A Big Band Reaches for Bold Sounds


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Writing decent music for a jazz big band is hard, and keeping the band working is harder. For the bandleader and composer, maintaining the integrity of a group sound with a dozen or more players--and maintaining a core style with enough tooth and identity that it can reach beyond the closed circuit of jazz students--takes up a lot of the job. As a consequence, concertgoers dont usually expect a jazz big-band show to rearrange their heads.

People forget that big bands have been places of real aesthetic boldness. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Bill Finegan, Bill Russo, Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Gerald Wilson, Muhal Richard Abrams, Maria Schneider: these were and are no slouches, and there are clear signs that a few younger composer-arrangers will join that list. Lets start with John Hollenbeck, whose 20-piece Large Ensemble played a superior show at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village Monday night. His music was playful, profound, attentive to the soloists strengths and pretty much continuously imaginative even though the band hadnt had a gig since March.

Like most of the people on that list, Mr. Hollenbeck uses strategies in his music that dont necessarily come from the core of the jazz tradition and uses them well enough to extend that tradition. Not just bits of writing, but instrumentation, too: among the sources of sound in Mondays set were English horn, marimba, glockenspiel, crotales (small, tuned, bell-like sets of cymbals played with mallets), digital loop machine and smartphones.

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