and the musical pieces keep accreting into a breathtaking whole that barrels along with tremendous musical and emotional momentum. The ‘Interlude’ itself finds its way to a Gary Versace organ interlude which could have been an effective and quizzical way to end the piece. But it actually gets better; a hesitant pulse from the marimba, the brass and winds tossing the original fragment back and forth, then beat, syncopation and a long-breathed melodic line that appears like an oasis. The foot taps and the heart soars, the music seems to drive towards an overwhelmingly intense finish, before finding its way again to gentleness. This is twenty minutes of some of the most pleasurable and satisfying composing and playing I’ve heard in many years.

The rest of Eternal Interlude mostly meets this level of music making. ‘Guarana’ and ‘Perseverance’ are pulsing, driving pieces with superb solos from trombone and tenor sax; ‘No Boat’ is an impressionistic meditation which closes the record. ‘The Cloud’ doesn’t quite fit, the long spoken narration doesn’t communicate much and is an unwelcome diversion from the music making. But as a whole, Eternal Interlude is an excellent, exciting, intellectually and emotionally rewarding record.

Hollenbeck is a busy and versatile musician, and Rainbow Jimmies shows his work in music which is best considered modern chamber music. There are seven of his ‘Gray Cottage Studies,’ written for violinist Todd Reynolds and performed with Reynolds and percussionist Matt Moran. These are literally studies in what type of music can be produced on the instrument and sound like preludes, short works which seem to promise something larger will follow. They are limpid, lovely, self-contained works, modest in scope and successful in both exploring the violin and creating interesting, good-sounding music. Hollenbeck also appears with his Claudia Quintet playing an arrangement of a Turkish song, ‘Sinanari (acoustic remix),’ and the title track, and there are two sides of ‘Ziggurat,’ an exterior and interior version, performed with the Youngstown Percussion Collective and Saxophone Quartet and the Ethos Percussion Group respectively. ‘Sinanari’ is an appealing bit of rock composition for small ensemble, but the other pieces aren’t successful. They are unformed and underdone as music meant for public performance, rather relentlessly but vaguely exploring small ideas of rhythm or broken up pulse. Probably more meaningful as sketches for the composer to work from in private, they go on way too long and end up producing mostly irritation.

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