Drummer/composer John Hollenbeck admits to being a “mixtape guy.” As a kid, he’d raid his brother’s record collection to create tapes featuring a wide range of music—from symphonic works to jazz to R&B and back again.
“That was just a natural way that I enjoyed hearing music,” he says. “I guess in a way you could say that I would get bored easily with one kind of thing.”
A Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, Hollenbeck has translated that appetite for mixing genres into a highly personal approach to composition that appropriates whatever it needs whenever it needs it—from rigorous, notated classical structures that draw on influences as diverse as Aaron Copland and Steve Reich to freewheeling jazz improvisation to the melodic hooks and funked-up rhythms of popular music. His willingness to transcend genre has won him commissions from organizationssuch as the Windsbach Boys Choir and the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
Texturally rich, rhythmically compelling and continually shape-shifting, Hollenbeck’s inviting music has found a perfect interpreter over the last 10 years in the Claudia Quintet—with Hollenbeck on percussion, Drew Gress on bass, Matt Moran on vibraphone, Ted Reichman on accordion and Chris Speed on clarinet/tenor sax. When the quintet appears at the Outpost on Thursday, listeners can banish boredom from their vocabulary and deepen their sense of wonder.
As unusual as it is, the quintet’s instrumentation gives it a long reach across genres, as documented on its latest release, For (Cuneiform Records). The clarinet, for example, can invoke swing or the tribal dance of klezmer. The accordion can stand in for an organ (as it does on “August 5th, 2006,” titled after the composer’s wedding day), and it can instantly summon an Old World feel. The vibraphone not only functions as a melodically adept percussive instrument, but when it is bowed, as on “This Too Shall Pass,” it lends an otherworldly vibe to the proceedings.
At times, the quintet sounds not so much like five players as it does a single, multifaceted player—the result of Hollenbeck’s skillful management of the various timbres. “The reed from the accordion and the clarinet reed are blending right together sometimes. And then in ways that I maybe don’t understand acoustically, the accordion and the vibraphone can really get together, and then somehow the vibraphone and clarinet—just that combination. I try to take advantage of that compositionally all the time, as much as I can, to create one sound that is kind of a hybrid of what those instruments can do separately.”
By design, Hollenbeck’s compositions follow no paradigm. “I’m always gravitating to something that is new, something that I’ve never heard before,” he says.
He also varies his compositional approach. “I’m very conscious of the process of composition [and try] to never use the same process. ... That gives me a very good chance of coming up with something that’s new and unique for each piece. ... I try to, at some point, let the piece tell me how it wants to be worked on.”
Whatever the method, Hollenbeck always includes the listener. Even though highly complex and often challenging to play, his music consistently invites the ear—whether it’s with a catchy melody, an irresistible rhythm or a mesmerizing minimalist pattern.
“I am thinking about access points and how different people access music [in different ways],” he says. “I’m very conscious of writing music that exists on different levels and can be accessed on different levels. Hopefully, what this does is encourage repeated listenings.”
Fair warning: You may be compelled to listen repeatedly.