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John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble at the Painted Bride Art Center on February 28 and March 6

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Critics sometimes describe John Hollenbeck's music as “beyond jazz” for its breadth of sounds and influences, ranging from chamber music to field recordings of regionally-diverse folk traditions. The nineteen members of his Large Ensemble, including such respected names as Chris Speed, Garry Versace, Tony Malaby, and Matt Moran, nearly all come from jazz backgrounds, but as a whole they migrate into otherworldly territory not defined by genre. Surprising, ethereal, and witty juxtapositions define much of their music, like bowed vibraphone keys played over clarinet or a reggae infused melody with a coda from “April in Paris”.

Hollenbeck balances the instrumental force of the ensemble with subtle, vocally-driven works, with haunting contributions from Theo Bleckmann. Singing sometimes spreads across the musicians through chant. “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.”

Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble compositions are informed by his experience playing in a formidable roster of big bands, including Bob Brookmeyer's New Art Orchestra, the BMI Orchestra, Jim McNeely's Tentet, the Village Vanguard Orchestra, the WDR Big Band, and the Maritime Jazz Orchestra. But an inventory of Hollenbeck’s influences would be much more far reaching. Citing his inspirations, he mentions Brookmeyer before listing Maria Schneider, Jim McNeely, Gil Evans, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, the Stan Kenton writers, Gyorgy Liget, Peter Garland, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, and John Adams.

Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble is therefore not a “big band” as traditionally defined. He insists his approach to nineteen musicians varies little from the way he composes for a small ensemble. Philadelphia audiences are likely already familiar with Hollenbeck’s acclaimed Claudia Quintet, which informs much of his Large Ensemble work. With a huge sound and mesmerizing subtlety, the expanded roster combines the sonic range of a big band and the intimacy of a small group of closely-knit musicians.

Painted Bride Art Center has brought John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble to Philadelphia as part of the larger “Big Ears” project. The program includes a two-week residency that brings together Hollenbeck and a dozen accomplished Philadelphia musicians. One week after the Large Ensemble show, the Philadelphia artists and Hollenbeck will debut new works that he composed during the residency process. More information is available at BigEarsPhilly.com.

What: John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble
Where: Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street, Philadelphia
When: Saturday, February 28, 2009, 7pm and 9pm
Price: $25 / $12.50 for Bride Members

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