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Chamber Communion: John Hollenbeck at Towson University, Dec. 7

December 9, 2009

John Hollenbeck‘s compositions resemble a collection of clocks that are all wound to count off the seconds at different intervals. Each clock pursues its own pattern, tick-tocking in counterpoint to all the clocks around it. At key moments, however, they all chime together.

Hollenbeck—a drummer, naturally—is spending this week at Towson University as part of the Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency Program. He opened the week with a Monday night concert by his longstanding Claudia Quintet and will end the week with a Friday night concert by Towson’s jazz students, who will have worked all week with Hollenbeck on his big-band compositions, some of which were showcased on this year’s terrific record by the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Eternal Interlude, (Sunnyside).

Hollenbeck recently received a grant from Chamber Music America to compose a series of new pieces for the Claudia Quintet plus special guest Gary Versace, and all six musicians were on hand Monday to unveil that music. The self-effacing Hollenbeck—tall and thin in a dark goatee, black-frame glasses, and a tan porkpie hat—sat in the back behind his drum set. But from there he could set the core rhythm that all the other rhythms were defined by.

On the opening number, “Ohne Wasser” (German for “Without Water”), Hollenbeck played patient, hypnotic eighth notes, while pianist Versace and vibraphonist Matt Moran alternated brief bursts and long rests. Chris Speed played a lilting melody on the clarinet; Ted Reichman fleshed out the harmonies on the piano accordion, and Drew Gress played a different eighth-note pattern on the upright bass. It was a fascinating piece, because every person seemed to be following his own path, and yet all those paths were woven together to create a larger design. It was the perfect illustration of how individual freedom and community spirit can coexist.

This set the template for the entire night, as each composition gave each musician a different pattern to follow and then wove those six sounds into a larger whole. Sometimes the rhythms were more rambunctious, as on “Royal Toast,” led by Speed’s tenor sax; sometimes the six paths followed a ballad tempo, as on “Ideal Standard,” led by Hollenbeck’s brushes. Hollenbeck introduced “Keramag” with a long, unaccompanied solo of rattling rim shots; Gress, a Towson University alumnus, introduced “Sphinx” with a long, unaccompanied bass solo that married pulsing melodic phrases to the throbbing beat.

For the encore version of “For Fredrick Franck” Versace switched to accordion, Gress bowed his bass, and Moran bowed the metal keys on his vibraphone to produce an eerie, ghost-like sound in this elegy for the late sculptor.

Hollenbeck leads a student ensemble at Towson University’s Center for the Arts Recital Hall Dec. 11. For more information visit