A Blessing

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

2005, Omnitone
2020, Flexatonic Records (re-issue)

A Blessing

Ben Kono  flute, sop/alto sax
Chris Speed  clarinet
Tom Christianson  ten/sop sax, English horn
Dan Willis  ten/sop sax, English horn
Alan Won  bari sax, bass clarinet
Rob Hudson  trombone
Kurtis Pivert  trombone
Jacob Garchik  trombone
Alan Ferber  bass trombone
Jon Owens  trumpet
Tony Kadleck  trumpet
Dave Ballou  trumpet
Laurie Frink  trumpet
Kermit Driscoll  bass
John Hollenbeck  drums, composition
Gary Versace  piano
Matt Moran  mallets
Theo Bleckmann  voice
JC Sanford  conductor

John Hollenbeck’s eighteen-piece band redefines improvised music for large ensemble by taking big band sound, energy, and force, and using it in a way that doesn’t sound dated or generic to create personal, non-genre specific music. In striking compositions for large ensemble, Hollenbeck, who studied with innovative arrangers Bob Brookmeyer and Jim McNeely and who draws compositional influences from Gyorgy Ligetí, Peter Garland, Brian Eno, and John Adams, reinvents “jazz big band” using novel instrumentation, sound, styles, rhythms, and material that ranges from funk, free, and straight-ahead jazz to minimalist music, African rhythms, and art song. Featuring the incredible four-octave voice of Theo Bleckmann, used both non-verbally (as an ensemble instrument) and verbally on breathtaking settings of “An Irish Blessing” and a poem by Hazrat Inayat Khan, Hollenbeck uses other out-of-the-ordinary timbres — including “bowed vibes,” English horns — admist extended melodies and overlaid rhythmic textures — to color and illuminate the stimulating music on A Blessing.

Liner Notes to A Blessing

“[John Hollenbeck’s] world view, his imagination, his daring, and his skills, combined with a God‑given gift, make him – to my ears – one of our most important composers.”  -Bob Brookmeyer

John Hollenbeck doesn’t march to the beat of a different drummer; he is that drummer…and percussionist and composer. Maybe that’s why the press have chosen to use expressions like “beyond jazz” to describe his work. And maybe that’s why interdisciplinary performance pioneer Meredith Monk enlisted John to collaborate on her recent projects and calls him “one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve had the privilege of working with.”

John doesn’t feel like he’s being purposefully rebellious in his music (though he continues to proudly include in his e‑mails a review quote that asks about his music, “What the hell is it?”). John avers, “I’m not making a special effort; I am just being myself. I have always instinctively looked for my own personal vision. It is a blessing and a curse.”

He considers the music he writes and his playing to be “one in the same,” though he feels that his playing style has changed so he can better hear the music he’s written.   John also sees no discontinuity between writing for small or large groups, both of which he simply treats as “ensembles of musicians” – a point emphasized by calling the 18‑piece aggregation on this CD the Large Ensemble. “I want to take the big band sound, energy, and force, and use it in a way that doesn’t sound dated or generic,” John elucidates, “to create personal, non‑genre‑specific music.”

From first listen, you can hear something different with this music, and given its pan‑genre or even genre‑bending sounds and feels, a look at the list of composers who John says influenced his large ensemble writing helps explain why. The list starts with jazz composers and arrangers Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, and “the Stan Kenton writers,” and reaches to leading innovators in fields of 20th century music including Gyorgy Ligetí, Peter Garland, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, and John Adams. One might even suspect that John’s list would include his neighbor, musical innovator and AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams, to whom he pays tribute on this album on “RAM.”

It’s not surprising then that the varied timbres that color and illuminate the music on A Blessing further set apart its sounds from those on other large ensemble recordings. In addition to the fascinating extended melodies and overlaid rhythmic textures that are trademarks of John’s approach, ask yourself when (if ever) was the last time you heard “bowed vibes” (literally, bowing vibraphone keys using a bass bow) or English horn or voice used the way they are on this recording.

Even otherwise quirky juxtapositions of materials and ideas make sense together when John combines them. “April in Reggae” replete with a quote from “April in Paris” toward the end is a tune John intended to “swim in between reggae and swing.” His 2002 International Association of Jazz Educators/ASCAP Commission “Folkmoot,” which honored pianist and radio host Marian McPartland, becomes a musical meeting of McPartland and saxophonist/composer Jimmy Giuffre, with Gary Versace on piano representing McPartland and Dan Willis on English horn representing Giuffre. Explains John, “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz theme is thrown around until the ending, when it is stated verbatim. (Since the piece was really dedicated to her, she won the argument.)”

For voice, the band has the vocally astounding Theo Bleckmann, whom John describes as one of his closest friends and whom, along with mallet man Matt Moran, he calls “the band’s secret weapon.”

“I think people, especially non‑musicians, like the voice because it brings the music closer to their own world. It is easier to relate to, because everyone at least possesses that instrument,” explains John. “I have always personally liked the voice more as an ensemble instrument and less as a foreground lead instrument, as it is usually used.”

Theo’s non‑verbal voice can be heard instrumentally permeating the record, ranging from the panting and grunting in “Weiji,” to sci‑fi outer space sounds whirring by in “Abstinence,” to instilling pure and ethereal tone as it intermingles with bassist Kermit Driscoll’s bass harmonics at the end of “The Music of Life.”

More traditionally, though hardly conventionally, Theo delivers two texts – a blessing and a prayer – that appropriately enough frame A Blessing.

John wrote “A Blessing,” also commissioned in 2001 by the IAJE, to feature Theo, and he based it on the words to the Irish Blessing that were printed on the mass card at his grandmother’s funeral. “While I had seen this text many times, it didn’t resonate with me until that moment,” recalls John. “Often, I pick a subject to write about based on an ideal of how I wish I could be, or the how the world could be.” Likewise, “The Music of Life,” with words from Hazrat Inayat Khan, fits that utopian ideal. John describes the piece as “a simple chant‑like piece that sums up why we are doing what we are doing. Because we feel that music can change lives, it can heal.”

It’s that kind of sensitivity combined with imagination and respect that allows the exceptionally creative music on this recording to energetically uplift the listener and confer a certain musical grace, reflected in the album’s particularly apt title. Adds John, “I like the title, because it can immediately be taken in many different ways. It is a blessing to listen to music, to play music, to live, to die. This music is a blessing; all music is a blessing; my grandmother was a blessing; everyone is a blessing.”  – Frank Tafuri

A Blessing

“Captivating and compelling from a larger narrative perspective, A Blessing is continued evidence of Hollenbeck’s unfailing instincts and endless imagination. A masterpiece.” ✭✭✭✭✭
– John Kelman, All About Jazz


“For the recording debut of his 18-piece ensemble, drummer-arranger John Hollenbeck has cooked an exciting bouillabaisse of genres, from big-band jazz to contemporary symphonic minimalism. … Hollenbeck proves to be a master colorist, even coming up with a sound probably never heard before.” – Harvey Siders, JazzTimes


“Hollenbeck has created a sonic universe where a sort of focused spirituality and a deep sense of play are interwoven. The CD is bookended by two pieces (the epic title track and “The Music of Life”) that contain lyrics sung by Bleckmann. “A Blessing” is the familiar Irish toast (“May the road rise to meet you…”) and “The Music of Life” is an excerpt from Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan on the beneficial, even essential role of music on our bodies and our spirits. Both songs are stunning—the swirling, Celtic figures near the end of the sixteen minute-long “A Blessing” seem somehow magical and gravity-defying—but they also wrap the album in a benign envelope of intelligent, restorative positivity that neither cloys nor condescends. It couldn’t—not when the music combines themes and motifs so playfully. “ – Paul Olsen, All About Jazz


“John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensembe has the precision of the Basie school, the tight discipline of the Kentonites, the color palette of Evans and the experimentalism of the Arkestra. But the pulsing orchestral figures, looping, triple-meter rhythms and rocking major to minor harmonic movement owe as much to the Minimalists as to any jazz figure.”
– John Chacona, Signal to Noise