A few weeks ago, we spoke with John Hollenbeck about his work with Meredith Monk, who has called the free-ranging drummer and composer “one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve had the privilege of working with.” Today, we learn about his boundary-pushing Large Ensemble’s forthcoming album Songs I Like a Lot, an idiosyncratic selection of rearranged pop music that features Durham-based vocalist Kate McGarry alongside group regular Theo Bleckmann. Hollenbeck sheds light on his song selections, the uncertain parameters of pop, and the differences between a big band and a Large Ensemble. His Large Ensemble performs music from Songs I Like a Lot at Reynolds Theater on Saturday, December 8.
The Thread: Is your Large Ensemble historically rooted in the traditional jazz big band?
JOHN HOLLENBECK: Just in the basic instrumentation. I don’t call it a big band because I don’t want anyone to get that idea. Most people in the group have a foundation in jazz, but what we do goes forward, hitting things that might sound more like new music. The program we’re doing [at Duke Performances] is new—a lot of arrangements of pop songs I did.
What kinds of pop songs?
Some of them are pop songs from when I was growing up. One is “Wichita Lineman,” which was a big hit for Glen Campbell. Another is a great Jimmy Webb song that a lot of people have recorded, but which was never a huge hit, called “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” We do an Imogen Heap song, “Canvas.” “Hide and Seek“ was the tune everyone recommended, but I dug a little deeper to find one I liked better for our purposes.
How did you get interested in Imogen Heap?
This was [originally] a project we did with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, featuring Kate McGarry, who lives [in Durham], and Theo Bleckmann, the regular singer in the group. I asked Theo and Kate for a list of tunes they thought might work for them for me to arrange. That could have been where I got the Imogen Heap. There’s also a connection with her and the Meredith Monk Ensemble—the last piece we did, Songs of Ascension, was with an English string quartet, and two of the people in it were also in [Heap’s] touring band. Theo and I saw her at the Grammies and she was wearing this neck-brace-thing with a digital Twitter feed on it, carrying an umbrella. She was very interesting.
There’s also a tune by a Japanese guy named Nobukazu Takemura. One of his claims to fame is doing the music for that Japanese robot-dog thing. My favorite record of his is 10th. There’s a song on that called “Falls Lake” that’s done with this weird computer voice. The interesting thing about that record is that there are no actual voices on it, but the computer sings.
When you say “pop,” you’re speaking pretty broadly.
Yeah, I don’t really know what pop is, so that was part of the investigation. A very loose basis for the project—not classical songs, not jazz songs.
Were you invested in pop or was this a “stranger in a strange land” thing?
You can’t avoid it, really; it’s everywhere. When I was younger, I made more of a conscious effort to avoid it and seek out things I thought sounded unique. What bugged me about pop music was that it seemed like people were using the same beats and chord changes and melodic contours. A lot of the songs seemed to be about the same thing. That was my take on it when I was 10 through 20 or something like that. Of course, I got a little smarter later, and saw that even within the confines of pop, you can create some incredible music. I was a bit of a jazz snob when I was younger, so with this project, I looked back to see what songs I really liked that had stuck with me. There were a lot of them, but I could only pick a few.
When is the record out?
The record officially comes out in January, and this is kind of a record release tour we’re doing, so we’ll definitely be playing this stuff at Duke.
Why did you want to take on pop songs?
I don’t really know. I wanted to do something with Kate McGarry. I work with Theo a lot, but hadn’t had the chance to work with her. I hadn’t done much with pop music, and I hadn’t done too much arranging in the traditional sense. When someone would ask me to, I would often arrange so much that the original composition wasn’t there. Doing that to a pop tune doesn’t really make sense. The songs have to be there in a form people recognize, but I was still able to do a lot of things—maybe keep the melody and lose everything else, or do things with the form. In the case of the Imogen Heap tune, she already had a really nice arrangement, to which I added only like 16 bars. Hers was all electronic, so I orchestrated it for an acoustic band. But that was the only one where I did something like that.
Was there any consistency in how you chose or interpreted the songs?
It was very intuitive, if I thought I could do something interesting with it. A lot of pop songs, what’s really great about them isn’t the melody or chords. If you take those and try to make an arrangement, you realize there’s not really much there. What’s there is is the sound they get through recording or the kind of synths they use. I found that certain songs I really liked, I couldn’t do anything with, because once I took out certain sounds, they didn’t work.
Was it important not to run roughshod over them with Hollenbeck-ness?
Exactly. Normally, I would arrange even someone else’s song the same way I would arrange my own. What I found was that, with vocalists and words and songs that were familiar to people, it had to be done in a much subtler way, transforming them and making them work for this instrumentation while keeping the essence.
Can we go back to how the Large Ensemble differs from a regular jazz big band?
A traditional big band has a lot of constructs that are set up—the instruments are working in a certain way. I played in a lot of big bands and I enjoy that, but I thought I could do something more, where you take only the instruments of the big band and that’s it. After that, it has nothing to do with the big band. It could be a large chamber ensemble, a large funk band, a large electro-acoustic band, other things. But we don’t play swing; we don’t usually play triplet-based music. The thing is, when you get that many people working together in the same zone onstage, there’s this energy that’s overwhelming. You can see that even with a trio, but with 18 people, it’s powerful.
Do you compartmentalize your works as jazz, new music, other things?
I don’t have that filter; it’s just all one big stew. If you approach someone who doesn’t know anything about your music, you have to put it in categories for them. But it’s been natural for me not to think that way when I’m writing music. All that comes later, “What would you call this?” I’ve had experiences with the Claudia Quintet—because we’re on this label Cuneiform, which is known to some as a progressive rock label—that some people think that we are a progressive rock band, or a jazz band, or an avant-garde band. That’s cool. It’s whatever you want it to be.
Can you talk about the relation between jazz and what we call new music?
I don’t see that much of a difference if you’re playing with a group where everyone can improvise. Now, if you play in a classical music ensemble where no one improvises, that’s a big difference. If you improvise and someone gives you some music, you look at it and say, “Yeah, that looks pretty good; I might play that—I could also play something else.” You always have that possibility. Of course, in classical music, you interpret a piece, but improvising is another level, where you go off the page because you thought it would be better that way. You look at the music as kind of a strong suggestion.
The drummer/composer is not a very common role.
Historically, there are some. I guess the main reason it doesn’t happen that much is that drummers know rhythm and form really well, but aren’t that comfortable with pitches. When we actually have to give that music to people who are familiar with pitches, it’s intimidating. But once you get over that, drummers are in a really good position to be composers because they’re usually in change of the music, and understand how to go places in it. In jazz, there was this guy Denzil Best who was a great drummer and great composer. Tony Williams, in his later career, really studied composition and was a great jazz tune writer. I’d say there are a lot more now. You just have to get over that hump of dealing with pitches and giving them to people who know much more about them.