John Hollenbeck’s Natural Impulses: What Is The Beautiful?

On this early September afternoon, John Hollenbeck is only a day away from visiting one of his favorite getaways, the Blue Mountain Center. Located in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, the lodge offers established musicians, writers and visual artists the perfect bucolic setting for a working retreat. This will be Hollenbeck’s fourth visit since 2001. In addition to preparing for an October concert with Kenny Wheeler at Jazz Standard in Manhattan, Hollenbeck hopes to concentrate on compositions for string quartet and drums. “It’s hard to carve out the time and really keep it carved,” he says by phone, from his hometown of Binghamton, N.Y.
For a mostly self-managing drummer, composer and bandleader like the 43-year-old Hollenbeck, who takes care of bookings as well as travel and lodging arrangements and payment for up to 18 musicians, “carving out time” to write is a rare luxury. Somehow, though, he makes it all work with synchronized splendor. And while his recording output has been steadily thrilling over the past decade, 2011 could be easily viewed as a banner year for the perennially award-winning artist. His Large Ensemble nailed its first international tour and received critical acclaim for performances at the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival in early August and at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge in late April. That latter bill was shared with the 10-piece French ensemble Orchestre National de Jazz, which performed material from its riveting disc Shut Up and Dance (Bee Jazz), composed of commissioned music written by Hollenbeck. Now Hollenbeck will have to negotiate time and focus to support What Is the Beautiful? (Cuneiform), the gripping new project from his Claudia Quintet.

As with the Claudia Quintet’s five previous discs, What Is the Beautiful? retains Hollenbeck’s compositional trademarks while homing in on a unique concept or aesthetic. In the case of the new disc, that theme is the poetry of Kenneth Patchen. The University of Rochester is celebrating the late writer and visual artist’s centennial this year, with an exhibition that will showcase his poems and drawings as well as the artwork he did for jazz LPs.

Richard Peek, the director of rare books and special collections at the university’s libraries, was in charge of the Patchen exhibition and is a longtime fan of Hollenbeck’s music. Peek’s initial idea was to have Hollenbeck record music for a small batch of CDs to accompany the exhibition. Last year, right before the Christmas holiday, Peek contacted the drummer, who decided to tackle the project as the new Claudia Quintet disc. (The album also includes three instrumental cuts, two of which were commissioned by the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival.)

Prior to the Rochester commission, Hollenbeck admits his knowledge of Patchen was basic. He was aware of Patchen’s legacy as a forerunner of the Beat Generation and as an innovator of jazz poetry—he performed but never recorded with Mingus—but knew little about his specific works and biography. “He was never hip in his time,” Hollenbeck says. “I talked with a guy from the Poetry Foundation, and he said that no one is really talking about him, but there are people who are really into his work.” To prepare for the undertaking, Hollenbeck went to local bookstores to find Patchen’s work but came up empty handed. “You go into a huge Barnes & Noble, and they got all of these books,” he says. “Then you go into the poetry section, and it’s lame.”

Hollenbeck eventually found what he needed at the library, and sought pieces that spoke to him. The drummer was soon amazed at the stylistic and thematic breadth of the poet’s repertoire, which ranged from sentimental, amorous verse to sardonic social critique to whimsical parodies. For the disc, Hollenbeck aimed to capture Patchen’s complete oeuvre, starting off with 20 works grouped as love poems, satirical pieces and political critiques. To help realize his ambition, Hollenbeck extended the Claudia lineup, as he did on the ensemble’s Grammy-nominated previous disc, 2010’s Royal Toast, which added Gary Versace on piano. This time around, Philly-based Matt Mitchell filled the piano chair, and to help bring Patchen’s words to life, Hollenbeck recruited singer and longtime collaborator Theo Bleckmann and top-ranking jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.

Before Hollenbeck even began composing the music he knew he wanted Elling to be involved. The two first worked together on Fred Hersch’s 2005 disc, Leaves of Grass, a somewhat similar project on which Hersch investigated the poetry of Walt Whitman. Hollenbeck thought that Elling’s vast knowledge of Beat poetry and his pedigree in theology made him the ideal raconteur.

Due to scheduling conflicts, however, Elling couldn’t record with the band, so Hollenbeck had him recite the work before any of the music had been completed. On compositions like the opening “Showtime/23rd Street Runs Into Heaven,” on which the Claudia band dances alongside Elling’s oration in precise unison, the singer had to rely on his own inventive devices to convey the poetry with an ensemble in mind. Those devices also include a variety of personas, like an old-school television voiceover artist (the lead-off track), a dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan (“Job”) or a creaky, possibly drunk elder (“Opening the Window”).

Elling was of course already familiar with Patchen’s work, and in order to prepare for the recording, he revisited some of the poet’s spoken-word recordings, though more for reference than for strict instruction. “I definitely did my homework going into it,” Elling explains. “I can’t say that I wanted to copy exactly what he did, because in that case you can just play his stuff. But I wanted my work to be informed by that, and I wanted to make sure that I copped the vibe and the attitude as much as I could without making it some kind of caricature or imitation.” The singer said it was really a matter of making his performance “clear and emotionally available.”

Hollenbeck remains amazed at what Elling did with the verse. “He far, far exceeded what I thought he would do. He came in and knew the poems much better than I did at that moment,” he enthuses. “He knew the vibes of the poems.”

When asked about his admiration of Patchen’s work, Elling echoes many of Hollenbeck’s sentiments, making note of the poet’s sharp social critique but also his expertise with language. “What’s so interesting about Patchen is the way he presents his acerbic nature and his awakened intelligence to the crazy attitudes of the so-called civilized world,” Elling argues. “And at the same time, he’s so tender and romantic. What really touches me is that he was raking contemporary society right over the coals in these very subtly attuned but very precise, nice-like ways.”

Elling’s last assessment certainly applies to the brooding and brutal “The Bloodhounds.” Originally titled “Nice Day for a Lynching,” the cinematic composition begins with a somber duet between bassist Drew Gress and Chris Speed on clarinet. Soon Hollenbeck joins Gress in slowly building momentum as vibraphonist Matt Moran and accordionist Ted Reichman add another level of eerie suspense. This all gives way to Elling’s haunting reading about a black man being lynched as others laugh at his death. “I know that one of my hands is black, one white,” Elling intones. “I know that one part of me is being strangled, while another part horribly laughs.” By the end of the composition, you’re left with impressions of both hope and despair. “It’s a really dark poem but actually I found it really beautiful, too, because he’s trying to say that we’re all the same,” Hollenbeck argues. “One person may look different from the other, they might have a different gene, but basically we’re all the same. If you’re killing someone, you’re basically killing yourself.”

Elsewhere, Bleckmann’s ethereal vocals add new dimensions to Patchen’s text. The singer is particularly mesmerizing on “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground,” weaving melodic elegance over Mitchell’s evocative piano accompaniment. Bleckmann creates a similar sensation on “Do Me That Love,” he and Mitchell traversing the jaunty lines with unerring precision and emotional immediacy. On “Limpidity of Silences,” Bleckmann demonstrates great dynamic control, delivering the words in a transfixing whisper….